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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

Mr. Palomar is a group of twenty-seven mostly benign meditations on—or, more accurately, observations of—the natural world. There is no connected story line, though the novel culminates in the death of the central character, yet each thoughtful vignette does proffer some insight via Palomar himself. These are the observations of a man temperamentally unsuited for any scientific enterprise, anguished over the disconnectedness he feels between himself and the rest of the universe, and eager to discover some appropriate relationship. The reader is also part of that alien universe, since the only access to Mr. Palomar is through the third-person narrative; the reader is the observer of the observer.

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It is left to the reader to notice a thematic index at the conclusion of the novel. Italo Calvino explains that each chapter contains various admixtures of three themes, and that its position in the index indicates the proportion. Primarily visual descriptions are indicated by “1”; those chapters which are most narrative are labeled “2”; “3” indicates speculative meditation. Each of the three major divisions of the book (“1. Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”; “2. Mr. Palomar in the City”; and “3. The Silences of Mr. Palomar”) is further divided into three groups of three chapters. The first chapter (labeled 1.1.1., “Reading a Wave”) is ostensibly the most visually oriented. The sixth chapter (1.2.3., “The Infinite Lawn”) is a mixture of description, story, and meditation. The fifth chapter of the second division (2.2.2., “The Cheese Museum”) is mostly narrative, and the final chapter of the third division (3.3.3., “Learning to Be Dead”) is the most speculative.

Is this index descriptive or prescriptive? If the former, there is after all a kind of movement in the novel, as if, in fits and starts, Mr. Palomar finds that he needs more and more abstract speculation to achieve harmony with the universe. In “Serpents and Skulls” (3.1.2.), Mr. Palomar visits the remains of a pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. His unnamed Mexican friend spins artful tales of the god Quetzalcoatl while nearby a group of schoolchildren is told by their instructor that, though the ancient carvings can be described and even dated, no one knows what they mean. Mr. Palomar observes that somehow his friend has translated mere descriptions (facts) into something living (meaning). Mr. Palomar sees in himself “the need to translate, to move from one language to another, from concrete figures to abstract words, to weave and reweave a network of analogies. Not to interpret is impossible, as refraining from thinking is impossible.” When Mr. Palomar considers his own place in the universe, mere observation is not enough.

If the index is prescriptive, it may be that Calvino is having a little joke on his own creation. In the third section of the book, the twenty-fifth chapter is entitled “The World Looks at the World” (3.3.1.). In this meditation Mr. Palomar realizes that his own ego is preventing him from seeing what the world wants him to see. He determines to become the eyes of the world, by an act of will observing everything from “outside.” Yet nothing changes, and Mr. Palomar begins to understand that in order for meaning to occur, “From the mute distance of things a sign must come, a summons, a wink: one thing detaches itself from the other things with the intention of signifying something....” At some unforeseen moment, some part of the universe must want to be seen just at the time Mr. Palomar is looking. The joke here is that in Mr. Palomar’s anguish to find meaning and connection for his life, the author of the story has been precisely ordering and juxtaposing events and making connections (“signifying something”), of which poor Mr. Palomar seems all too unaware.

Mr. Palomar begins quietly enough with Mr. Palomar on the beach, observing the waves, trying to take in all there is to see of a small portion of the waterfront, and, having looked, to move on to yet other patches of the beach. The waves have been looked at, but they do not divulge their meaning. What is vexing for Mr. Palomar is not the change in the waves, but that for him to comprehend what he is seeing he must understand himself as a particular person watching the waves and then interpret this understanding, which in turn must become part of a larger system interpreting the interpretation. At another time, watching an albino gorilla in the Barcelona Zoo grasp a rubber tire,Mr. Palomar feels he understands the gorilla perfectly, his need for something to hold tight while everything eludes him, a thing with which to allay the anguish of isolation,...of the sentence of being always considered a living phenomenon.... We all turn in our hands an old, empty tire through which we try to reach some final meaning, which words cannot achieve.

The third and final major section of the novel, “The Silences of Mr. Palomar,” is in effect Mr. Palomar’s working out of the lesson learned from the gorilla. The world has little need for Mr. Palomar’s words and can get along just as well without them, and without him. Therefore he will withdraw his attention from the world, acting as if he were dead. This has the beneficial effect of providing Mr. Palomar with an absolute to hold on to, namely himself-as-dead, unchanging, and unchanged by the prickly interactions with the rest of the universe. In his silence Mr. Palomar will have himself: an old, empty tire. By drawing the end of his life, Mr. Palomar can then begin to catalog the collection of each of his life experiences. Since he was unable to place bounds on the universe and catalog its moments, he will turn to himself as a project. His inner architecture will be fixed as he learns to be dead, and his catalog will in the end provide the text for a full understanding of himself. Yet only a living Mr. Palomar can catalog himself. Pressed with the paradox of the same person being both living observer (ever changing as he observes his own observations) and an unchanging, bounded object, Mr. Palomar dies.

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Themes