Thursday, February 10, 2005

Invisible Cities - I

Sometimes you get hold of a book in one of those rare triumphs of neural probabilistic chances. Memory of the reading would make you realize the existence of a whole different set of tools to sculpt your concepts of this world and beyond, upon opening page after page. I have been haunted by the memory of such a book I read a long while back. It is titled Invisible Cities, written by Italo Calvino. A skinny book which condensed the experience of living in and sensing cities in abstract and revealing ways.

Since I am as fascinated by the metaphysics and architectures of cities equally or more as the nocturnal rodent, the cab fellows and the hitchhiking executives, I got hooked with the matter-of-fact, almost parable evoking but incisive visions set ablaze in the book. Each chapter unveils a different city as narrated in the conversation between Kublai Khan, the tartar emperor and Marco Polo, the traveller. Marco talks about the cities with such great tangents that would leave you gasp in delightful insights.

Here are excerpts of some of the "invisible" cities in the book:

The city of Armilla has weathered earthquakes, catastrophe, corroded by termites, once deserted and re-inhabited. It cannot be called deserted since you are likely to glimpse a young woman, or many young women, slender, not tall of stature, luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void, washing or drying or perfuming themselves, or combing their long hair at a mirror.

The city of Zobedei has a tale of its foundation - men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. The city's streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten. New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs. The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask "Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?" the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long bruses up and down, as they answer "So that it's destruction cannot begin."

All I could do has been to feature the excerpts from his book. Each chapter is extremely short and the brevity of which demands the reader's involvement to such an extent that you end up adding on to your own meta-city to the reading which I will attempt in the next blog.

*Calvino belongs to the OULIPO(Ouvroir de Littérature Informatique Potentielle) genre. It is a group of writers, logicians and mathematicians whose primary objective is the systematic and formal innovation of constraints in the production and adaptation of literature (they also define themselves as rats who themselves build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape). The Oulipo believe that all literature is governed by constraints, be it a sonnet, a detective novel, or anything else. By formulating new contraints, the Oulipo is thus contributing to creating new forms of literature. What more noble cause in the art of writing?

You would find adaptations and assimilation of engineering, mathematics, tarot card reading, astrophysics, computing concepts and anything that lends cognitive appreciation of structures, mental and physical in the ambit of these writers. George Perec and Raymond Queneau are other major writers of this genre.

I would have to mention about two more cities and the final conversation between Marco and Kublai in the second and last part of this blog.

This is repost with some edits.
* Official explanation for the OULIPO movement.

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