The Travels of Marco Polo—tales told by the Venetian explorer to Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa—purportedly describes in great detail Polo’s encounter with “The East,” a place in the medieval European mind as alien and fantastical as the interstellar realms of science fiction. Like other travel narratives of the period (notably the spurious Travels of Sir John Mandeville), Polo’s stories mixed accurate geographical and cultural information with folklore, myth, and Orientalist misapprehension. While the appearance of monsters and marvels seems capricious to the modern reader, these elements may have felt almost mundane to Polo’s contemporaries. Or maybe not. After all, the Italian title of Polo’s travelogue—Il Milione—may refer to Polo’s reputation as the teller of “a million” lies.
But let us leave the puzzles of authenticity to historians. As readers, we get lost in these fascinating romances because the worlds they describe are both so strange yet so unsettlingly familiar. Medieval travelogues like Polo’s open up the possibility of fairy kingdoms with outlandish customs thriving almost within reach. These tales of strange and unknown lands were, after all, prominent inspiration for C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. (Listen to the Chronicles of Narnia in a free audio format here).
For grown-up readers, no author better evokes the uncanny geopolitics of the medieval imagination than Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities imagines Polo’s supposed journey to the imperial seat of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. In Calvino’s novel—more a collection of prose-poems—Polo regales Khan with his accounts of 55 exotic cities, while the busy emperor’s functionaries come and go. “At some point,” says author Eric Weiner, “you realize that Calvino is not talking about cities at all, not in the way we normally think of the word. Calvino’s cities—like all cities, really—are constructed not of steel and concrete but of ideas. Each city represents a thought experiment.”
Similar observations can be made of any of the author’s oddly enchanting allegorical fictions—Seamus Heaney called Calvino’s stories “fantastic displays” inspired by “symmetries and arithmetics.” In the audio above, you can hear the author read selections from several of his works, including Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar, a work of “even more archness and architectural invention.” Do not be daunted by Calvino’s Italian. I find it very pleasing to listen to, even if I do not understand it all. But if you’d rather skip ahead to the English portion of his reading—recorded at the 92nd St. Y on March 31st, 1983—it begins at 8:40 where Calvino reads from a section of Invisible Cities called “Thin Cities.” In this excerpt, Polo tells Khan of a place called “Armilla”:
Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows […]
You can read the remainder of the “Armilla” section here, along with other selections from Invisible Cities. A portion of the text of Mr. Palomar is available here. Calvino’s reading is long—nearly an hour and a half—and very rewarding, both for the rich musicality of his accented English and the spellbinding charms of his philosophical fictions. And if you are so inspired, you may wish to read Calvino’s short essay “Why Read the Classics?” to which I often turn for a fuller grasp his wide-ranging literary inheritance.
via The Paris Review