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Truth’s Illusions: Magical Realism and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities Genevieve Petty “Sometimes the intersecting in a magical realist story is largescale, a colliding of cultures or civilizations, one “primitive” and hence in touch with magic, the other “civilized” and presumably “realistic,” i.e. committed to science and wary of illusion and superstition. It is important to recognize this collision in cultural terms because its very scale helps us understand that magical realism is not so much a challenge to the conventions of literary realism as it is to the basic assumptions of modern positivistic thought, the soil in which literary realism flourished. Magical realism’s inquiries drive deep, questioning the political and metaphysical definitions of the real by which most of us live.”-- David Young, Magical Realist Fiction In keeping with Young’s description of the goal of magical realism, challenging the assumptions of logic and science, ItaloCalvino’s Invisible Cities exposes the simultaneous, universal symbiosis of infinity and unity within all phenomena, which magic intuits and logic obscures. Calvino structures his “intersection” through the dialogue between Kublai Khan, Emperor of the vast Mongolian-Chinese domain, who, while knowing he holds dictatorial power of it all, feels its disintegration around him, and Marco Polo, wanderer and observer, who possesses nothing and everything. As exotic as the figure of Kublai Khan might be in Western imaginations, in Invisible Cities he represents the rational mind which operates on principles of logic and science in its efforts to control its reality. His Empire is the mundane world that man thinks he understands. Kublai Khan wants information from Marco Polo about his realm because he intuits he is losing it; but what he really wants
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But Marco Polo has deeper insights to convey – insights that have magic healing properties but which can only be communicated through metaphor. the human mind only recognizes the signs for realities. beneath this thick coating of http://home.Truth's Illusions: Magical Realism and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is distraction from sensing his own dying. It never comprehends the substance of realities. but cannot be seen with actual eyes.”3 He repeats this idea of infinite preference and exchange forming reality in the voice of the camel driver: “but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on that morning in Dorothea. Polo describes cities to Khan. The first city Polo presents is Diomira wherein he subtlety suggestes the unity of all phenomena: “All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor. who has seen them also in other cities. “However.insightbb.”1 Logic would assert that what exists in one place cannot exist in any other place.com/~danae_cassandra/grad/truth. He continues by suggesting that happiness is the same as unhappiness: “he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy. Polo declares an infinity of options always surrounds each moment … in its nine quarters. monopolies with exchanges.html (2 of 4)2/15/2004 6:57:45 PM . Calvino’s purpose is both to stimulate esoteric thought in his readers and to motivate them into preferring certain options over others. Polo’s purpose is both to console Kublai Khan in his powerlessness and to motivate Khan into choosing preferred growths in reality. that allow knowledge of “the city in the past.”4 Most people believe their choices in life are limited by circumstances external to themselves. three hundred houses. present. The cities exist. the city may really be. The cities are the metaphors for the magic within reality. and future. According to Polo. seven hundred chimneys. that time.”2 With Dorothea. not their own preferences. So. Tamara attacks the popular concept of cognition. Polo (Calvino) is refuting such assumption by saying what exists in one place always exists in every place.
Such magical insight is the message of Olivia where the exquisite images describe the nasty parameters.’ ‘lovers. Issura is built over a “deep.’ ‘battle. you start summoning up your memories one by one.”9 Polo tackles economics in Euphemia.6 Then. lovers. Yet duality cannot be separated. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you when to keep awake again the camel’s swaying or the junk’s rocking. Many people think society turns on the exchange of “things. but also because at night.insightbb. you leave Tamara without having discovered it. subterranean lake. What Polo proposes is that what occurs in the bazaars is really exchange of ideas that transform identities of one person to another. your battle other battles on your return from Euphemia. Polo challenges the belief that humans even have power. However. where “merchants from seven nations”10 congregate with ginger and cotton.’ ‘hidden treasure. Polo reiterates an essential duality which is unity in all phenomena. your wolf will have become another wolf. the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox. his tale of wolves.’ ‘sister. “You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell.”5 But the powerful in Tamara control the people through controlling the signs.Truth's Illusions: Magical Realism and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities signs. your sister a different sister. sisters. in Issura. “but instead it has no thickness. The people in Issura worship either one or another set of gods: either nature or their own technology. There’s no differentiation in our unity. treasures. in our interchangeability. battles. in Moriana.8 The city itself is composed of both elements.” the distrubuting of material wealth.”11 Almost invisibly Polo indicates that you are I and I am you.12 Baucis references elitism in any society.’ – the others tell each one. seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets. Duality makes each identity possible.13 Again. by the fires all around the market.’ ‘scabies. Polo asserts: “everything that moves in the sunlight is driven by the lapping wave enclosed beneath the rock’s calcareous sky. it consists only of a http://home.”7 which could symbolize the human subconscious. whatever it may contain or conceal . People alienate themselves and then study their own absence. at each world that one man says – such as ‘wolf. scabies.html (3 of 4)2/15/2004 6:57:45 PM . pistachio nuts and poppy seeds.com/~danae_cassandra/grad/truth.
Italo Calvino. Ibid. eternally b. 129-130 16. In the final dialogue between Khan and Polo comes the reason for this intersection: “And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be. FA: Harcourt.html (4 of 4)2/15/2004 6:57:45 PM . Ibid. then make them endure. Ibid 3. Ibid 11. Ibid. a promise of eternity inside temporality. 161-163 17. with a figure on either side. which can neither by separated nor look at each other. William Weaver (Orlando. Ibid 5. Ibid. a life nourishing death inside it and disintegration fostering creation. the formula for magic.com/~danae_cassandra/grad/truth. Ibid. the unjust city with its hidden just which will become a just city bearing its seed of injustice.Truth's Illusions: Magical Realism and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities face and an obverse. 61-62 13. in the midst of the inferno are not inferno. give them space. Ibid 10. Ibid. inseparable duality that is ultimately a unity of being. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. it is what is already here. Ibid. 13-14 7. There are two ways to escape suffering it. trans. Invisible Cities. that we form by being together. It offers consolation with its continuous growing of the new within the old.insightbb. 9 4. if there is one. 77 14. Ibid. Ibid 9. fashions Berenice.”17 Endnotes 1. again repeating the inseparability concept of duality.”14 An image of organic growth pervades the metaphor of Olinda where the city expands in concentric rings with the oldest most external. 105 15. 165 http://home. Ibid. 36-37 12. Ibid. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what. 1974): 7 2. Ibid. like a sheet of paper.15 A similar image. the inferno where we live every day. It defies the logic of algebra where a can never be b because a is always. a variation of the theme of an essential. 14 6. Each city is unique and yet the same. 20 8.16 Each city mentioned by Polo to Khan which is a metaphor created by Calvino (of which I could only include a few) serves as expression of the magical which is concealed by the logical.
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