Imaginary Cities

By Grau, Cristina | UNESCO Courier, February 1991 | Go to article overview

Imaginary Cities

Grau, Cristina, UNESCO Courier


Many famous writers have portrayed city life. They have taken over real cities and transformed them into literary objects and they have created imaginary cities with lives of their own. They have reconstructed urban settings from scattered fragments of memory, and have brought fame to cities that were previously unknown.

A stroll through the urban landscapes of literature reveals a variety of creations: cities depicted with a high degree of realism, cities in the abstract, cities which merely provide background atmosphere, and cities which are themselves protagonists in works of fiction.

The realistic city

Joyce's Dublin, Proust's Paris, Kafka's Prague, and the Buenos Aires of Borges are realistically depicted cities which help to shape the course of the fictional events which take place in them.

Although Kafka rarely refers to Prague in his novels and short stories, his native city has a very special place in them. Prague is never actually named in The Trial, for example, but the meandering corridors and passages, the disconnected settings through which Joseph K. wanders in an attempt to find out why he is being tried, evoke the atmosphere of Gothic Prague and the labyrinth of narrow streets in its Jewish district.

The city is seen as if in a dream or through the mists of memory, in black and white, with the contrasts of light and shadow that appear in Expressionist films. The impression of being in a dream is reinforced by topological distortions (as when something distant suddenly seems very near, and vice versa) and by changes of scale which make space seem to expand or contract, depending on K.'s state of mind. The vision of reality is phantasmagoric.

The building in which K.'s trial is to be held "was of unusual extent, the main entrance was particularly high", but when K. enters it he gets lost in a maze of corridors, landings, stairways and empty rooms--it is more like a tenement than a law court. On another occasion, K. opens the door of a lumber-room in the bank where he works and "finds himself suddenly in the court precincts".

In his story Amerika, Kafka depicts New York, where he never set foot, as an abstract, futuristic version of Prague. The outstanding features are the towering skyscrapers and geometric layout that differentiate it most strongly from his native city, with its labyrinth of winding streets and alleyways. When Karl, the hero of the story, leans over the balcony of his uncle's New York house (a balcony is not exactly typical of New York buildings), he is fascinated by the sight of the street which "ran perfectly straight between two rows of squarely chopped buildings and therefore seemed to be fleeing into the distance". Here too, the city is perceived in monochrome. Despite the crowds and the skyscrapers, Kafka's imaginary New York does not exist except in terms of Prague, which he uses as a kind of blueprint.

The camouflaged


Many cities in literature are inspired by real cities whose names are changed, perhaps because the author wishes to eliminate local colour, to conceal the true identity of the characters, or simply wants a better-sounding name than the original. But even under its new name, the real city can still be seen beneath the camouflage. Vetusta, the setting of The Regent's Wife by the Spanish novelist Clarin (Leopoldo Alas) is a faithful reflection of the Spanish city of Oviedo. What is most memorable in Clarin's description is the sense of space which can be felt from the very first chapter in which a priest climbs to the top of the cathedral bell-tower to spy through a telescope on the comings and goings of parishioners who reveal their sins to him in the confessional.

The little town of Illiers near Chartres (south of Paris) was immortalized as Combray in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu and is now officially known as Illiers-Combray. …

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