Note: this is based upon one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible cities, Eusapia (pp 96 – 97, Invisible Cities, Vintage Classics).
A city by the name of Eusapia has an underground city, identical to its surface city dedicated entirely to the dead. A city by the name of Rema has taken Eusapia’s unique design and followed it. Except in Rema the living and the dead have swapped places. The deceased now inhabit the surface and the living occupy the subterranean depths.
Why this reversal of positions? A rebellion against logic? A clumsy, misguided attempt to give the dead life? The real reason is that it is an attempt by the city of Rema to hide from the outside world. By retreating underground Rema hopes that the wider world will forget about it, and allow it to exist without torment and vexation. Instead, the city will be seen as dead and soon it will be forgotten, forsaken by those who once knew it, now free to exist by its own rules and whims.
The effect when entering Rema is quite extraordinary. You wander around the deserted streets, looking for someone, anyone to speak to. In the near distance you see someone and you run over to them, shouting. You fail to see a reaction or hear a reply. As you get even closer you realise that the person you were shouting to is a skeleton. You look around and you begin to realize that everyone is a skeleton. Skeleton’s all resembling the living. Skeletons reading books, playing musical instruments, sitting in cafes, working in offices, playing sports and praying in churches. The dead arranged as if they are the living, participating in one colossal, transcendent danse macabre.
While in this altered state, you hear a noise. You look around and eventually realise that it could not come from this city, for it is dead. After a while the fact dawns on you that the noise is coming from below. Placing an ear to the ground you begin to hear conversations, shouts, cars, music and the sound of a train horn. Looking around you remove a manhole cover and you see the living Rema, underground. A living, breathing city with hustle and bustle, with bright lights and busy streets. A fully functional city isolated from everything and everywhere else.
The dead arrive on the surface via the underground. Waiting till nightfall, a select group take the skeletal remains of the dead and transfer them to the surface. Once there the dead are arranged in such a way that they will do whatever they enjoyed most in life, in death. Bibliophiles will read for eternity, and hard workers will work their profession everlastingly. The people of Rema know when it is dark is when light no longer comes through the manhole covers. Once the light has faded on the surface, the guardians of the dead take the deceased to the surface, and immortalize them in a way most befitting the way they existed during mortality.
However everything is not as it seems in Rema. For if the living went underground to avoid the scourge of the outside world Rema’s population have forgotten just how large and complex a city is. A city is so massive and elaborate that it will inevitably create its own complexities and challenges. Just like a set of numbers will have an anomaly a city will eventually develop its own faults and fissures. And with Rema retreating to the underground there is no one who is able to help the residents of the city. On the surface of Rema though the dead face no such problems living their lives in a perfect peace and harmony, albeit an existence the dead cannot enjoy.
This leaves the living residents of Rema with a terrifying truth. They have traded places with the dead. They now inhabit a hell that they can experience, in all its abhorrent glory. The dead now inhabit a heaven they cannot possibly enjoy.