INVISIBLE CITIES (1972)
by ITALO CALVINO
Invisible Cities, a book by Italo Calvino, is about the conversations between Kublai Khan, the King, and Marco Polo, the explorer, discussing Marco Polos’ descriptions of the cities he had visited. Each city is narrated by explaining what they stand for, metaphysically, and architecture is used to emphasize them. Marco Polo did not share a common language with the King, and so communicated his stories through actions and objects collected by him, on his journey. All the cities were different but towards the end, I realised, they had an underlying similarity. They all talked about different characteristics of a generic, real city.
Raison d'être, Reason for being, is a phrase that repeatedly kept coming up in my mind as I read through this book. The places and cities talked about were so connected to the inhabitants of the area or to the lack of them and gave the impression of a cycle between the people and the place. It made me think that if one survived, the other one wouldn’t, at least not happily, but at the same time required each other to exist.
There is always a comparison being made in each of the descriptions of the cities. They are either compared to their past or to an identical city of the dead or even to the skies. The author talks about multiple reflections of the same city representing different aspects of the people; their fears, feelings, hopes and memories. There is no sense of ‘city development’ the way we have been taught to see it, but development or degradation of the city inflicted directly by the emotions of its inhabitants. The people strived for a utopian life, but the more they changed their cities to fit the image, the further they went from it or soon realised that, their image was a false utopia.
Something I found interesting as I was reading the book was that all, or at least most, of the cities has feminine names and also that women represented desire, sometimes quite ostensibly and sometimes understated. Women were the protagonists of the mens’ fantasies. They portrayed serenity and hopelessness but never happiness, only a false sense of it. In retrospect, I feel that the author might have despised them as the women always turn out to be deceitful.
At the end, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan discuss the fate of the city; it emerging as the already existing ‘inferno’ or hell. To survive, one must either knowingly suffer or rise above.
There are a lot of double entendres in the stories and it is not those plot based, ‘can’t keep the book down’ kind of novels. In fact, I feel, to fully understand the philosophy, I had to repeatedly take a moment (quite a few of them, actually) and think over what I had just read. I still feel that I only understand the crux of it, even after reading some parts over a second time. There are so many phrases and ideologies that stayed with me after reading the book and so many things I understood but I can’t explain. I plan to reread slowly, at my own pace and over a long period of time.
Invisible Cities is one of those books, which, even after reading again and again, you will always find something that you missed from the times you read it before.
“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving” – Lao Tzu
The Golem's Eye
The Bartimaeus Trilogy [II]
By Jonathan Stroud, 2004
Published by Random House
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud, is a series of fantasy novels based in London, though it travels to a few other parts of Europe as well. It is set in an alternate history, with political constructs similar to that of our reality. The magicians constitute the tyrannical government, having their own hierarchy, while the lowly common people are abused and taken advantage of and then there is the rebellion consisting of commoners with weak magical powers. Being a fantasy novel, it has its share of spirits like djinns, foliots, imps and afrits.
The place I have chosen is the Old Town’s Square, Prague in ‘The Golem’s Eye’, the second book in the trilogy. Although it wasn’t my first choice, I picked it because I liked the image that had formed in my head of that place. The square is mentioned throughout the book, in little bits and pieces, but is not given much importance in the story.
When I read the book, I imagined a laid-back and elegant space, simple and charming and very social- the typical, cliché European image of a public square. In the book, the Square was used during the day for casual, public meetings with hidden innuendo. The author talks about cobblestoned roads and narrow side streets. There are buildings with arches and gargoyles, and spires and towers are seen in the background. The buildings that surround the Square are all quaint, four to five storey high stone structures. There are flowers in the balconies of some. There is an old clock tower on one side of the square which rings at every hour, the number of hours it is. Many cafes and restaurants border the area, and most of them provide outdoor seating by keeping wooden tables, chairs and large colourful umbrella’s, propped up next to every table, outside during the day. All the people there seem to walk about at a leisurely pace, as if mimicking the pigeons which populate the area.
As the Sun starts to set, the mood of the place changes. The enchanting side streets turned into dark alleyways lit only by the occasional oil street lamp, perfect for lurking around. The cobblestone reflects the little light that falls on it. The cafés call it a day and pack up their chairs and umbrella. A few windows have light shining out but no one makes a sound. The pigeons have left and only the patrol orbs and the occasional man in a black coat are left.
I liked the way the author portrays the square in different places in the book. During the day it is a bustling, lively area where people congregate and enjoy the ambience, oblivious to what others were doing around them. At night the same square is shown as a dark and dangerous place, with mention of different vantage points of the enemy and crevices in which to hide, so as to elude the government spies. At the end of it all, though, the one image I have of the square is a man sitting at a table, relaxed, observing the person who he is to have a meeting with and sipping a petite cup of cappuccino.
Few memories remain from one's childhood that, when remembered, bring back the same emotions that one felt when they were there. One of those places for me is the Sedlec Ossuary, a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic. I've been there just once but the image and adrenaline rush remain, even after 10 years. Why adrenaline, you ask? Well, it was a church filled with human bones, as decorations and furniture or just heaped in the corners (not making it any better).
The history behind the cemetery in Sedlec is that in 1278 when an abbot sprinkled ‘holy’ earth in the cemetery, which he had brought from Palestine, it became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe . During the Black Death in the mid-14th century, and after the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, thousands of people were buried there and the cemetery became over-crowded.
Around 1400 a Gothic church was built in the centre of the cemetery which led to the unearthing of many graves, a few of which were demolished all together, to also make room for new burials. According to legend, after 1511 a half-blind monk of the order was given the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel. Later, the bones were used to adorn the interiors of the church, which still remain to this day.
My family and I took the metro, but still had to walk a few blocks, en route of which, I ran in front of a moving car, which skidded to a stop. Sadly, the irony of that situation was lost on me then. On reaching the premises of the church, I didn’t really see anything special, but I did feel a chill, whether it was self-fabricated or just the place, I’m still not sure. It was a modest church from the outside. It was in a gated compound, surrounded by graves, and had the usual spires and large, arched windows.
On entering the chapel, the first thing I observed was the dim lighting. There was also this stench, like that of a damp place, which, accompanied by the silence, made my heart beat faster. In the antechamber, I noticed the two large goblets, made of skulls and bones, in the niches in the wall. I remember thinking, at that time, how minuscule I felt compared to the giant goblets and that I thought the skulls were ‘looking at me’. I walked a couple of steps down to the main chamber. Here the silence was broken by the occasional gasp or murmur by the visitors. The most startling image I have of the chapel is that of the chandelier, hanging in the middle of the chamber. I stood under it looking at it for some time, wondering how they stuck all those bones together and half expecting something, just something, to happen. Someone there told me that each of the 40,000- 70,000 skeletons there contributed a single bone in making the chandelier.
In each of the four corners of the room were four heaps of bones and a bunch of skulls kept together. Near the top of each heap were holes that seemed like tunnels that, I imagined, led to a dark and dangerous haven. Stories unfolded in my head and I felt the slow rise of the hair on the back of my neck.
I probably was there for just under an hour, but that place excited and scared me at the same time. It kept me in a constant daze, thinking of what could (never) be. I was overwhelmed at how the church glorified death in such a way. I couldn’t understand it and actually thought it was quite anti theistic. Now, despite the fact that I did enjoy the place, I don’t want to go back, as I fear the memory of the experience would be tarnished by my opinion, as an adult.
Tall buildings all around
Not one to call her own
Her small one on the side
The one that mattered most
They walk on by
Oblivious to all
but the structures of the eminent
The laconic one
Forgotten by those
Who didn't care to look for it
It didn’t matter
what they thought
The opinion of the flock
For those who noticed
The simplicity of the small
Ammani Nair (2010)
Ammani Nair, age 62, died of heart attack on Friday, 13th September, 2052. Although a well known philanthropist , she was an architect by profession. She graduated from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, class of 2013 and did her masters from Bauhaus, Germany.
Her early years of independence were spent travelling India, working on various rural development projects. Her major projects include the zero-emission city and modular irrigation projects across India . After retirement, she lived in Goa for a few years to concentrate on her writing. She spent her last few years on an expedition in South America and was last seen in Santiago, Chile. Her funeral will be held on Thursday, 19th September, 2052, on the return of her body. Her family and friends mourn her death.