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Painting of Marco Polo on horse, following pack of camels

The Mental Garden of Kubla Khan and Marco Polo


In the hanging garden of the imaginary Tartar kingdom, under magnolia trees and the smell of sandalwood, Marco Polo and Kubla Khan walk, inventing cities as they go.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the garden from which they discuss cities is also a factory where buildings are being created. It is there, in that oneiric spot, where dreams spring forth as stories that become cities, and perhaps it is from there that the two dreaming characters also emerge from the earth. This place is not mentioned too often in the book, but we cannot ignore that is there where all the alchemy happens; it is there where the tales of cities become cities so real that one can pass through their doors, explore them, and even escape from them if we need to.

The descriptions, though few, are among the most beautiful we can find in fictional narrative. They tell of symbols and magnolias, of trees that bare incense, of floors made of quartz and of sinuous rivers that flow into a lifeless sea. “The empire is nothing but a zodiac of the mind’s phantasm”, writes Calvino to sum it up. After all, the garden where they walk is as invisible as the cities they imagine.

As if Marco Polo was Scheherazade and Kublai Khan the Sultan, the latter cannot stop listening to the former’s tales, that, as if words were things themselves, he builds on with metaphors and figures. All this while they are sheltered by the shade of the magnolias. Evidently, something is happening here (like in the mythical hanging garden of Babylon), which is not hard to imagine: a melancholic emperor and an imaginary traveler strolling and speaking of impossible places; places that are as plausible as the one they stand in. All the stories from the book are created from the symbiosis of their minds, and above all, are haphazardly built by the garden they wander together. There is a moment in which Marco Polo, inebriated by the garden’s perfumes, falls into silence and begins to speak with signs, rocks and other rarities he produces from his pockets. We then realize that this is not happening at all — they are both sitting in silence having one of the most eloquent conversations in human history.

Marco Polo could not express himself except with gestures, ostrich feathers, onomatopoeias and quartz, as if they all were chess pieces. […] But in reality they were mute, lying on large pillows, rocking in hammocks and smoking long amber pipes.

In this imaginary continent of invisible cities everything is perfumed with sandalwood and magnolia. It is an island within our collective imagination wherefrom literature flows as a fountain.

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