MR Palomar


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Mr Palomar is a delightful eccentric whose chief activity is looking at things. He is seeking knowledge; 'it is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath'. Whether contemplating a fine cheese, a hungry gecko, a woman sunbathing topless or a flight of migrant starlings, Mr Palomar's observations render the world afresh.

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Nov 16, 2019

Observing Mr. Palomar

Italo Calvino's short novel, "Mr. Palomar" (1983) is a thoughtful, philosophical work, elegantly written. As is sometimes the case with novels of ideas, the book is static with little in the way of action, drama, or character development. It is meditative with an overabundance of factual minutiae in places with the result that neither the story nor the ideas come through well.

There are, nevertheless, a few good scenes in the book, good use of irony and ambiguity, and some provocative ideas. Thus, at the conclusion of a chapter, presenting Palomar's reflections from his terrace, he observes that "[i]t is only after you have come to know the surface of things, that you can venture to seek what is underneath.... But the surface of things is inexhaustible." This is stuff for thought. But it is buried here in too much tedium.

Instead of a clear plot, "Mr Palomar" consists of a number of short vignettes, elaborately organized under an index at the conclusion. The vignettes involve the meditations of Mr. Palomar, named after the famous telescope, who is an observer of nature, people, and his mind. He is quiet and reserved and keeps aloof from the hurly-burly of the everyday. The episodes take place in various locations, the beach, Palomar's home, Paris, Japan, and elsewhere, and it may be that he is to be taken as a symbol rather than as a real character.

The story is told with irony. The reader is meant to contrast the virtues of thought, restraint, self-sufficiency, and reserve in Mr Palomar with his alienation from the larger culture and with his aloneness and eccentricities. The stories follow a pattern in which Mr. Palomar's thoughts and experiences go radically off course as he is confronted with the reality of a world independent of his wishes.

The most memorable portion of this book is a chapter titled "The Naked Bosom" in which Mr. Palomar thinks about and responds to a topless sunbather on the beach. His thoughts include irony, a wry discussion of the relationship between the sexes, and a good illustration of how human sexuality stands outside of the order of nature, somehow, even to the most detached observer.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the book is much more slowly paced, loses itself in a welter of detail, and, for me, quickly becomes dull. I found that there just isn't enough to fasten upon here to make this book work successfully either as philosophy or novel.

Robin Friedman

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