The invisible city of Polopolis is half way, by most compasses, between here and Cathay. It has always been a place for meeting – cultures delicately touch one another there as the moon kisses the water on its river, known by the same name as the city’s marketplace, ‘Il Milione’. Leaders meet there, too, to discuss their affairs of state, knowing that this is a place of the moment and the record books will not judge them here – and that Il Milione will carry their words away if they regret them. So long are these moments that much of the city is populated by these leaders’ descendants.
There are no record books in Polopolis, then: all is talk, and all history is oral. History is made most intensely at Il Milione, the marketplace, where thousands gather every day to trade, negotiate, accuse, reconcile or befriend. There, over there, are lost twins reunited after years at the opposite edges of the city (there are no gates, of course), smiling to discover their wives and children have completely different names; to their right, a carpet maker shows off his craftsmanship, so finely woven in so many colours one cannot tell where each thread begins or ends.
Polopolis has three quarters, known as Niccolo, Maffeo and Marco, though no two estate agents can agree on where exactly their boundaries lie: that fine apartment building you see, with roof tiles the colour of the sky, is championed by one as being in ‘Maffeo borders’, and another ‘where Niccolo and Marco meet’.
Il Milione itself is not one broad channel, but an endless series of bifurcations and rejoinings, sometimes ducking under the houses and at others flaunting itself in ornamental lakes; everywhere there are bridges, and each has its resident mathematician, frowning the long weary hours away as she contemplates the shortest route from one place to another. “We both step and do not step in the same rivers” is the old philosopher’s inscription on the perfect masonry of the arch above the city hall.
I have been to Polopolis myself, and sometimes it feels as if I never left.