Dahlia is bounded by the Ruby Wall, 27 feet high and 9 feet think, bright red when the rays of the sun beat upon it. It is a three day journey to cross through Dahlia on foot, more if you bring a camel. As you traverse the city, you find many structures which are a roof, held up by four posts and no walls. There are structures with four walls and no roof. There are roofs with just one wall, sometimes having a door or windows set within the wall, sometimes not. There are roofs with two walls. If you spend many hours searching, you might find a roof with three walls down one of the twisted walkways, though I have never seen such a structure.. The roofs are always a bright blue, sometimes with streaks of white. These structures serves as dwellings or shops or government offices.
But in the middle of the city sits a structure with a roof and four walls. It has a doorway set in the middle of the Northern wall and a window of painted glass set above the door. This is the only structure in the whole of the city with a roof and four walls and it sits directly in the center of the great city. The walls are 17.25 feet high and the roof is flat.
If a person crosses through the doorway of the structure in the center of the City, Dahlians say the traveler has gone Outside. In every other place, a person is said to be Inside. The structure in the center of the City is well known; one only has to say “Let us meet Outside,” to know that one should leave the city by going through the doorway in the structure in the middle of the city. Once Outside, people go Inside by passing back through the doorway. There are no other places in all of Dahlia that are Outside. The rest of the City is Inside.
Now that you, Dear Reader have read about Dahlia, do you wish to visit it? The idea of Dahlia was born when I was reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. A student gave me the book (thanks, Lia!), and I can easily imagine her reading it and liking it. The book is dozens of descriptions of cities which do not exist, with a framing story of Marco Polo describing the cities to Kublai Khan.
The City descriptions are prose poems, lyrical and evocative. There is possibly a structure to the book, but it is hard to tell. It is the sort of book that might repay endless hours of devoted study or it might simply be what it is and no more. Could one add another city to the book or take out one of the cities or would such an addition or subtraction fundamentally destroy the order and beauty of the book? I have absolutely no idea. I suspect academic papers have been written on the matter. But, this is one of those things where academic papers may destroy what beauty the book has. It is a hypnotic book. You roam across the land, with hints that this is all real or this is all false or some of this is real and some is not. Even the framing device may be real or not real.
This is the sort of book that prompts the question: why do we tell stories? It is an ancient question, of course. Before thinking about this book, I thought that question might have an answer. But having just read a seemingly endless array of stories about cities which do not exist, each one of those stories being more evocative of a place than actually describing a place, each one of those descriptions hinting at story upon story that could be told about the city, but having none of those stories actually told, after reading all that, I am not at all sure I can explain why we tell stories.
Take the city of Melania, which shows up on page 81. (Melania was chosen totally at random—all of the following is accurate, but I am pretty sure the same paragraph could have been written no matter which page I randomly chose.) A page and a half description of a city. It isn’t hard reading the description of the city to imagine a whole book of short stories coming straight out of the description on those pages. It would be a challenge to write such a book, but then again, it is a challenge to write any book. The book of stories from Melania, though, has the potential to be Great Art, Beautiful and Deep. I can see that book of stories in my mind; I would like to read that book of stories. But, Tales of Melania not only doesn’t exist, it never will exist. Instead, we have the page and half evoking the idea of Melania and nothing more. So, why tell about Melania?
Having read Invisible Cities, I am not even sure how to read this book. Reading it straight through was more hypnotic than thought-provoking. There is no forward momentum, just one description after another. And even the framing device is just one description after another. Having read it, when I now pick it up, I can simply flip to a random page, and read it and start wondering.
Does a book that just starts you wondering provide anything to the Reader? I can’t tell. As I sit here puzzling over this book, I cannot figure out if this is a book I should pick up on a regular basis, read two pages, and then set down just to start imagining a city and the tales that city could tell. A book that fosters imagination. And therein lies my problem. I do not know the intrinsic value of imagination.
Take the description of the city at the outset of this post. I started ruminating about the book by wondering what it would be like to write a description of a city that does not exist, and so I began. It morphed with an idea I puzzled about for a few hours months ago about whether Outside and Inside could be flipped or not. Is it possible that by being in my office, I am outside, and everywhere else is inside? I tried to talk with my family about this matter which seriously troubled me, but nobody else seemed to think the matter was troubling. So, that idea worked its way into the story of the city above. In that city, they think this way.
But, as a city that fits within Invisible Cities, I am pretty sure it is a failure. A city of one idea, and probably not a very interesting idea at that. None of the Invisible Cities seem so small.
My failure to craft a city worthy of this book does not surprise me in the least, by the way. I do not think I could ever write a respectable short story, novel or even a poem. I have always thought my creativity does not lie in that direction. And now I wonder if perhaps my imagination does also not lie in that direction. Why is it that I am troubled by the idea of a book that simply sparks imagination? Why do I want Imagination to have some end beyond itself?
(Incidentally, I actually like this cover version better than the original (which I always thought was far to saccharine))