Such a little book for so much metaphor. Calvino writes prose that, on the surface of it, is deceptively simple. It’s a lot easier to read than much of Borges stuff too, but it packs just as much metaphysics into each sentence.
Each of the 55 descriptions begins by naming the city (always female) and highlighting what makes it unique. These range from the mundane to the outright fantastical and are distributed through the book in a carefully structured way which this Wikipedia chart helpfully illustrates.
The book is essentially a collection of descriptions of cities that Marco Polo has encountered on his travels and which he relates to Kublai Khan. The cities can be taken individually or considered as variations of one.
I’m not entirely sure what the mathematical arrangement of cities is meant to mean to the reader. The descriptions are interesting in themselves and you can read into them as little or as much as you want.
I didn’t come away from the book with anywhere near the impression that I did with If on a winter’s night a traveller… and was disappointed by that. This felt a lot more serious than traveller… and that left me feeling like I should have somehow done more than simply just read it.
But at least I have read it.