The Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972)

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator) Paperback, 165 pages Published 1974 by Harcourt Brace (first published 1972)

I decided to revisit The Invisible Cities (1972) of the Italian author Calvin with whom I believe, with the force of a bump on the little toe, to have some astral connection. The book was reprinted this year.

Bibliophile fetishes aside,  Invisible Cities  will be a different experience for each reader. Just as the experienced traveler sees in a new city every city he has ever been in the same way that all descriptions are possible from a single place, to where each word turns eager to rediscover its origin,  Invisible Cities  is a book that contains all the books, or even a narrative that starts from all the narratives, that distances and is lost of them, written to the margins of the memory. ” Each person has in mind a city made exclusively of differences, a city without figures and without forms, filled by the particular cities”Similarly, each reader may find there an imaginative exercise or a dream notebook, a proposal for the next millennium or a dialogue of the dead, a compendium of illusions, a maze of words, fantastic visions, historical follies, a thing or another, perhaps all overlapping. Certainly, you will find an indefinable book:

It is the mood of whoever looks at it giving shape to the city of Zemrude. Who passes whistling, nose steep because of the whistle, knows it from the bottom up: parapets, curtains in the wind, nozzles. Those who walk with their jaws in their chests, with their fingernails planted in the palms of their hands, will stare at the height of the ground, the streams, the cesspools, the fishing nets, the paperwork. It can not be said that one aspect of the city is more true than the other, but one hears Zemrude from above especially by those who remember it when entering Zemrude from below, walking every day the same streets and rediscovering in the morning the bad mood of the previous day encrusted at the foot of the walls. Sooner or later the day comes when we lower our gaze to the tubes of the eaves and we can no longer distinguish them from the sidewalk. The reverse case is not impossible,

They are imaginative narratives, or imagined narratives, or imagined narrating, or at last imaginatively narrate dialogues between the greatest traveler of all time, Marco Polo, and the famous Emperor of the Tartars, Kublai Khan. The first, infinite traveler who through symbols and words is capable of engendering endless cities to satiate Khan’s curiosity; this sovereign of a vast empire that suffers with the limits of old age and the lack of limits of the world, and seeks lenitive in the descriptions of Marco Polo who, however, warns: ” one should never confuse a city with the discourse that describes it “.

The discourse is therefore the point of transcendence of the work, which entails everything and forgets everything. In it, are imprinted the values ​​that Calvin considered fundamental to the literature of the twentieth century in the conferences that make up the Six proposals for the next millennium . Written with the lightness of subtle images and emblematic abstractions, it is rich in brief forms that denote speed, ” a message of immediacy by patient force and meticulous adjustments .” It brings, through belief in accuracy, ” a well-defined and calculated work project, the evocation of sharp, incisive and memorable visual images and language that is as precise as possible .” The Invisible Citiesis also a work of visibility, at the same time an instrument of knowledge and communication with the soul of the world, a vast encyclopedia that reveals the multiplicity of the world, and makes known ” the networks of connections between the facts, between people, between things of the world “. In it, ” each minimal object is seen as the center of a network of relations of which the writer can not dodge, multiplying the details to the point where his descriptions and ramblings become infinite. From whatever point he departs, his discourse widens to understand ever wider horizons, and if it could develop in all directions it would eventually embrace the entire universe “(CALVINO, Six Propositions for the next millennium ).

These same principles are, by the way, in the illustrations. As you have already noticed from the examples throughout the review, in all of them predominate the delicate black trace on the white background, juxtaposition that keeps each city still open to the many palettes of each reading. The landscapes are thus at the mercy of the reader’s desires and feelings, which will fill them now in somber tones of melancholy, sometimes with effusive spring tints. The book being so imaginative, it is possible to imagine the purists of the imagination wringing their noses and crying out against an attempt to imprison the poetry in Calvino’s prose. For these, the answer comes quick and simple: buy the un-illustrated version, now, available in physical and virtual bookstores. Commit here even mine, in case a plot makes them disappear from the face of the earth and you do not bother with graphite rulers and some comments and hearts on the banks. No more quarrels, please.

Invisible cities reveal an understanding of the history of the world as the potential space, ” of the hypothetical, of all that is not, nor was and perhaps is not, but which could have been .” A multiplicity text that drinks from various sources, from the “One Thousand and One Nights” to the Hollywood metropolis, replacing the uniqueness by the coexistence of several voices and looks on reality. The author himself once declared: ” If my book The Invisible Cities remains for me the one in which I think I have said more, it is perhaps because I have been able to concentrate all my reflections, experiences, and conjectures on a single symbol.”Like many cities, this book of Calvino does not find the palliative that a narrative with beginning middle and end provides the escapists; on the contrary, they take advantage of the answers he gives to our anxious inhabitants’ longing for lightness in a fast world. His reading transforms us into Kublai Khans: no time to know the breadth of the world, but the willingness to perceive both from the gaze of the other.

An infinite book, to read over and over again: back and forth, jumping and turning, freely recreating our own planisphere.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, William Weaver (translator)
Paperback, 165 pages Published 1974 by Harcourt Brace (first published 1972)

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 2006)

Paperback, 311 pages Published March 16th 1998 by Anchor Books (first published 1985)

The Canadian Margaret Atwood, in addition to the vast and diverse career as a writer (exploring the novel, the tale and the poetry), has also taught English language and literature and has long exercised literary criticism, without neglecting activism in environmental causes and humanitarian. The political approach, moreover, is a striking feature in her fictional works, especially with regard to the voice and the feminine representativeness before the patriarchy. His book The Tale of Aia , first published in 1985, rightly reveals the discussion of women’s political rights, place of speech, and freedom of expression in imagining the world’s greatest power, the United States, dominated in the near future by a totalitarian government of extremist Christian orientation: the Republic of Gilead.

The title of this dystopia alludes to the classic collection of stories The Tales of Canter , attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer, of notable paper in the consolidation of the English language in the literature of the end of century XIV, in addition to being related to the famous “fairy tales”, folk narratives / predominantly moral. It is a first-person narrative often tied to science fiction, although Atwood prefers to refer to it as “speculative fiction” because it connects with a social factor that may actually happen, since it has already happened somehow. Indeed, in obscure times of retreat linked to evangelical groups, traditionalist movements and Donald Trump, the reading of the work can even be frightening with the drawing of parallels between the repulsive situations and attitudes shown in the text and the growing conservative oppression of our current reality.

In the novel, the excuse for the coup would have been the fight against Islamic terrorism, with the “common good” also being linked to the control of environmental and health problems. These factors supported the establishment of a completely male-dominated regime in a kind of caste system in which women perform few and certain roles and are differentiated by the color of the clothes they wear: blue for the Wives (high-society daughters oriented to marriage with the Commanders), green for the Marthas (servants of the domestic labor), red for the Aias (young holders of fertility linked only to procreation, with a cap of white flaps around the head) and brown for the Aunts to the instruction of the Aias). There is also the class of the “Econopeople” (daughters of poor families oriented to marrying unowned workers) who wear striped dresses of different colors representing the roles of all women in Gilead, and the so-called Non-Women, those who can not have children, homosexuals, divorcers, widows and feminist ideologists who use gray and are sent to forced labor in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population. who use gray and are sentenced to forced service in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population. who use gray and are sentenced to forced service in colonies where the level of radiation is deadly. The system had also excluded gay men and the entire black and Latino population.

The protagonist is an Aia who tries to survive all this change trying not to forget the previous life to its hard condition. Thus, she tells us (because she can not write, since this activity, like reading, was prohibited for most women) episodes of her past at the same time that she is reporting her daily life in the house where she is staying to comply its pre-established role. It is through his gaze, through his voice, that we know Gilead. She lost her true identity and was given the name of Offred, in a relationship of belonging to who is currently serving: “Of Fred”, in English, or “De Fred”, the leader of whom should become pregnant.

We are for procreation purposes: we are not concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: all that was possible was done to distance us from this category. For all intents and purposes there is no supposition that there is anything amusing about us, no space should be allowed for the flowering of secret lusts; nor should any favors be obtained by persuasion, by them and by us, there should be no opportunities or activities that could give rise to love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred receptacles, traveling chalices. (ATWOOD, 2006, p. 167)

The sexual ritual for this to happen places the Commander’s Wife positioned behind Aia, holding her hands in complete embarrassment, while he violates her, however, without any contact other than penetration. She is but a seminal receiver who will deliver the fruit generated to the woman of superior subtraction who will assume her maternity. The ceremony is related to the biblical passage from the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, which is one of the epigraphs of the novel (also appearing in the graphic design of the cover of the Brazilian edition), mentioning the moment when Raquel offers a servant to Jacob so that they have a shoot:

And she said unto him, Behold my handmaid, Bilhah; Enter her that she may have children on my knees,  and I may receive children for her.  (GENESIS, 30: 3)

The astounding reference seems to echo throughout the work, drawing attention to terrible dogmatic aspects that continue to plague Western culture. The “training” of the Aias itself evidences the arbitrariness arising from the sacralization of values ​​of such a code, with decontextualized fragments constantly serving the Tias as an illustration of moral precepts to be judiciously followed. Thus, they learn that they are directly responsible for the failure to conceive babies and for any violence they suffer.

In addition to establishing protection of the order through special sentries, the Guardians and Angels, and the Wall, where those executed by the government are hung to set an example for the passers-by in the street, the new doctrine ends up creating an atmosphere of envy and vigilance among women, also that the small portion that holds some privileges does not wish to lose them. Offred sometimes recounts the feeling of fear in relation to the look of Aia that accompanies it to the market, since some assumed with fervor the principles of that management and could deliver those that demonstrated any slip. In addition, the one who was able to conceive walked triumphantly among the others, as if acquiring a new status, even if the solidarity among many persisted (mainly in the exchange of information and in the reception of postpartum). In this context,

Memory appears as the key to fragmented and non-linear narration. In this sense, it is possible to understand the presence of so many gaps in the blurred speech of Offred, as well as contemplate great beauty in the simplicity of passages as the one that comes in contact with elements that make it feel a little more people and maintain the sanity.  The moments related to the memories of his daughter and of his companion Luke, father of the child, are remarkable. She was forcibly separated from the two in an attempt to escape to Canada and continues to conjecture about her whereabouts, hoping to one day still be able to find them.

Illegal and ambiguous relationships, secret changes in the dynamics of house members, and the discovery of the existence of a group resistant to theocracy lead the plot to a cathartic end, with the book ending in an interesting metafictional epilogue. In conclusion, the tale can be interpreted as an attempt to intimate protest of Aia, to refuse to forget who it was before the new regency. At no time does Atwood trace it as a stereotype of guerrilla heroine that can change the horror scenario in which it is embedded: it seems to try only to remain lucid in the face of chaos, even though there is a dream of freedom. There is no struggle beyond the word, but it is symbolically the talk directed at an unknown person who opens Offred to his own humanity and consequently to insubmitting through the expression of his ramblings, feelings, desires and illusions of power. Above all, it is with her tale that she comes back to belong.

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it’s not really about who can own who, who can do what with whom and go unpunished, even if it is even lead to death. Maybe it’s not about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs open with grin. Maybe it’s about who can do what with whom and be forgiven for it. (ATWOOD, 2006, p.165)

The universe designed by Margaret Atwood, exploring the mystification and burdens of “being a mother,” contemplates the discussion about women’s power over their body and their destiny. More than thirty years after its launch, the novel has already been adapted to the theater (in monologue, opera and ballet), to the cinema and, more recently, to TV, besides to inspire several social campaigns and to be widely adopted as compulsory reading in English-speaking schools, but not without question by many who reject their political bias against social and religious fanaticism.

The choking sensation that runs through most lines makes the reading experience intense and heartbreaking. Here, literature shows itself as a significant tool for the consciousness of the manipulative mechanisms that base the tyranny of dictatorial regimes, always constructed in the surdina, as well as for the reflection about the feminine performance in the society, since, unfortunately, still there are  those who believe that women have already achieved equality with men, caring little for the gradual withdrawal of their rights. Faced as an alert, provoking pessimism or the will to change, The Tale of Aia  is a necessary book that  deserves to be read and debated more and more.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Paperback, 311 pages
Published March 16th 1998 by Anchor Books (first published 1985)