August 9, 2012 By Shameer Ks

Accounts Termites won’t gnaw

calvino_0While writing the feature on Ibn Battuta which you can read in this issue of Islam Interactive (link), I was wondering about the sense of propriety of Abu Inan Faris (1348-58). The reigning Marinid Sultan of Morocco, when he assigned the task of travelling with the great geographer and dictating his words to Muhammad Ibn Juzayy gave the latter the advice of ‘giving care to the pruning and polishing of its language and applying himself to its clarification and adaptation to the taste of readers’. He even gave scant regard to the words of such a great authority as Ibn Khaldun. Why are kings indifferent to history and why do they prefer fiction to authentic, albeit seemingly, version of stories? It was the Italian writer Italo Calvino who explained the reason to me in his Invisible Cities, which was published about four decades back (in 1975, to be precise).

‘There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops…..It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.’ (Page 5)

Termites have gnawed tomes of history and even many accounts of invaluable findings, not realizing what posterity has to learn and earn from them. And Kublai let Marco enunciate those words which would battle amnesia and ruin, despite his skepticism of the latter’s words: I do not know when you have had time to visit all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have never moved from this garden.(Page 93) From the very names of cities in Marco Polo’s accounts, we know there is hardly any likelihood for them to exist. But for serious readers, those cities will get more etched in their memories than even the cities they have visited. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air or run off. (Page 32) Look at the following description to have a feel of Marco’s (whose ventriloquist is the author) words.

In the streets of Cecilia, an illustrious city, 1 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!” 1 cried. “How can you fail to recognize the illustrious city of Cecilia?”

“Bear with me,” that 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: know them all, the Meadow between the Cliffs, the Green Slope, and 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 to keep the flock together.” “I am the opposite of you,” I said. “I recognize 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. One day I was walking among rows of identical houses; I was lost. 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 our way out. . . .” I recognized 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 waste paper 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 recognize the grass on the traffic island.” (Page 137-138)

In these accounts, there is the city named Thekla whose construction takes such a long time that Marco asks the works the reason thereof. ‘So that its destruction cannot begin,’ they answered. There is Andria whose community life repeats the order of constellations and the position of luminous stars and where it is best to remain motionless in time. There is Ersilia where the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, and agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. There is Baucis where the inhabitants live in ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there. There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence. (Page 77)
Calvino builds the novel on the possibility of Marco Polo meeting Kublai Khan during one of the latter’s travels. He narrates about the cities to the mighty king using gestures (there is no language without deceit page 41) and after learning the Levant language. But Kublai Khan hardly feels the difference: Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him. (Page 118) Sometimes we are forced to switch time (from the medieval time of argosies to the modern time of railway platforms). But we remain in his narratives, spurious though they are apparently.

There is a question Kublai Khan asks towards the end of Marco’s discourse: “When You return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?”

“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “butt the listener retains only the words he is expecting, The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing,’ the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers the street outside my house the day of my return to another; and yet another, that which might dictate late in life, if 1 were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories, It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

But cities remain the same. We have one ideal city in our mind and we travel. Actually, we don’t see cities but the ideal one, compared to which all cities we see pale into insignificance (Traveling, you realize that differences are lost). Marco too has the ideal city as he says, ‘Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.’ That is the irony of travelling. While we are on the move, we remain stay put in our ideal city.

But Marco has seen (or pretends to have seen) so many lives as to give us advice on how to suffer the inferno of our living.   There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’

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