"dream-like story-telling at the twilight of an empire" advertises the back cover enticingly. though a short work--only 165 pages--calvino's invisible cities took me an awfully long time to finish because
one, i kept falling asleep while reading it--curiously enough, the young venetian traveller polo's fantastical stories seem to invite the reader to set the book aside to succumb to one's own reveries and oh, i am weak-willed
two, i had to look up a lot of words--astrolabes, halberds, chrysophrase, chalcedony, windlasses, norias, cuirass, barracans, & so on & so forth
three, i simply started to feel as though i was disrespecting the book by trying to read it quickly. this goes with pt 1, regarding the mood of the book. the stories are told in khan's garden, where polo and the emperor spend much of their time reclining on pillows smoking long amber pipes. the prose beseeches you to slow down and luxuriate with them from your own couchant position, to savor polo's stories and linger over them, to digest at a depressed rate, as through an opium-cloud. not only irreverent to rush through it, then, but damned near impossible.
from invisible cities:
Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer's house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer's. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something--who knows what?--has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives' corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods' statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes--so that the worshipper can recognise them and address his prayers correctly. (13)
This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honeycomb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory. So the world's most learned men are those who have memorized Zora. (15)
Travelers return from the city of Zirma with distinct memories: a blind black man shouting in a crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper's cornice, a girl walking a puma on a leash. Actually man of the blind men who tap their canes on Zirma's cobblestones are black; in every skyscraper there is someone going mad; all lunatics spend hours on cornices; there is no puma that some girl does not raise, as a whim. The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind. (19)
Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsack-ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes--which he arranged in front of himself like chessmen. (21)
CITIES AND EYES (3)
After a seven days' march through woodland, the traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city and yet he has arrived. The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds support the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests and, when the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that falls on the foliage.
There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence. (77)
POLO: perhaps all that is left of the world is a wasteland covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden of the Great Khan's place. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which outside. (104)
i'm working on COSMICOMICS now, also beautiful and slow-going.