Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), as its title suggests, implies the power of human imagination through an imaginary universe consisted of numerous surrealist representations of imaginative cities. Inspired by Marco Polo’s pilgrimages, the novel appears to be a product of a series of utopian fantasies. However, it can be argued that the work warns the reader of the danger of living under the influence of ‘historical facts.’ As many postmodern writers like Umberto Eco claim, the history familiar to us is merely an artificial construction and thus, a ‘reality’ made out of falsehoods is crafted. In this novel, Calvino portrays a number of cities that are made up of two groups – the usurpers and the suppressed. The surrealist and grotesque phenomenon occurring in those cities further elaborate that history is a conspiratorial political tool manipulated by totalitarian regimes to ensure social orders.
The novel is consisted of various non-chronological chapters, the two chapters “Cities and the Dead” and “Cities and the Sky” specifically shed light on the metaphors referring to the morbid social phenomenon bred by the evil “construction” of history by the superstructure. In “Cities and the Dead,” Polo describes Eusapia as a city dominated by two populations – the living and the dead. While the ‘lives’ of the dead are managed by the hooded brothers, the living have no access to the dead but try to keep up with them by imitating their novelties as reported by the hooded brothers. In this sense, it can be interpreted that the hooded brothers represent the usurpers and that the dead are the veiled and false history. The usurpers present a version of reality to their people and manipulate their perceptions of their society. Therefore, Calvino states ironically that “it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia… in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead,” which suggests that the people are only living under the shadow of the falsehoods in the artificial history and that the ‘history’ is a political means to stabilise social orders. The consequences of such manipulation are then visualised in “Cities and the Sky,” in which Polo recalls a city named Perinthia. The foundation of Perinthia is established by astronomers in accordance with the position of stars. However, despite all the precise calculations, the citizens begin to suffer from physical disabilities such as dwarfism, polydactyly, kyphosis and so on. The disability of the people is caused by the attempts of the astronomers to play God. Therefore, Calvino implies that the morbidity of the society we encounter is the result of the ‘construction’ of reality by political leaders. The grotesque imageries Polo witnesses in Perinthia are a warning to the usurpers that their conspiracies will eventually lead to the doomsday of human civilisation as they have created a city of monsters.
However, despite the apocalyptic vision imagined by Calvino, he also argues that the people simply surrender to the tyrannical deception in authoritarian states near the end of his novel. For example, the title of the chapter “Hidden Cities” suggests secret underground resistant powers. Polo interprets Marozia as a city consisted of two cities, the rats’ and the swallows’. They take turns to dominate the territory and change with time, but their relationship never changes – “the swallows are the ones about to free themselves from the rats.” From this metaphor, it can be interpreted that the swallows represent the revolutionists who will at last overthrow the totalitarian regimes. Drawing upon the message hidden behind the ending, it can be argued that Calvino aims to picture the doomed fate of any authoritarian states as mankind cannot imitate God’s act to create an imagined world – justice will eventually be served by the people and they will be eliminated.
By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey