Invisible Cities by Italian author Italo Calvino (1923-1985) is strikingly reminiscent of the works of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Invisible Cities contains short descriptions of invented cities, as told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. It is a book that has no great narrative impulse. Yet the reader keeps turning the pages, spellbound by the beautiful style of the author. Borges wrote similar volumes of fragments with no overall story,with two examples being Extraordinary Tales and the Book of Imaginary Beings.
Borges’ works used sources from all around the world, taking a global view that was not common at the time. As a true Anglophile, Borges also drew on many Anglo-Saxon sources, which must have felt quite exotic to his Latin American readers:
Redwald [king of the East Saxons] had … been admitted to the Sacrament of the Christian faith in Kent, but in vain, for on his return home, he was seduced by his wife and certain perverse teachers, and turned back from the sincerity of the faith; … and in the same temple he had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils.*
That asterisk leads us to a note about the original source, the Venerable Bede, who “calls the anicent Germanic divinities ‘devils’.”
Borges strips tales down to their essential elements, in an attempt to get to the essence of what makes a story:
“the rest is episodic illustration … [or] fortunate or inopportune verbal adornment.”
However, as one might expect from the author of books on Labyrinths, Borges is being slightly disingenuous here. His work may have been written in brief fragments, but it is filled with neat and witty adornments.
Calvino seems a true follower of Borges, as in this fragment from Invisible Cities:
The Great Khan owns an atlas in which are gathered the maps of all the cities: those whose walls rest on solid foundations, those which fell in ruins and were swallowed up by the sand, those that will exist one day and in whose place now only hares’ holes gape.
Like Borges, Calvino is astonishingly erudite. His sketches of cities are packed with curiosities picked up on his travels, so that the book feels like an overflowing suitcase. These are not just knick-knacks to be placed on the shelf and dusted once in a while. Calvino uses his knowledge to encourage us to see everyday things with new eyes. In this sequence, Marco Polo analyses the wood in a chess board for Kublai Khan:
“The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibres are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist… Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down…”
Calvino’s father was a botanist and I think that sequence this must have been based on a conversation that he had had with his son.
In writing such short fragmentary works, we might assume that Borges and Calvino were at the head of a new literary movement. Their short passages certainly feel reminiscent of the flash fiction and blog entries that people write online today. Nevertheless, in the wider world of novels and books, they have created a literary dead end. They have few followers. Perhaps this is because they combine huge amounts of learning with immense literary talent, and very few people are blessed with just one of those.
Not having followers is only part of the story, for we could also say that they are the end of a longer tradition. Both authors have a great skill in capturing a moment in time and allowing the reader’s visual imagination to fill in the gaps. This is reminiscent of Japanese haiku, with its power to seek truth in moments rather than in space and time.
Borges and Calvino feel like two travellers on the same road who hardly ever met and only heard of each other by whispers, yet were doomed to follow in the other’s footsteps whether they wanted to or not. They could have been characters in Invisible Cities themselves.