English Journal 5

Initially after reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I was very confused as to what was happening in the plot line. However, after reading it again, and consulting our brilliant Professor, Ron, I discovered that the plot line was difficult to understand because it there really isn’t an obvious one, or at least one I am used to with a definite beginning, and developed characters. The book is essentially Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler, depicting various cities he has traveled to (or made up in his own mind as I discovered), and recounting them back to Kublai Kahn, the emperor. A large amount of the book consists of philosophical dialogue between The Kahn and Marco Polo. I found that during these conversations a clear connection is made between the two men, although the connection is not always implicit. For example, Calvino wrote “…between the two of them it did no matter whether questions and solutions were uttered aloud or whether each of the two went on pondering in silence” (pp. 27). Calvino offers no distinction between inner and outer realities, therefore we often times don’t know if they are speaking aloud, or in their own minds. Being a biology major, this was difficult for me to grasp this particular concept, seeing as everything I study is an outer reality I am able to see, touch, and study.

Their conversations also, are not always verbal ones. For example, he writes, “Marco Polo could express himself only by drawing objects from his bag…and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl” (pp. 38). Kublai Kahn and Marco Polo’s relationship was so strong they were able to communicate even without words. In fact, often times Marco Polo preferred to rely only on gestures, and glances rather than words (pp.39). Although I found it difficult to understand reading it the first time through, I am beginning to appreciate Calvino’s purpose for his book. Marco Polo’s journey is comparable to our own journeys, here in Italy. We are traveling not only to discover things outside our own conventional worlds, but to also find ourselves.

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4 Responses to English Journal 5

  1. sarahsliman says:

    Alyson–I really liked how you interpreted the conversation between Khan and Polo. I as well saw the deep connection that was done (part of the time) strictly through gestures and objects rather than words. Sometimes words are not enough to describe a specific image or scenario, it’s hard to explain such masterpieces that we create in our own minds. I feel as though it is completely possible to form a connection, a deep connection, through a conversation, without ever speaking to one another. I know first hand we are able to have full blown conversations with simple gestures or even an eye contact at a certain moment.

    I also think there are parts in Calvino’s novel where Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are very disconnected, Marco Polo can (at times) go on rants about these cities that he is envisioning in his mind and will talk about them relentlessly to Khan, and Kublai Khan stops listening to him because he cannot follow the drawn out explanations. So, in my opinion there are parts in the novel where there are connected, and other parts where they seem much more distant.

  2. I’m glad that you were eventually able to make sense of it! It’s interesting to me to read someone else’s view, because I was able to understand it very easily right away. However, I’m more prone to reading books of a similar type for fun, so I found it very enjoyable. As you said, you’re a Biology Major who approaches things very logically. I, on the other hand, get bored if things make too much sense and run in too clear of a path. At first I was looking for a storyline also, but instead I found myself liking the fact that there wasn’t one because it was like I never knew what was around the next corner!
    I agree with you that it’s a strange concept that Calvino makes no clear distinctions between the inner and outer minds…I often found myself wondering what exactly it was that I was reading! For example, is each city being told word-for-word the way that Polo is describing it, or is it the city that is appearing in The Great Kahn’s head? I suppose that in the long run, it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that the concept of each city is being communicated.

  3. Alyson, your journal calmed my fears about perhaps being the only one who did not completely understand the novel at first. I still have many questions about the book, the characters, and the communication between Marco and Khan. When I first began reading the novel at home before we came to Rome, I enjoyed reading through each entry that Marco gives describing his various travels. Although I didn’t completely understand everything that was going on beneath the surface, I still really enjoyed the novel. I think I enjoy it because the reader will never completely obtain all the answers to every question about the novel…there is always another piece of important information to discover, which will make the book even more interesting. The more one reads Invisible Cities, the more gratifying information they receive from the novel itself. When I was writing this journal, the pages of Marco’s stories that I reread, made more sense to me the second time around. The novel makes even more sense to me now after you explained how the plot is not concrete, but mainly left to the reader to decipher its timeline and meaning.
    The dork in me (consisting of about 99 percent) loves searching for the deeper meaning in novels, especially in a philosophical book like this one. When you discussed the different types of communication that the two men partake in together, I was in complete agreement. Especially when you described how their conversations were not always verbal, but instead Marco would have to act out, draw, or point to things in order to hold a conversation with Khan. This type of communication really reminds me of how we would have to communicate with Italians when we first arrived in Rome, and sometimes even now. Not knowing any of the language, we would point things out, or use gestures, and so on, to get our point across or to ask for things. This is exactly what Marco had to do with Khan before he learned the emperor’s language, and Khan still trusted him! That astounds me, because I can’t imagine any Italian taking me seriously if I used hand gestures and animal noises to communicate!
    This was a great journal Alyson, and I really enjoyed reading it! Thanks for sharing!

  4. dwiddler says:

    I completely agree with you. To be able to communicate without words and still understand another person means that you have a great connection with that individual. If you were sitting by a complete stranger, you wouldn’t be able to understand anything at all. Maybe this is a bad example, but the other day I popped a squat on the stairs after I exited a museum and a dude right behind did exactly the same thing. Two strangers, exiting the same museum, couldn’t have possibly thought the same thing. There’s no way. That’s why Polo brought materials when he initially met Khan and then their understanding grew. If I would have brought specific materials out of the museum and tried to talk to the guy, he probably would have understood and we wouldn’t have had to say a word to each other.(He probably would have looked at me with the puzzled expression if I did that?)

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