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  • Italic Calvino:The Place of the Emperor in Invisible Cities
  • Laurence A. Breiner (bio)

As if hesitating on some sort of threshold between the modern and the postmodern, the novel presents a double structure of narrativity and seriality. . . . The seriality of the cities defines the trait we shall treat as postmodern, while the framing device, the narrative of those cities which would put them into a certain perspective, relates to a modern, or in any case pre-postmodern, esthetic of a mise-en-abyme or "narrative context."

(James, "Seriality" 144)

Rephrase that. In Invisible Cities Marco Polo's attitude to his descriptions of cities is postmodern; Kublai Khan's is "pre-postmodern." Well enough; we expect writers to be more avant-garde than their readers and almost anyone to be more avant-garde than an emperor. But Calvino, by authoring this Marco, thereby demonstrates that he is (or can be if he chooses) at least as up-to-date aesthetically as his character. So the question arises: Why is this old-fashioned emperor invited into the text? "Invited" is not too strong a word; Calvino has gone to some trouble to get him here. Yet his presence along with Marco within the frame [End Page 559] further complicates the book's relationship to issues of modernity and postmodernity.

Invisible Cities is first of all an imitation of Marco Polo's Travels, a loosely organized series of accounts of places in Asia. That model lacks even the chronological sequence of a travel diary. Instead it is the often haphazard recall of discrete bits of travel memory, a prison rumination, told to an amanuensis. It does for Polo's experience of cities what the Essais do for Montaigne's experience of books, or for that matter what Petrarch's Canzoniere do for his experience of Laura. Like Montaigne and Petrarch, Marco Polo wrote a thoroughly postmodern book. We would be happy with a parodic homage to Marco's Travels from the hand of Calvino, and indeed for many readers that is what Invisible Cities becomes after first reading. They (we) actually use the book in a way that ignores all formal issues: as a bedside book, read (after the first time) repeatedly but nearly at random, and perhaps never again straight through. It is treated in effect as a collection, with the same limited coherence as the Travels.

But in spite of the often explicit verbal imitation of the Travels with which most of the descriptions begin, Calvino makes a point of differentiating his book from its model by two formal innovations. The first is the imposition of an elaborate armature, compounded out of an arithmetic sequence, a series of proper names, and a series of thematic rubrics. Such a feature is in fact characteristic of bedside readers; texts of this kind may lack expressive form, but they do have to stop, for purely practical reasons, and so arbitrary shapes are imposed: days of the week, thematic categories, other formal armatures. But if Calvino's structure seems too complex to be merely an arbitrary convenience, it has so far resisted most attempts to demonstrate its significance. Laura Marello offers several perspectives on the design of the armature, but they are purely descriptive. Heinz Riedt suggests possible numerological symbolism; Albrecht Ohly speculates about the possible value of a musical analysis of the armature's "dissonant" relations (66); and Teresa de Lauretis pursues a semiotic approach ("Models"); but no comprehensive account has yet been proposed.

No one has yet broken the code of the cities' names (if code there is). The elaborated numerical structure seems a red herrings no more meaningful than simple chapter numbers, because nothing is added in the way of significant subordinations. Yet it is a structure achieved at some cost; as Carol P. James has observed, "the arithmetic arrangement misplaces the thematics of the groups" ("Seriality" 147). However, the system of interlocking thematic rubrics often has little relation to its specific contents: it is rarely possible to decide on the basis of a city's description what rubric it is appearing under, and many cities would be equally [End Page 560] at home under some other rubric.1 The two...


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pp. 559-573
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