Mr. Palomar (published in Italy in 1983 as Palomar) joins an ample body of work by the late Italo Calvino, the best-known author of Italian fiction in the twentieth century. Calvino’s works, both short stories and novels, seem to run in two streams or extremes. On the one hand, he is known as a masterful storyteller, as is suggested by his popular Italian Folktales (1956). On the other, he has attained even more fame as an innovator of and experimenter with fictional form (see, for example If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1979). While it may seem contradictory to acclaim an author as both a grand storyteller and as one who shuns traditional narrative to focus on form, both extremes work for Calvino, perhaps because of his clear devotion to writing and to language.
The fact that so many of Calvino’s works have been translated into English, as well as into many other languages, attests the universal appeal of his writing. Mr. Palomar should prove equally successful. As to which stream it follows, readers should be aware that there is no full story here. Instead, Calvino offers glimpses into the thoughts (rather than the life) of one Mr. Palomar, about whom the reader knows very little, at least in terms of conventional characterization. Yet, what Mr. Palomar thinks about his surroundings finally does reveal much about his own character and about twentieth century man in his technical world.
Mr. Palomar consists of a series of anecdotal visions and analyses. One follows the protagonist as he moves from place to place, contemplating aspects of nature and civilization. The basic divisions of the novel are three: “Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”; “Mr. Palomar in the City”; and “The Silences of Mr. Palomar.” Following Calvino’s attachment to numerical symmetries, each of these sections is subdivided into three, and these, in turn, have three sections. Thus in the vacation segment, Mr. Palomar’s thoughts are focused on phenomena that he encounters at the beach (a wave, a topless bather, and a sun ray); in the garden (tortoises mating, blackbirds’ whistles, and the idea of a lawn); and in contemplation of the sky (the moon, the planets, and the stars).
Mr. Palomar seems obsessed by his personal relationship with the cosmos. In the segment on the sun’s ray, for example, he resists leaving the sea, for he perceives a direct link with the sun based on the fact that, as he swims westward, the sun’s sword appears to move with him. He has a similar reaction to his viewing of the moon, although he finally gives that up, too: “At this point, assured that the moon no longer needs him, Mr. Palomar goes home.”
This personalized relationship is but one way to establish a link with his surroundings. Another, even more prevalent, is to analyze, in minute detail, all that he sees. It is not a coincidence that the protagonist shares his name with a famous observatory (Mount Palomar in California). To make sure that no reader misses the connection, Calvino includes a specific reference to the telescope in the section devoted to the planets. By examining his environment so closely, Mr. Palomar would seem to make it his own. His desire would be to master one element, then move on to another, slowly but surely conquering the universe.
The pattern is announced in the very first section, entitled “Reading a wave.” At first glance, the reader might well mistake the “reading” for “riding,” as the letters are very close, and riding is an activity one associates with waves. Mr. Palomar, however, is not an active man, as the reader will soon learn. Instead, he is a passive individual who analyzes, in addition to those things mentioned from the first section, such items as going shopping to buy goose fat or cheese, going to the zoo, and thinking about death. For Mr. Palomar, even a trip to the cheese shop can turn into an allegory of life.
One might very well question the type of life Mr. Palomar leads, if he spends so much time analyzing....
(The entire section is 1661 words.)