And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”
“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice when I ask you about Venice.”
“To distinguish other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.” (78)
This is all about Venice, so says the back and so says the passage above. So why is it European traveler Marco Polo expounding upon, explaining cities to emperor Kublai Khan? Why are these cities all set in the East, reimagined with camels and goats and that fantastical but fairly boring and predictable menagerie of dwarves and bearded women and other familiar sideshow freaks, or naked women of astounding beauty? Why do all the fabled cities seem to have the names of women, are referred to as female and lie there fairly inert for male gazes, male discoveries, male nudges and winks? Perhaps Khan captures it all when he says to Polo:
…So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!…It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you went so far away!” (88)
But how boring that this is once more a novel of ennui, however unusual. How predictable, how everything-Said-wrote about orientalism and it being nothing more than European fears and desires on display, picked and mixed in the furtherance of domination. It may be meant as an immensely clever and witty exploration of just such a phenomenon, but I don’t think it escapes it.
The short vignettes of Invisible Cities, labeled things such as ‘Thin Cities’, ‘Trading Cities’, ‘Cities & Desire’, ‘Cities & Signs’, one could almost believe them intellectual exercises if they did not also seem to be named after former lovers. Perhaps those are not mutually exclusive. Each describes a city and ends in a paragraph of lofty metaphor that perhaps has something to do with its category. Perhaps not.
Some of these are lovely. Yet for me they could not escape my distaste with this form, they seemed forced somehow, like the intellectual boys in university trying to one-up one another over dinner. This has been on my list to read for ages, pushed forward by a quote I loved in Nabeel Hamdi’s book on development, Small Change, he quoted this:
However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
It is so true we are both shaped by and shape our cities, and this reminded me of the rallying call around building the city of our heart’s desire (I knew it from Harvey, but I just read it somewhere else and quite remember where but was surprised…).
So alone I rather like some of these thoughts, they deserve more attention perhaps. but I wonder if they are not just empty cleverness. I have copied a few last sentences that I think could be either…
Desires are already memories (7)
…you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave. (10)
The earth has forgotten her. (13)
Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see Despina, a border city between two deserts. (15)
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. (19)
The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer. (28)
There are more, but I tire. I think for a few aphorisms to illustrate an intellectual point this is a good place to go, but I was sad I did not love it as others seem to.
I did, however, love the city (the city of Cecilia? Really?) that grew to encompass the goatherder. He recognized countryside and landmarks of vegetation but became lost in cities, still his goats remembered the grass after the suburbs spread. They recognised the grass on the traffic island. I never imagine Venice having extensive suburbs that blend seamlessly into the neighboring city eating up the country, so perhaps it is not entirely about Venice after all.