Excerpt 19

The Great Khan owns an atlas where all the cities of the empire and the neighbouring realms are drawn, building by building and street by street, with walls, rivers, bridges, harbours, cliffs. He realises that from Marco Polo’s tales it is pointless to expect news of those places, which for that matter he knows well: how at Kambalu, capital of China, three square cities stand one within the other, each with four temples and four gates that are opened according to the seasons; how on the island of Java the rhinoceros rages, charging, with his murderous horn; how pearls are gathered on the ocean bed off the coasts of Malabar.

Continuous Cities . 4

You reproach me because each of my stories takes you right into the heart of the city without telling you of the space that stretches between one city and the other, whether it is covered by seas, or fields of rye, larch forests, swamps. I will answer you with a story.

In the streets of Cecilia, and illustrious city, I met once a goatherd, driving a tinkling flock along the walls.

“Man blessed by heaven,” he asked me, stopping, “can you tell me the name of the city in which we are?”

“ May the gods accompany you!” I cried. “How can you fail to recognise the illustrious city of Cecilia?”

“Bear with me,” the man answered. “I am a wandering herdsman. Sometimes my goats and I have to pass through cities; but we are unable to distinguish them. Ask me the names of the grazing lands: I know them all, the Meadow between Cliffs, the Green Slope, the Shadowed Grass. Cities have no name for me: they are places without leaves, separating one pasture from another, and where the goats are frightened at street corners and scatter. The dog and I run the flock together.”

“I am the opposite of you,” I said. “I recognise only cities and cannot distinguish what is outside them. In uninhabited places each stone and each clump of grass mingles, in my eyes, with every other stone and clump.”

Many years have gone by since then, I have known many more cities and I have crossed continents. Once day I was walking among a row of identical houses; I asked a passerby:

“May the immortals protect you, can you tell me where we are?.

“In Cecilia, worse luck!” he answered. “We have been wandering through its streets, my goats and I, for an age, and we cannot find a way out … “

I recognised him, despite his long white beard; it was the same herdsman of long before. He was followed by a few, mangy goats, which did not even stink, they were so reduced to skin-and-bones. They cropped wastepaper in the rubbish bins.

“That cannot be!” I shouted “I, too, entered a city, I cannot remember when, and since then I have gone on, deeper and deeper into its streets. But how have I managed to arrive where you say, when I was in another city, far far away from Cecilia, and I have not yet left it?”

“The places have mingled,” the goatherd said. “Cecilia is everywhere. Here once upon a time, there must have been the Meadow of the Low Sage. My goats recognise the grass in the traffic island.”

Chapter 9.6 - p152

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