INVISIBLE CITIES online
An attempt of processing of an artistic hypertext
The condensed translation of an article published in section "Net-Culture" of "Russian Journal" (Russ.Ru)
In November of 1972, the Italian writer Italo Calvino published a tiny book called "Le città invisibili" ("Invisible cities"). It wasn't easy to determine the genre of this book: a quasi-historical novel, a branching geographical fairy tail, a volume of poems in prose, but at that time 49-year-old Calvino, one of the Italy's most talented post-war writers had already habituated his readers to the suddenness of his works.
Beginning his career with the neorealistic war novel "The Path to the Spiders' Nests" (1947) and consolidating his neorealistic reputation with some collections of short stories, Calvino suddenly published during the 1960's a book called "Cosmicomics", where the scientific euphoria of the epoch is reflected in a very odd and sarcastic manner, and a half-fantastic, half historical trilogy called "Our ancestors". Then he made a children's adaptation of Ariosto's "Orlando furioso" and for a long time plunged into the job of choosing, adapting and translating (from the dialects to literary Italian) folk fairy tales.
The issue of Invisible cities marked the last phase of the writer's career, which can be better described with the words of Lewis Carroll's Alice: Curiouser and curiouser. In such books as The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973), If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979), Palomar (1983), and in the short stories of those years, the transparency and richness of language amazingly matched with the very complex but rigid logic of composition. It was as if Rubic's Cube was created and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.
We can only wonder how the creative potential of this distinguished author could develop with the coming epoch of PCs and the Internet, and how he was influenced by these developments, but we'll never know it. During his work on the series of lectures for an American university Six memos for the next millennium, Calvino all of the sudden died from ictus in September of 1985.
Thirty years after Invisible cities was published, in the summer of 2002, I was finally able to realize the forethought project: transform this book into a beginingless and endless hypertext and publish it on a web site.
I can't say I my decision was improvised.. First, I had the experience of transforming a "conventional" (i.e. "paper-oriented") work of fiction into hypertext. The resulting hypertext, turned from my Literary Institute fellow's short story called "Scrap-heap" ("Svalka"), won an award at Russia's biggest contest of Internet literature, "Teneta-99".
Secondly (and most essentially), I have been concerned for quite a while with the idea that many literary works of the XX century, called (because of the luck of the best definitions) "experimental" and "postmodern" can be more adequately described as latent, i.e. hidden, hypertexts, even if their authors had no idea what a hypertext is. And I believe that Italo Calvino is one of the best persons to verify both these statements (the latency of the work and the technological ignorance of the author). I already explain this premise in a separate work, that has been translated into French.
So I can say that Invisible cities online is a laboratory experiment, a practical test aimed to confirm or to deny my theoretical statement.
Of course, I can't declare that this statement is absolutely new and that my project is a pioneering one. It's enough to mention, on the one hand, an interactive literature game The Garden of forking hokku, and, on the other, the section "Cyberature" in the Russian on-line literature magazine Setevayua Slovesnost' ("Belle-lettress of the Net").
But the difference of Invisible Cities Online from both projects is obvious. The most important and characteristic advantage of The Garden… is its interactivity – the opportunity to become an author that it offers to everybody. Every isolated miniature-hokku ought not be a masterpiece; the artistic effect appears when we begin to look at them as a moving continuum. (See my article about literary games in the Russian Internet in Novy Mir magazine.) Otherwise, the opuses represented in "Cyberaure", firstly, proceed according to the rigid scheme created by their authors (often – as a flash-animation movie), and, secondly, the texts they are based on are the texts of modern non-professional writers, whose artistic merit is far from undisputable.
More closely to my project, however, is the online version of the Russian translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This ambitious opus was created directly for non-linearic reading and was transformed into HTML-code in punctual accordance with the author’s scheme; further, the translators' footnotes added one more dimension to the resulting hypertext..
But the conceptual difference between Invisible cities online and Pale fire online is still very clear. Nabokov's "hypernovel" was conceived by the author exclusively as a text and, accordingly, realized online as "plain text", only with pure mark-up, without any multimedia extensions, such as sounds, pictures, or even any variation of colors, fonts and so on (to say nothing of abilities of modern dynamic HTML and flash-animation). Today, this looks more like a “bare” hypertext rather than a “pure” hypertext.
Of course, this can not be a reproach to the publishers of Pale Fire; they evidently intended to leave readers alone "face to face" with text as the author conceived it, with only the possibility of momentary crossing between links, without any secondary elements.
Invisible cities also could be compared with the Decameron Web — a very sophisticated and well-designed project of Italian Department of Brown University. But there's one difference between these two projects I want to underline. Decameron Web, as other projects inspired by George Landow, was built and configured first of all as an educational project - hence its impressive completeness, obvious subordination of graphic to text and extreme transparency of navigation.
On the contrary, Invisible cities online is oriented primarily not towards representing the text per se (as in Pale Fire), nor to its studies and analysis (as Decameron Web), but towards the creation of a complete esthetical impression. In other words, it ought to be treated as an art-project: not to study Calvino's work, but to delight init.
Later Calvino himself explained:
Un libro (io credo) è qualcosa con un principio e una fine (anche se non è un romanzo in senso stretto), è un spazio in cui il lettore deve entrare, girare, magari perdersi, ma a un certo punto trovare un'uscita, o magari parecchie uscite…
Questo è un libro fatto a poliedro, e di conclusioni ne ha un po' dapertutto, scritte lungo tutti i suoi spigoli.
(A book (I believe) is something that has a beginning and an end (even if it isn't a novel in the strict sense), it is a space where the reader must come in, walk around, even get lost, but in a certain moment find an exit, or several exits…
This is a book that is made as a polyadr, and the conclusions that it has are somewhat visible everywhere along all its edges.)
So, I dare to assert that splitting a screen into frames, using pictures, selecting backgrounds of different colors, consciously depriving the navigation on the site of clarity and borrowing to it some element of unexpectedness, I just tried to approach to the author's will.
The book consists of 55 small chapters. In each chapter Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan, the emperor of China, some city he supposedly visited (the question about in-novel reality of Kublai Khan, Marco and truthfulness of his reports is quite complicated and I examined it separately). These 55 small chapters-cities (i.e. reports) are distributed, on the one hand, in 11 "thematic groups" according to one dominant line or quality of description, and, on the other hand, in 9 big chapters, 5 reports in every chapter (excluding the first and the last chapters, which have 10 reports each). Every chapter is framed with interludes - dialogues between Khan and Marco.
During my conversion of the text into hypertext this opposition "from one hand –to the other" gained visual manifestation. The workspace is divided into three thematic frames: capitoli, maintext and temi, each of which has two levels. The left frame (capitoli) shows the map-list of all nine chapters of the book, or, when one of the numbers is clicked, the content of each chapter. The right frame (temi) lists all eleven themes (types of the cities), or, when one of them is clicked, the cities belonging to each type. The mainframe (maintext) loads and displays the texts selected from the left or from the right, or else the entire table of forty icon-thumbnails. These icons are randomized from fifty-five existing icons (according to the total quantity of the cities), so there is a new set of pictures every time the page reloads.
Furthermore, the online version also manifested Calvino's confession that there were two "original" themes – Memory and Desire, and the other themes little by little separated from them. The themes "City and memory" and "City and Desire" framed the list of all themes and indicated with black and white (gray).
The total size of the project is 3,5 Mb. It includes 262 files distributed to 17 hierarchic subdirectories. There are 139 pictures included, and I am proud to mention that there isn't a picture that doesn't work as a dynamic and/or hyperlink.
Project is optimized under IE 6.0 and resolution 1024x768 pixels.
As the initial base to project was used Russian translation by Natalya Stavrovskaya, published by "Symposium" (St. Petersburg) in 2001. Although I personally know Mrs. Stavrovskaya, I preferred not to inform her about my plans. The problem is that she is an excellent and devoted translator but knows absolutely nothing about hypertext, HTML language, the Internet, and its specifics, and I could never explain to her what I intend to do with her text.
As the project is done, however, I’m prepared to show it to the copyright keepers and tell them the following.
1. The project is absolutely non-commercial, non-profit and has merit only as a laboratory test in new and extremely unstudied field of the theory of art hypertext
2. The text that was uploaded to the site is split into 73 chunks, each of which has to be browsed separately, in very unobvious way. It's impossible to load a printer and receive the WHOLE text just by once pressing the “print” key.. Even if you download all files, you must compile them into right order, rid the text of HTML tags etc. To scan the original "paper" book would be a much easier task to accomplish.
It is important to mention that the text of Pale fire is uploaded to the biggest and best known Russian on-line library www.lib.ru as one enormous file, with the complete permission of translator Sergey Il'in, who understands that you can take a brief look through the online text to decide if you’d like to read it, but you can hardly READ it from the screen or even as a stack of printed paper.
The word "illustration" itself doesn't fit the role that the pictures play in the project. They are the integral part of the project, a "parallel text", written in the "language of images," side by side with the text written in the "language of Gutenberg." I purposely allowed some of the pictures and their parts to duplicate in frames. This will allow, I hope, for the creation of new syntagmatic ties between different parts and new variants of relations between the characters.
The painter who drew the 70 beautiful color pictures for me for free, emphatically asked me not to declare his name on the site, but only to those who would be impressed enough to ask me in a private e-mail. For me, this condition also reveals the artist’s complete ignorance of the Internet, but, of course, I have kept the promise.
The site of Invisible cities online was made entirely from scratch by me; this is my first serious experience of web-designing (maybe this will answer some questions). I would like to thank Maxim Borisov (Moscow), Mikhail Pakhomov (Novgorod) and Konstantin Galyanov (New York) for technical consultations. My special thanks to Maxim, who sent me a template of a script for randomizing of thumbnails in the maintext frame.
 Cit. by: Italo Calvino. Le città invisibile. Mondadori, 1993