Omar Musa’s installment in the ‘What I’m Reading’ series.
Today, I took a walk in North Amsterdam to get a haircut. Formerly the home of Royal Dutch Shell and known as a rough, industrial area, the word now is ‘gentrification’ and everywhere the telltale signs of it: cranes, the buzz of angle-grinders, a network of convivial bike paths and shiny espresso machines. When I got off the plane here, I was handed a book about the slavery heritage of Amsterdam, how signs of its dark past of Surinamese plantations and human exploitation can be seen even in seemingly innocuous, charming gable stones which depict colonial life. As I walked along a canal, I thought about the geological nature of cities: the slow accretion of layers of sediment, erosion, sudden and violent tectonic shifts.
‘Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears’, says Marco Polo at one point in Invisible Cities, a book by the great Italian fabulist Italo Calvino. It is a book I have been dipping in and out of lately. I am no Calvino expert, but I have very much enjoyed his work in the past, and in fact, the ill-fated character of Jimmy in my novel Here Come the Dogs was influenced by Calvino’s disaster-prone, tragicomic character Marcovaldo.
Using a series of prose poems, Invisible Cities imagines conversations between Marco Polo and an ageing Kublai Khan, where Marco Polo describes fifty-five mythical, dream-like cities. In one city, Ersilia, the inhabitants stretch strings between their houses to demarcate whether their relationships are that of blood, trade or authority. Once the strings are too numerous to pass through, the houses are dismantled and the city moved on. Thus, when a traveller comes upon one of the ruins of Ersilia, all they find is an intricate spider-web of once-were relationships. In another city, Adelma, one encounters people (or semblances of people) one knows but have died. As the book progresses, we realise the fantastical cities are but one: Venice.
One thing that struck me about this book is that it bears many similarities to the work of another of my favourite writers, Jorge Luis Borges, and is proof of a terrifying large intellect and imagination. There is an allure in the sheer force and colour of these imaginings, which is combined with an unsettling, koan-like quality that makes them dance just beyond one’s fingertips.
What I find compelling in this meditation on the chimeric nature of cities, is the way Calvino inverts, disassembles and reconfigures a city so that the secret folds appear on the outside. Is this not what all writers do, in some way or another? Place the outsiders at the very centre, bring the dead to life, lay bare the secret faces of cities? And of course, to each person, different eyes; to each, a different city. Since a city is as much a mental construct as a physical one, perhaps what Calvino is driving at is that to truly represent a city, it is not enough to describe it: one must first thoroughly disassemble it, the idea of it. And furthermore, one must treat the spaces between things, the distances between points/buildings/people/memories, as just as important as the point/building/people/memory.
I tried to do this, in some small way, with Here Come the Dogs. I deconstructed my hometowns of Queanbeyan and Canberra, and reconstructed them as The Town and the City, because I wanted to say something larger about an unseen side of Australia, and also in the hope that people in other parts of Australia might say ‘that’s like where I grew up.’ By reconfiguring the minutiae of my very specific locale, I hoped to create a keyhole to something larger. I have been trying to depict the true heart of Queanbeyan (because I have this naive, irrational notion that it is a microcosm of Australia) for over ten years and don’t feel any closer to doing so. It is an ongoing process. Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities, seems to be giving us a vivid, up-close insight into the process of how to depict something that is in essence a shape-shifter, something that is equal parts frustrating and illuminating. Side note: I’m not sure a line has ever been drawn between Venice and Queanbeyan, but let me now do so. They have gondolas, we have trolleys in the river. Same, same but different, ay?
The main thing that I get from a writer like Calvino is not necessarily even the exact substance of his text or the philosophical conundrums he raises. He is an author unafraid of his imagination, unafraid to be playful. Writers like Calvino bestow their creative largesse to the world—we dip in and out of their work, taking inspiration where and when we need it.
Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia. His debut novel Here Come the Dogs was long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. His story ‘Missing’ can be read in the Summer 2015 issue of Meanjin.