Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Fantastic – the amazing art blog But Does It Float? has found an artist, Colleen Corradi Brannigan, who has been making Calvino’s cities visible. Here is a complete index of the invisible cities paintings, the descriptions are in Italian. I am in love with this great book, I’ve even written a city of my own.
The City & The City is a noir mystery set in an Eastern European impossible city. Two cities, Bezel and Ul Qoma, exist intertwined in a strange custom where they pretend to be separate. The custom is enforced by a mysterious entity known only as “Breach”.
I think of this as a novel set in one of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities“. For those beautiful little shorts, a setting is enough, but here in the novel you need a full plot and characters to keep moving.
In the run-down city of Bezel a body is found. It quickly becomes clear that the murder actually happened in the ascendant “wolf” Ul Qoma. Our hero begins to investigate from one city to another, contrasting the cities and the people who make them separate.
The concept is fantastic and it gets explored well, sometimes more than the story does. The atmosphere is beautiful and you begin to feel the psychology of “Breach” and crowds that must be unseen because they exist in another city. Well worth the time, more for the city and the city, less for the story.
As you come out of the forests and first spy Ofanya, you mistake it for a ruin or a bombsite. Closer to the crumbling towers and half-roofed houses it becomes apparent that the people hurrying about are not in peril or panic. They are going about their business calmly but quickly among the wasted blocks of Ofanya. There is no danger, save for when a building collapses.
Spending time in the falling, failing city of Ofanya, the people reveal themselves to be full of great ambition. No one is a banker or a grocer or a shopkeeper. Everyone is a writer or a musician. All are working on projects of staggering beauty and terrible deep complexity, so they have no time to spend on day jobs. talk to anyone and they will tell you about the three hour underwater dance cycle they are dedicating to the battle of normandy. A shy young man will show you his preliminary sketches of for a full-body tattoo of his life, the lives of his ancestors and the predicted lives of his someday children.
They cannot stay with you long, these poets and sculptors. There is no one who will keep a shop in Ofanya, so there is nowhere to buy bread. In the morning, the artists all wake up and scour the countryside for wild wheat they can handmill to eat. The muralists go to the river to catch trout. All the time everyone complains about how they can’t get a cup of coffee. They greet each other mainly by asking for cigarettes.
You grow weary of Ofanya as everyone you meet asks you for favors and loans, promising they will remember you when their script gets made.
Ofanya is a city of infinite desire and little execution. The houses and towers are not destroyed, they were never finished by balladeers who are writing songs about love and death. The shit and piss stinks in the streets as there are no sewers dug, no street cleaners. Everywhere the thin starving artists plead with you that they cannot delay their art to move to another city, but they cannot complete their art as thy have to spend all day searching for food, firewood, and shelter. Something must be done about this hell that is Ofanya. With a little planning and cooperation this could be a great bohemia. Ofanya just wants you to set up a bakery, where your labor will be repaid in songs of glory and monuments to your industry. Ofanya wants you to build an apartment block, which would be covered in heroic murals in tribute to you.
Don’t ponder this ridiculous proposal for too long. You will begin to compose an essay in your head, a masterful argument that will strike the people of Ofanya with reason and put them into a well ordered society. While you prepare this powerful rhetorical thunderbolt, you will grow hungry and make your way to the woods to hunt for some walnuts or blackberries.