"I can't remember to forget you." - Leonard Shelby, Memento
The 'invisible city' of Tamara in Italo Calvino's book is determined to jolt readers out of their comfort zones. Calvino substitutes words and phrases with symbols and signs; forcing the reader to do a double take, to reread passages both in part and in whole.
In Tamara, prints in the sand aren't just what they appear to be, instead they specifically indicate a tiger's passage. An hibiscus flower signifies the end of winter, not only the beginning of spring. Symbols are the building blocks of any society, just as our ancestors must have studied the elements to know when a day begun and when a storm was on its way.
Tamara's narrative shares similarities with 'Memento', the movie in which the lead character Leonard suffers from Anterograde amnesia. Just as in Memento, repetition is a memory aiding device or 'habit and routine' as Leonard puts it. In Tamara, no doubt after being in this city long enough Marco Polo would know not to urinate behind a kiosk. In Memento, Leonard kept little reminders or mementos, some, as drastic as tattoos over his body and others, as simple as a picture so he wouldn't forget to shave his left leg every morning. Marco Polo was learning an unspoken language just as Leonard was learning to live without being able to create new memories. So, despite their respective handicaps both had useful talents. One, to read things and the other, to read people.
The text also cleverly raises the point of how we give value to things and the ideas that they represent. Marco Polo, for example attributes an ankle bracelet to being voluptuous. Whereas in our society, it is an article of jewelry or a fashion statement.
Marco Polo uses personification to represent Tamara as a dominatrix who 'makes you repeat her discourse' and subjects you to 'recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.' Even upon leaving Tamara, Marco Polo is still affected. Looking for yet more symbols, more signs. He begins to see or imagine in the clouds images that represent his next journey; a sailing ship to take him home and a hand to guide the way.