City Wrap Specials: The Italo Calvino Issue

The Wrap Specials are a dedicated and wilful break from breaking news, grim academic reports, sea level rise and other things that might be pointing towards the apocalypse


A file photo of writer Italo Calvino. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A file photo of writer Italo Calvino. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Mint Cities Wrap is a curation of the most compelling stories emerging from our cities today. While the focus is on urban centres, the Mint Cities Wrap engages with wider geographies in the effort to connect stories with each other across places and borders.

The City Wrap Specials are occasional issues that are concerned with a particular theme. These issues draw upon literature, poetry, music, film, food and sundry Internet fodder to illustrate an overall point or the lack thereof. The Wrap Specials are a dedicated and wilful break from breaking news, grim academic reports, sea level rise, and other things that might be pointing towards the apocalypse lurking around the corner. But why such a thing at all, one could ask. Well, for the pleasure of a contemplative torpor, for a light, unfettered laugh, and above all, for the compassion and commiseration that only stories are capable of bringing out.

Let us begin with the vagueness of Mondays

Haven’t you ever wanted to say, “no, thanks, not now” to a Monday? Haven’t you ached to refuse a Monday like it was a call from a telecom company executive? On Mondays, the lists of your many million incompletions come out. The resolve to be resolutely productive is at its peak, but yet you reach out ever so adamantly for distractions. It’s not just you, it’s also Italo Calvino, inimitable author of Invisible Cities .

Italo Calvino was distracted by, among other things, newspapers. “Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then...I cannot do without them. They are like a drug,” he said in his Paris Review Interview in 1982. When he was asked about his work schedule, he replied, “In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning....”

How delightful! Calvino is just like us in that respect. But where he differs is in his definition and approach to boredom. Boredom in adulthood, according to him, “is made of repetition, it is the continuation of something from which we are no longer expecting any surprise.[...] I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities”. Calvino is not talking about how not to be bored in an age of instant distraction, but rather of a deliberate choice in how he has arranged a life.

And so it is no surprise that one of his unequivocally beloved book, Invisible Cities, is concerned with basic questions of arrangement and choice—“how do we live in the places where we find ourselves? and how do we talk about that experience?”

Recollecting a city

Since this is not a book review, no summary of the book nor a critical analysis of Calvino’s Invisible Cities shall be found here. But what will be found here are references to a very telling passage in the book where Marco Polo attempts to describe the city of Zaira to the Emperor Kublai Khan. The City of Zaira is the city of high bastions, and so it would be an immediate impulse to recount the empirics of such a city. For instance, “how many steps make the streets rising like stairways” and “what kind of Zinc scales cover the roofs”. Then Marco Polo says, “but I already know that this would be the same as telling you nothing.” Why? Because, he explains, “the city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past.

A description of a city should contain, if possible and to the extent that is possible, the memories of those who inhabit its space.

On that note

Recollecting Rwanda: A moving essay on the location of grief and memory in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Why do we memorialize the dead? What are we hoping to remember and keep alive through a monument? “It seems to be a part of human nature that we mourn those nearest to us more than we mourn the multitudes, those separated by time and history and ‘otherness’. But how we determine nearness depends on our imaginations.”

Lovesong of the assimilated: Poet Jaswinder Bolina tears apart the compulsion to “place” immigrants through an Allen Ginsberg-style meditation. “If anybody asks, Where is he from? Bunny, tell her Baton Rouge, or say South Carolina. If anybody asks, Where’s he really from? Meaning the Rangoon Nebula, meaning the seventh moon of Guadalajara or the ice planet Karachi, tell him I come in peace or I pledge allegiance.

The Long Goodbye: Nityan Unnikrishnan illustrates the city-dweller’s longing for “another place, always”.