Following the ghost of Marco Polo

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At the end of last year, I spoke to Cristina Sanchez about Imaginary Cities for Yorokobu. The interview was featured in Spanish on their site and they’ve kindly let me include the full English transcript below. The book should be getting out to more bookshops now and is available directly via the publisher Influx Press.

When and why have you decided to write this book? I have read that you were talking to a Finnish architect about your mutual love for architect Antonio Gaudi. Have Barcelona inspired you? Do you think that this city mix dreams with reality?

As a teenager, I was obsessed with culture from Catalonia and Andalusia in particular. I remember being mesmerised by Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, Picasso’s Blue Period and the poems of Federico García Lorca especially (I’m still fascinated with those to be honest). That time and place seem to me to have been one of the greatest in history in terms of creativity and it disturbs me still that it was essentially wiped out by what followed. So I went to Barcelona with my head full of ideas from 70 or 80 years earlier, thinking in my delusional state that I might somehow meet the ghosts of these people. Instead, I found Gaudi’s buildings and those of the other Catalan modernists like Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Maria Jujol and later architects like Ricardo Bofill. Until that time, it had not occurred to me that such a place was possible, that buildings I had only seen previously in the mythic illustrations of Edmund Dulac existed in reality. Barcelona seemed to me, and still does, a city built as a dream and yet it somehow is spectacularly real.

I was living in Phnom Penh a few years ago and I was drinking with friends on the roof of the Foreign Correspondents Club and we got talking about architecture and Gaudi in particular. I had this strange lucid moment of looking down at this extraordinary city, which had seen utopias and dystopias, which had been the pearl of Asia and a ghost town within living memory, with its wild torrential storms and it occurred to me that fiction would pale in comparison to such a place, as it would with Barcelona. They are, by definition, unique places but there’s something in the subjectivity with which we view all our cities that means they are all partially imaginary. No two people see the same city in the same ways. Despite their singular names, cities are plural. We also like to think that cities are somehow natural or inevitable but so much comes down to the decisions and imagination of visionary individuals, for better and worse. What would Barcelona be like had Gaudi not been born? What would Glasgow, another great city, be like had all Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s unbuilt masterpieces been built? It’s that disputed border between the real and the unreal that I’m interested in.

You are using a lot of references in your book (movies, books, illustrations…) I want to know what writers, travels, perhaps Ireland, or a special poem or a story have inspired you to write this book? For what reason, have you decided that this book should be a creative nonfiction book?

The references are endless as I’ve found to the possible detriment of my sanity. The best way analogy I’ve found is being locked in Borges’ Library of Babel; it’s an amazing experience until you start to realise you can’t see an exit sign anywhere and the panic begins to rise. The two ways I’ve researched the book are basically exploring cities and exploring libraries. As the book is inspired by Marco Polo’s travels and how they blend the real and the imaginary, the cities I’ve visited are mainly across Europe and Asia (though the book goes further), crisscrossing his actual path at times. With creative nonfiction, I think you can roam a bit more freely than a more academic text would allow but at the same time, the purpose of the book is to show that the boundaries we put up between fiction and nonfiction are much more questionable than pedants like to think. I think you learn more when you realise and embrace that. While I’ve physically gone to cities from Helsinki to Bangkok, there’s part of me that loves the idea of Xavier de Maistre writing Voyage Around My Room or Marco Polo embellishing his tales to pass the boredom in a Genoese prison cell.

The book is going to be published next year. I have read that you are searching this imaginary cities through piles and piles of books. How many books or magazines have you used? And how is your working process?

I think the amount of books I’ve trawled through could be measured in miles or fathoms. Either way, it’s a ludicrous amount of reading; mostly architectural journals and sketchbooks, science fiction pulp novels and medieval maps and manuscripts. The writing process has been changed a lot. I tend to write in fragments and piece things together at the end but this book has been very different. It’s been like a massive amount of information and I’ve been chipping at it until I’ve started seeing some kind of sculpture inside the marble. There’s been different phases though as it’s been a turbulent year, with health, work and life continually intervening. I began writing it in Paris and then moved to Scotland where I was able to work on it for several months in an amazing library in the woods where my fiancé grew up. Her father the architect and writer Michael Spens sadly died early this year and the book is partly a tribute to him for the immense kindness and encouragement he gave me in the brief time I knew him (and to my fiancé Christiana for enduring the curse of having a maniacal writer as a boyfriend).

I have read that you are studying in the Library of Alexandria but you think there’s nothing online that wasn’t foreseen and described by Aristophanes or Plato thousands of years ago. Nowadays, perhaps we think that we are more innovative than before because we have developed a lot of technologies… Do you think that technologies have changed our cities in the last years but humans imagined these cities so many years ago? Do we think that we are more original nowadays than we actually are?

I wrote an essay a while ago for the Irish literary journal Gorse about how modernism and postmodernism aren’t entirely modern inventions. I spent last year reading as many of the classics as I could get hold of and it amazed me how the likes of Ovid and Aristophanes were doing all the things we thought we’d created afresh in the early 20th century and since. Similarly the only self-help book worth reading, if you can call it that, is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which is about two thousand years old. Of course, writing and culture are vastly different now but originality is an elusive and, I think, a highly overrated idea. I’m not sure it exists and I’m not sure we should even want it to exist. Culture is an echo chamber and there’s more to be gained from embracing that than resisting or denying it.

There has been progress of course, particularly in technology and health care but, having recently witnessed the bloodiest century to date, there’s not much to suggest we’ve made much if any moral progress. At the same time, I have a healthy degree of scepticism towards those who say that progress is a myth; it may well be but it may be a necessary one. The reason our era is sliding into apathy and kleptocratic ruin is because we’ve abandoned all hope in anything remotely utopian. The filmmaker Adam Curtis is great on this – how we fear scientists as promethean technocrats and all politicians as liars and how in a sense it’s paralysed us. It’s not their fault but it is partly a consequence of having a century of dystopian literature. The one thing that Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin failed to foresee was their writings would, in a small way, bring about an age of cynical detachment that would strangely leave us vulnerable. The one benefit we do have now culturally and psychologically over those in ancient times is that there’s more of the past now to explore and learn from. We forget that the future is old and the past is like a vast scrapyard. It’s a radical rather than a conservative position and we should be raiding the scrapyard for what we can salvage.

What is the purpose of the book? Because you are showing that old authors wrote about how modern cities would be like. And they were right… Do you think that architecture have inspired by human imagination, human dreams? Has shown the architecture our narcissistic ideas throughout history?

I think it all comes down to a single image replicated a thousand times; the Tower of Babel falling. They built the tower as a direct challenge to god, to invade the heavens, to assert the primacy of humans over their deities. So pride, hubristic or otherwise, is why we build but also, more interestingly, there’s a sense of defying death. Deep down, everyone has an underlying sense of mortality and a desire to leave behind something to prove they existed, to make all this madness somehow meaningful. Equally, deep down, we know it will not last, that it is all doomed to ruins, like Ozymandias’ statue in the desert, but we do it anyway because the only other option is resignation. So like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, we start to build again from the ruins of Babel. My aim is to show such ideas have never and will never go away and how much myths permeate everywhere we live, no matter how shiny and modern and rationalist it seems. We cannot dispel our fictions because they are embedded in everything, including our heads.

I have read that the book started with Marco Polo and his amazing voyages. What do you think about this amazing explorer?

There’s something tragically heroic about going on vast extraordinary voyages and coming back to be ridiculed as ‘the man of a million lies’. He was an unreliable narrator in many ways but some of the most unbelievable tales he told (the Himalayas and the Chinese palaces for example) turned out to be true. For me, he’s belongs not only to the lineage of great explorers and adventurers but also to the great narrators who never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Those who mocked him should have been thrown bodily into the canals of Venice.

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What are the most similar imaginary cities to the reality? On your twitter account, I can watch a lot of street furniture and vehicles that we usually use now. Could you explain me some examples that have surprised you?

There’s a tendency to look back at all the retrofuture ideas from the 1920s to the 1950s and moan “Where’s my jetpack?” The truth is lots of the predictions came true, just in mind-numbingly disappointing forms. One of the reasons I loved the comic 2000AD as a child was because they rejected the DC/Marvel notion of comics as billionaire vigilantes in spandex beating up muggers and instead concentrated on the repercussions of the future. Judge Dredd’s Mega City One is a good example not just of satire but of exploring all the knock-on effects, the fashions, the cults, the way people would conform and resist. So rather than have a future in the style of The Jetsons or the early 20th century predictions of stone skyscrapers with multiple walkways and monorails, they had cities so complex and myriad that they appeared as chaos. Just like the present. The only lasting prophecy of any note being that people don’t really change.

A lot of illustrations books have shown the life in other planets. Do you think that is an inherent human desire?

I think we’ve always wondered what it is out there. I love the idea of people all the way back through history staring up at the moon and the stars and dreaming. I think what’s inherent is the tendency to project what we already know onto other planets and outer space. Utopian or dystopian writers used to do this with deserted islands but gradually as the earth was increasingly mapped, the focus shifted into the dark areas underground, under the sea and eventually into space. What they find there, however fantastical, always seems to resemble what already exists here on earth. So you find Star Trek mimicking these island utopias or Quartermain-type quests with Amazons, or Star Wars borrowing tropes from Kurosawa samurai films and John Ford westerns. You had it with the early astronomers seeing canals on Mars or herds of bison on the moon. There are very few works set in space that, for all their brilliance, can’t be fairly succinctly summarised as an old idea projected – Ridley Scott’s Alien, a film I love, is essentially a haunted house movie in space, while Avatar, a film I do not love, is Pocahontas in space. This again is part of understanding how inspiration and creativity work; nothing comes from nothing and the real creative geniuses are those who throw so many unlikely existing things together that they create something that at least appears new. Saying that, I’m intrigued to see if it’s possible to create a unique space (or future) genre beyond space opera or space western or space smuggling etc and I think in the likes of Delany, Ellison, Le Guin, Grant Morrison and China Miéville, it’s possibly happening.

On your twitter account, you have talked about the hypothetical creation of Google Myth Map or Google Medieval Map. Do you think we should use technologies for more imaginative purposes?

Most definitely. That’s something I’m keen to attempt after the book comes out (if anyone with the technical know-how is reading, get in touch). I keep coming back to the medieval Ebstorf Map with all its locations and legends and it seems ridiculous that we don’t have a modern equivalent, with all the myths of the world there to zoom into explore. At the very least, it would be an incredible repository of global and local stories. We have technology now that Borges and Calvino would have longed to be able to use and, in the name of all that is holy and unholy, we should use it.

And finally, have you imagined or dream about some imaginary cities that you want to exist? How do you think our cities will be (in novels or in the real world)?

Everyone reads Dante’s Inferno, hardly anyone bothers with Paradiso. There is something innately unattractive about utopias. In that sense, I’d probably wish for a sprawling vaguely hellish metropolis like Mieville’s New Crobuzon to exist, though just to visit rather than live there. Cities are fine when you can escape them. In a slightly more practical sense, I’d love to see the unbuilt buildings of the Russian Constructivists, Antonio Sant’Elia, the German Expressionist architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, Archigram and a thousand others be built. I’d love to see Gaudi’s Hotel Attraction in the New York skyline and buildings from the Tait Tower to Victor Horta’s Brussels return from the dead. I see no good reason why these things should not happen.

In terms of the future, I’ve quite a few ideas and not all of them absurd. One that I think we should be weary of though and it’s the future most frequently promised is the city of gleaming crystal skyscrapers, a tyranny disguised with cycle lanes, Children of Men with flavoured lattes. If that happens, you’ll find me in the Chestnut Tree Cafe, nursing a gin, sketching what could’ve been on the back of beer mats.

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