Guest blogger: Italo Calvino

Lost cities

Few visitors to the city learn the secrets of R——. The first, Emperor, is this: only one vantage point wholly reveals the city to an observer. Not posted with signs, not marked in the tourist bureau's glossy brochures, the visitor must set out from the city walls to discover its location for himself.

Scouring the foothills that garland the city, if his patience holds out he will find a certain farmhouse, abandoned and entangled in swollen fallow fields. The visitor treads its squealing boards until he encounters the room with a window cracked into spider-web lines, framing the city over a sill crusted with grime and moth-husks.

From this lookout, if the visitor peers intently he will perceive a feature of R—— not apparent within its walls—that in fact the basin city is slowly sinking at its centre, as if its foundations were laid upon shifting subterranean sands. The belltowers and spires of churches, the streaked bronze statues on the lawns of the public library, the mausoleums in the cemetery with their mosaics glinting back the afternoon sun all stand upright at the city's hub, resigned to their descent, but the peripheral dwellings (tenements clambering, one makeshift storey upon another) lean inward, turning their backward glance to the hilltops.

If the onlooker does not step sadly away from the window, if instead he is compelled to memorise the details of this sinking city—crane hooks swaying submissively; the fluttering of sheets on wires strung across high balconies; apartment doors swinging open; the billowing hessian covers tied to scaffolds thick with men; (perhaps he might raise the window frame the two inches it will budge, to let in the faint cries and wolf-whistles of the labourers, the clangour of bolts deftly hammered home, zephyrs keening through shopfront canopies)—he may come to appreciate the second and opposite phenomenon of R——. Which is the strength of its delicate and perpetual reconstitution; strong enough to resist the pull at its heart. The mired city of R—— kneels gracefully over its own abyss: once cursed, but once blessed.

Hands pressed against the window, his breath fogging the slivered glass, the observer can only blink and break his trance when the last of the city's secrets whispers in his ears: that he, among few, has really visited R——, that sad metropolis resting lightly on the earth and gazing lovelorn at a distant splintered pane of glass.

Joseph | 26 Mar 2004

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