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I stumbled across this novel on the recommended reading portion of Oprah’s website. The reviewer had noted the book was beautifully written. This is one of the main things I look for in literature, so I was interested. Later, when I saw the same author made the Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time for his If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I thought he must be something special.

It was within the first few lines of the text I realized the genius of the writer. Immediately, I grew excited for what was to follow. I thought of the review I had read and wondered why no mention of the poetic insightfulness of the work was noted. As a person most likely similar to the reviewer in the sense that I also read a bountiful amount of literature and am always looking for new writing to analyze, compare, and contrast, I found it odd that a review could not mention this novel’s utterly distinctive facility to draw the reader in and compel reflection.

Sometimes while reading I need to tell someone around me how fascinating the design in front of me is. As usual, my logically-minded computer engineer husband listened to my oration of lines. His reply was that I needed a contemporary translation of the novel, in modern English. I told him despite its originally being written by an Italian, it was translated into English and published in 1972. He obviously wasn’t listening. To be fair, he hates this writing style. The method is so intricate that it takes time and several re-readings to gain adequate understanding. I believe each sentence exceeds the other in loveliness. For true lovers of literature there is nothing better. But for Matt, it is all fluff and not worth his time. It depends upon the reader.

Kublai Khan is the Tartar emperor and Marco Polo his traveling messenger and advisor. Polo visits conquered cities, reporting his findings to the khan. But what Polo knows and the khan needs to realize is that no ruler may gain power over a people through force. If and when he is able to see past the exteriors of the cities, Kublai will truly gain understanding of what is at the heart of them. Marco Polo becomes Kublai Khan’s teacher as he examines possibilities of time and one’s place in it, reflection, memory, dreams, desires, fears, and deception.  All of these themes intersect in the cities of the empire.

Calvino challenges his reader to reconsider common notions in unexpected ways.  ‘In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora.  There are the forms the city could have taken if, for some reason or another, it had not become what we see today.’  Every idea mentioned in reference to a city makes the reader think about what the author is saying in regards to Marco Polo’s lessons for Kublai Khan. What does the big picture of all the cities together look like? It’s not an easy read, but oh is it rewarding.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

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