Kublai Khan is the ruler of an empire too vast for him to imagine, so he enlists the young Venetian, Marco Polo, a reknowned traveler, to describe to him the cities he has visited. It is possible that the great Khan’s empire exists only in his imagination, and it is more than possible that the cities that Marco Polo describes are his own inventions, inspired at least in part by dream-like transformations of the built reality and social layerings of his native Venice.
But the khan’s real interest is in understanding himself and his own mind, so when he tires of his young informant’s strange descriptions, he prefers to challenge him to serial games of chess. Kublai Khan has no inclination to travel to see his cities for himself, his palace is far too comfortable. What intrigues him, and us, about the cities Marco Polo describes is that each contains some contrary city, one whose design and practices are exactly the opposite of the city first described, and frequently this second city also has its opposite. Invention upon invention, because Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are themselves only creatures of Italo Calvino’s imagination, exploring the multiplicity of possible visions and interpretations that each city, like each book, and most explicitly this book, can be read and experienced in multiple, contradictory ways,