Dawn had broken when he said: "Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know."
"There is still one of which you never speak."
Marco Polo bowed his head.
"Venice," the Khan said.
Marco smiled. "What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?"
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
By Hong Yuchen
I have lived all my life in a city – or rather the city, the city of cities. I see it daily, move around in it, interact with it reflexively; but when I turned 23 I realised that to do all these things was to not know the city itself. Thus I began a search for the great pulsing thing that etched stories into the land itself – that lay down railways and roads and great concrete spires in its eternal endeavour of growth. But "began" is a strong word, for I did not truly begin – rather, I found myself one day already in the thick of the search, with nowhere else to go but to be swept along.
The city is not a hard, well-defined thing with definite edges, but a kind of source that withers a little at the very edges of its periphery. To get an accurate picture of what I am describing, take a torch and shine it on a flat surface. You will see that the circle of light describes perfectly the map of the city and its exact topology: a bright, intense heart that fades away as it spreads outwards. What I have learned is that the world is less of a sphere than a series of overlapping circles, concentrated in some places but sparse in others. Between them are small places that are uncolonised interstices, but in time even these will disappear.
One way to begin searching for a thing is to first discover where it is not. Thus I went away.
My search took me to a little-known place in Scotland called Newton Stewart, near the immense Galloway Forest Park. I went there to stargaze, and stayed with an old couple named Basil and Sue. Basil was a large man with a deep voice, and who would wear a butler's vest as he prepared breakfast. I did not see much of Sue, but she had a head of silver hair and looked always a little flustered.
I told Basil that I was a city boy, and I had come in search of where the city was not. He laughed and said, "Well, I was like you – living in London took the life out of me, and now here I am."
Outside their little house was a little winding path that led all the way to the heart of Galloway Forest (it was a path I would take later in the day), and just to the left of it was the A75 – the highway from which I had come. As I stood at the start of the forest path, I asked Basil if there was anything I had to be aware of.
"Galloway is very safe," he assured me. "There are no beasts in the forest, so don't feel threatened even when it gets dark. And it will get dark."
After I said my goodbyes for the day, I went out onto the gravel. I had hardly taken a few steps when Basil called out after me again.
"Yuchen, Yuchen!" he said. "Just remember one thing: never go onto the A75 at night."
It would be a year before I heard of the A75 again, when all of Galloway and its darkness and its stars had receded into memory. I was back in Singapore and watching a documentary on ghosts – it was only then that I learned that spectral animals would sometimes walk along the road, in a great procession resembling the Wild Hunt.
There is a monstrosity in the heart of France (that is, Paris) that is not France, and yet stands in for it. People of all the other cities arrive with the sole purpose of climbing to its top, so that they may have the pleasure of seeing the city of Paris spread out at their feet.
Built upon the steel spars of the monstrosity are walkways fashioned out of metal, and sometimes of glass. Double-decked elevators move visitors between levels and between rooms. There are many rooms in the great tower, and all of them are filled with printed pictures that reduce France to words, images and abstractions. In one such room the story of Paris is etched onto a series of ceramic mugs. I bought one of them, in the hope that I would carry a fragment of Paris with me – but now it sits on the high cabinet back in my kitchen in Singapore, with all the other mugs that contain no stories of their own.
At the pinnacle of the monstrosity is an observation chamber, with diagrams that indicate in all directions the relative distances of other cities. My city is there, and it is depicted by a symbol that resembles the spiked outer shell of a durian. Beyond the sterile climate of the chamber the wind beats mercilessly upon the travellers, as punishment for brazenly putting the histories and mythologies of the city beneath their feet. There the circumnavigation of Paris is diminished to a square, rusted walkway – and it took me the entirety of half an hour, because the wind pulled at my scarf and refused to let go.
The base of the tower is a confluence of all the cities of the world, and this takes the form of two crowds. Only in the afternoon does the first crowd arrive – a crowd of haversacks and reflex cameras and windbreakers. They wind about in spirals and await impatiently the beginning of the ascent. The second crowd, on the other hand, has arrived already in the early morning. The people of the second crowd carry miniatures of the great monstrosity in various colours, and peddle the counterfeits to the people of the first. There is a half-hearted attempt at communication between these two peoples, but it is stiff communication, a process of give and take, or a negotiation between enemies.
When I returned at last to the base of the tower after my pilgrimage, I was approached by a young representative of the latter crowd. On one hand she carried several roses with their stalks bound in metal foil, and with the other she removed a rose and inserted it into the breast of my jacket. She was a young girl no older than 17, I think, and she could have been Serbian, or Croatian – in my mind she did not look like a Parisian, but she called me "Monsieur" and spoke to me in French.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak French," I said, as gently as I could, politely returning the rose to her.
She took the rose back, a little unwillingly. "10 euro, monsieur, only 10 euro."
"10 euro is too much for me," I said, and I meant it, although not in any unkind way. "But I can spare two euro for you." I took out a large coin of copper and nickel and dropped it into her cupped hands.
"Why only two?" she demanded, persistent, accusing. In her excitement she dropped the coin and it tumbled at my feet. At that moment I had become a little flustered and confused – although that memory might have been constructed as a weak justification for what I said next.
"If you don't want it," I told her, "I shall take it back."
Before I could move, she knelt down and swept up the coin with surprising speed. She looked up and bared her teeth at me, and there was a guttural growl coming from her throat. Then she turned and vanished into the throng.
Every city has its fault lines, and they are key to grasping the true nature of its topology. These alcoves are almost shamefully tucked away, swept beneath and between each city's towering monoliths. But the demonstration of life in a city lies also in how it powders its faults.
In my city, these alcoves are kept usually out in the open, in the harsh light, and so do not usually appear as faults. They are small, cleanly kept, and very frequently serviced. But in the cities of the west, these fissures are often of a considerable size (although one might say that they are still roughly proportionate to the overall size of the city) and in them lies the non-City, or the anti-City.
In Ireland's Galway, I saw a fissure for the entirety of two seconds, and in these two seconds – which lasted very long – the beating heart of Galway lay suddenly naked and exposed. It occurred in a small gap between two buildings. On the right of the alleyway was a pub, and to its right was a popular house of oysters and fish called McDonagh's. Even further along the street a musician in a weathered jacket held a guitar and sang 'O Holy Night'.
This sudden fissure took the form of a woman, and she staggered along the cobblestones between the buildings, just as the ocean breeze funnelled itself through the space of the alley. It was very cold, with the onset of winter, but she was not dressed warmly. She wore (I think) a tattered jacket, and her jeans were faded. It was as though the alley belonged to her, and her only, during that moment – the dark alcove had receded from the vivid realm of public space. She leaned unsteadily against the wall and, squatting down, pulled down her jeans.
At that moment I averted my eyes and was washed away by the crowd into the bright lights of the street.
Shortly after, I went to Dublin for an undergraduate conference. We were booked into a hostel at the Old Jameson Distillery, where each room was in fact a bunk with six beds. In my room were two Canadians from Western University, a Dubliner who studied mathematics, and a lanky Swiss student from Lucerne whose name was Marco. Marco occupied the bed on top of mine. He was friendly but mostly silent, and slept in long-sleeved pyjamas. The closest we had to a proper conversation was on the third day, when I found him alone in the room, resting. We talked a little about the engineering behind iPhones and left it at that.
On the final day, he woke me up at around 4am. When I opened my eyes, I saw him dressed already in a sweater, and his luggage was all packed. My eyes were hardly in focus – I can remember nothing else except for what he said.
"Hey," he said. "I'm going back to Switzerland now."
I sat up with some effort and leaned myself against the head of the bed. He was holding out his hand. I took it – he had a firm grip – and we shook.
"Have a safe trip," I told him.
"It was a real pleasure meeting you," he continued. "I'm sorry to wake you up. It's just – just in case we don't see each other again."
"You too, man, you too," I said. "I want you to take care."
We sat there for a moment more, and he said nothing else – I learned that in such interstices time passes at a different rate. And then he turned around and left. He left, very softly, and no one else was aware of his departure. It was a barely audible click that the door made in his wake, and in that click was Marco, and his Lucerne, and his Switzerland.
Along the coast of Salthill is a beach covered in pebbles that the locals call Galway Bay. The beach exists at the periphery, where the city reaches its outer limits and begins to fade. It is the home of gulls and lichens and the occasional piece of kelp that washes ashore when the tide recedes.
It is on the shore that we first make symbols – all searchers for the origin of objects must, I think, end up at some point on an uninhabited beach. Occasionally a sharp-edged shell turns up that contains within it all the mysteries of the golden ratio – in it one can listen forever to its resonances, and imagine for a moment that it is the song of the sea.
When I came upon Salthill for the first and only time, I had a conversation with an unknown stranger, in which no words were spoken. He had arrived at the edge of the city where its grasp was the most tenuous. He had come here to search for something, just as I had come in search of him.
I saw that he was walking in circles. He would approach the edge of the water and test it with his foot – and, somehow unsatisfied, he would walk back upon the sand. And then again, towards the water; then once more back on sand. In my memory, I recall a Labrador running after him, leaving a long trail of small prints and pausing occasionally to shake water off his fur – but upon examining the actuality of the image, I found that the Labrador had disappeared. There was only the stranger, tracing figures-of-eight on the shore, and looking towards the horizon.
There is an end to the city, and it lies at the horizon where the sky meets the sea. It is a thing, I speculate, known only to the old sailors, to whom the ends of the city lie forever in all directions. When they are to come ashore, they search first for the lighthouse, where the city projects itself beyond its ends, towards the high seas. There they seek it as a way station, before they move on to the realm of land.
The sun was setting, and it illuminated the waves with shades of blue and orange. The evening light outlined the rocks on the shore as it fell. My stranger had turned his back upon the sea. The sun was behind him, and he had become to me another silhouette.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 1 Jan 2017