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It is a fitting book to write about on a murky night, when the city from the office window is but a suggestion in the clouds, a gathering, formed from orange points between the dark structures of buildings.
Invisible Cities is many conversations, or one dialogue, between the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan and his Venetian messenger Marco Polo who describes 55 cities from his vast realm. Each is demarcated, given its own chapter, and five are ordered around a theme, eleven in total — e.g. Cities & Names; Hidden Cities.
The cities are encountered on a narrative path that feels circular. It is like a descent down an unending spiral staircase: a motion of “leaving there and proceeding.” To read the description of a city by Polo is to move with him through an endless wasteland; the next city on the horizon, each somehow a return to the last, but no steps retraced?
Respite come in the moments when the book narrates Polo’s meetings with Kublai Khan in the opulent and imperial, but unlocatable, settings of the ruling class — “reclining on cushions” or “beneath the silken canopy of the imperial barge.”
These moments of conversation allow for a reflexive contemplation on the structure that underlies Polo’s wandering descriptions. Kublai Khan, as listener, believes he can discern a pattern like that in chess where “certain pieces implied or excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along certain lines.” He thinks: “If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.”
Here we must step out. The structure of the novel as we read it indicates nothing but the gaps, the darkness of the unknowable. It is created from language and, like the cities, the words used to evoke them are shifting and untethered in the mists.