The Ground Beneath Our Feet

Review – Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is one of the most imaginative works of twentieth century fiction. The book is a dream, a vision, literally so. It depicts, as a framing narrative, a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the great figure at the head of the Mongol Empire. The two of them exist in a dream state, caught in a suspended moment. They discuss wonders and marvels, the result of Polo’s travelling. These are the cities of the title.

The cities are fantastical. Some are glorious, others meagre; some vast, others minor; some pristine, yet others squalid. They are each separate and distinct, perfectly formed and described. Cities for progress and regression, for the living and the dead. Cities of novelty and of decay.

Calvino’s genius is manifested in the generation of these cities, orchestrated as they are within this arching narrative, within a dizzying encounter between the khan and his foreign visitor.

Invisible Cities is a brief book, but it is a beautiful one. Its images are deeply vivid. Once read, they cannot be forgotten.

The Irish writer Darran Anderson has written something of a continuation of and response to Calvino, a piece of creative, literary non-fiction called Imaginary Cities. As the title suggests, the things which link the two books are great, and the shade of Calvino is frequently present in Anderson’s prose.

But the two books are different, and not just in intent.

Anderson’s work has, if anything, a greater scope than Calvino’s. Though his point of departure is the same – the tales of Marco Polo – his reach is greater than the Italian’s. The scale of Anderson’s book is remarkable.

It is not a straightforward history or a complete narrative, but rather, like Calvino’s work, comprises a series of intricately drawn, interlinked vignettes, pithy essays arranged within lose books. These essays and the books which contain them have enigmatic titles; one fine book is “The Tower”, which uses the idea and image of Babel to interpret human history and our desires and hopes for the future.

It is compelling reading.

As all this suggests, Anderson’s range of reference is notably broad. His writing is never simply summative, but draws from a vast range of others’ efforts to produce something reflective of thousands of years of human activity. His writing is strikingly visual. Anderson draws from an array of artworks spanning continents and centuries, from unpublished architects’ plans to intricately produced medieval maps recently rediscovered.

This referential writing comes into its own discussing and dissecting books. Anderson is deeply well-read, from canonical literature to private correspondence to comic books and pulpy science fiction novelettes and airport thrillers. Particularly interesting is an extended look at Victorian adventure literature, from tales of exploration to voyages over the sea and inside the planet, and into the future.

It is as interesting to chart the diffusion and spread of these ideas as it is to parse their contents. Anderson writes of the past sensitively. He knows that the future which has come to pass was once one of a series of possibilities. And he notes of some of the paths not taken, eventualities not realised.

Imaginary Cities is not like its predecessor in another respect. Where the former was compact, it sprawls. There is something monumental about it. A striking cover and crisp design from the independent, specialist publisher Influx Press give it real presence. It is weighty. This is more than a repository of writing; as important is the book as object.

That object is monumental and so is the nature of Anderson’s inquiry, which takes in cities of the past and present, extending from the possible into the impossible. He includes the plans for a hundred unbuilt structures. His writing roams from the familiar to worlds undiscovered.

Anderson notes the pull of things outside the bounds of possibility. He records Leonardo da Vinci’s pious dictum that ‘we ought not to desire the impossible’, which sits in a notebook next to drawings of flying machines, blueprints for deeply advanced siege engines, and plans for Leonardo’s own unrealised city, as much a fantasy as any other search for perfection on earth.

This hypocrisy is essential to human nature, Anderson suggests. We know our lives are short and our horizons narrow. We know there is no way to achieve true permanence. But still we attempt to shape the world around us; we are not all in pursuit of utopia, but all of us hope to improve, be it our lives, the lives of those we love, or the ground beneath our feet.

Anderson notes the arrogance of the architect. It is necessary, and a natural by-product of the ordering of things. Even the least prescriptive of them have plans for the world. They’re as grandiloquent as any political radical or religious visionary. Their eyes burn with the same intensity.

This trait is not to be deplored. But it might be worth fearing. Everyone who wishes to reorder the world has within them a streak of madness, which can be coupled with ruthlessness – towards people or things which get in the way of design. Architects are little dictators. This is seen in their creations. Even the most perfect city has within it the possibility of a nightmare.

But this can be as much due to the nature of the people who occupy these spaces. Human nature is an implicit subject of Anderson’s but despite some charming and occasionally impassioned digressions he never addresses it directly.

This unstructured view of humanity produces an uneven sense of history. Anderson’s history lacks narrative and shape. The possibilities he surveys give a sense of what could have been otherwise; the book contains many counterfactuals. But at the same time, there is no sense of chronology. Scenes are stripped of context. This is a device to counter an overly Whiggish interpretation of the past, and perhaps a necessary one; but it is a technique which makes Anderson’s writing seem formless and his history deconstructed.

This is of less consequence than it sounds. Part of the joy of the book is found in its chaos. Words tumble off the page. Ideas arrive, are announced, and are briefly incandescent. This approach mimics the chaos of so many forms of creation.

Anderson’s writing resembles his influences. It is mostly assured, sometimes sparkling with intensity. His writing is occasionally workmanlike; sometimes the joins show. Paragraphs occasionally comprise long quotations or strings of titles tied together by unremarkable linking passages.

But he has some excellent sub-clauses. François Villon, we are informed, is ‘the finest poet ever to have killed a priest in a knife fight’. The construction here is exquisite. Entire pages of description can converge in these moments. Sometimes, like in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, the best lines are almost thrown away in footnotes. (Like Gibbon, too, Anderson has a dry, ironic sense of humour.)

Anderson’s talent can be hidden away or taken for granted, but occasionally it is on ostentatious, vulgar display. He tends a little hard towards aphorism, with his sentences clipped and declarative. These declarations are sometimes wrong, no matter how fine the workmanship.

This is a deeply thoughtful book, the product of deep reading and real intellectual effort. The results of this thought are infrequently marred by obviousness: Anderson adopts a certain educated disdain for the pieties of progress, modernity, ‘neoliberalism’, which (as well as being far from unique or interesting) obscures more than it enlightens.

But in other respects the book is a real achievement. It is not directly comparable to Calvino’s effort – not least because of the difference in genre and intent, and also because Invisible Cities is an imperishable classic of twentieth century literature. Anderson’s book is scrappier, though no less coherent and intellectually certain. He deserves praise for writing it, for his ambition. It deserves a place on your bookshelf, though only next to Calvino’s slender volume.

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