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Serendipity: Calvino’s Ersilia

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

I have been reading Italo Calvino’s masterful Invisible Cities, inspired in equal part by Marco Polo’s Travels and the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. In turn, it inspired Geoff Dyer’s The Search.

Picture to yourself Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan the cities he has passed through to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Each city is more fanciful than the next. Here, for instance, is Ersilia:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade,  authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.