Invisible cities

While reading this book yesterday evening I was once again reminded of how many different types of books are out there. I’ve often spent more time on a chapter of a technical book than I spent on this book altogether; when I started out I certainly didn’t mean to finish it in one sitting, I just picked it up after having spent 10 hours or so during the day reading technical stuff because I figured I wanted a bit of light reading to finish off the day. I read for a bit and then suddenly realized I was half way through the book even though I hadn’t spent a lot of time on it, and I figured I might as well finish it before I went to bed. So I did.

I liked If on a Winter’s Night… better, but that one is really hard to surpass. I’ll probably read this book again at some point, it seems like the kind of book you’ll want to read more than once. I gave it four stars on goodreads – the average rating is 4.22.

People who occasionally recommend books to me in the comments should take note that I had not read this book if not for the fact that readers recommended it to me a while back (see the link above). It’s not like I’m ignoring all your recommendations…

Some quotes from the book below:

“if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines […], a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.”

“the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.”

“Ancient observers, whom there is no reason not to presume truthful, attributed to Aglaura its enduring assortment of qualities, surely comparing them to those of the other cities of their times. Perhaps neither the Aglaura that is reported nor the Aglaura that is visible has greatly changed since then, but what was bizarre has become usual, what seemed normal is now an oddity, and virtues and faults have lost merit or dishonor in a code of virtues and faults differently distributed. In this sense, nothing said of Aglaura is true, and yet these accounts create a solid and compact image of a city, whereas the haphazard opinions which might be inferred from living there have less substance. This is the result: the city that they speak of has much of what is needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on its site, exists less. […] everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say.”

“Melania’s population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes role or abandons the square forever or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes, until all the roles have been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.  […] As time passes the roles, too, are no longer exactly the same as before […] If you look into the square in successive moments, you hear how from act to act the dialogue changes, even if the lives of Melania’s inhabitants are too short for them to realize it.”

“The day came when my travels took me to Pyrrha. As soon as I set foot there, everything I had imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had become what is Pyrrha; and I thought I had always known that the sea is invisible from the city, hidden behind a due of the low, rolling coast; that the streets are long and straight; that the houses are clumped at intervals, not high, and they are separated by open lots with stacks of lumber and with sawmills; that the wind stirs the vanes of the water pumps. From that moment on the name Pyrrha has brought to my mind this view, this light, this buzzing, this air in which a yellowish dust flies: obviously the name means this and could mean nothing but this.”

“No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue their former activities. And, of these activities, it is their carefree moments that take first place: most of the corpses are seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing positions, or made to play little trumpets. But all the trades and professions of the living Eusapia are also at work below ground, or at least those that the living performed with more contentment than irritation […] To be sure, many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos, bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, generals – more than the living city ever contained.”

“Those who look down from the heights conjecture about what is happening in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they have any intention of going there (in any case the roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who stay up above.
At this point Kublai Khan expects Marco to speak of Irene as it is seen from within. But Marco cannot do this: he has not succeeded in discovering which is the city that those of the plateau call Irene. For that matter, it is of slight importance: if you saw it, standing in its midst, it would be a different city; Irene is a name for the city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.”

“Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.
“You can resume your flight whenever you like,” they said to me, “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.””

“”I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. […] It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

“The living of Laudomia frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are asked in silence; and it is always about themselves that the living ask, not about those who are to come. One man is concerned with leaving behind him an illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their own actions’ consequences; but the more they sharpen their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or after.”

“at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”

January 29, 2014 - Posted by | books

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