Excerpt 7

The Great Khan has dreamed of a city; he describes it to Marco Polo: “The harbour faces north …”
“ Set out, explore every coast, and seek this city,” the Khan says to Marco, “then come back and tell me if my dream corresponds to reality.”
“ Forgive me, my lord, there is no doubt that sooner or later I shall set sail from that dock” Marco says, “but I shall not come back to tell you about it. Th city exists and it has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns.”

Cities & Signs . 5

No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection. If I describe to you Olivia, a city rich in products and in profits, I can indicate its prosperity only by speaking of its filigree palaces with fringed cushions on the seats by the mullioned windows. Beyond the screen of the patio, spinning jets water a lawn where a white peacock spreads its tail. But from these words you realise at once how Olivia is shrouded in a cloud of soot and grease that sticks to the houses, that in the brawling streets, the shifting trailers crush pedestrians against the walls. If I must speak to you of the inhabitants’ industry, I speak of the saddlers’ shops smelling of leather, of the women chattering away as they weave raffia rugs, of the hanging of canals whose cascades move the paddles of the mills; but the image these words evoke in your enlightened mind is the mandrel set against the teeth of a lathe, an action repeated by thousands of hands thousands of times at the pace established by each shift. If I must explain to you how Olivia’s spirit tends toward a free life and a refined civilisation, I will tell you o ladies who glide at night in illuminated canoes between the banks of a green estuary; but it is only to remind you that on the out skirts where man and women land every evening like lines of sleepwalkers, there is always someone who bursts out laughing in the darkness, releasing he flow of jokes and sarcasm.

This perhaps you do not know: that to talk of Olivia, I could not use different words. If there really were an Olivia of mullioned windows and peacocks, of saddlers and rug-weavers and canoes and estuaries, it would be a wretched black, fly-ridden hole, and to describe it, I would have to fall back on the metaphors of soot, the creaking of wheels, repeated actions, sarcasm. Falsehood is never in words; it is things.

Chapter 4.1 - p61

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License