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Italo Calvino: Palomar (Mr. Palomar)

The title character of this novel is named after the Palomar Observatory and it is soon easy to see why. Mr. Palomar is an observer and not just an ordinary observer but an observer of the minutiae of what is going on around him. Like some of Calvino’s earlier works, the book has a formal structure. It is divided into three sections and each section is, in turn, divided into three sub-sections which are also divided into three sub-sub-sections. The three main sections are entitled The Holidays of Palomar, Palomar in Town and The Silences of Palomar. In each one, Palomar closely and carefully looks at his physical environment. For example, at the very beginning he stares at a wave. He is not staring at the waves but at a wave. This is a very complex procedure as it is not always possible to separate one wave from another, where is the best place to watch it, how can you watch an entire wave, along all of its length, and so on. In short, observing is not as simple as it seems.

While the first part of each section is concerned with simple observation of things, the second part is concerned more with living creatures and the anthropological nature of observation. Observing, for example, a topless woman sunbather on the beach brings a whole of range of cultural problems not least because for people of Palomar’s generation, as he points out, nudity is clearly associated with sex. The third section is concerned with more philosophical issues and man’s (or, at least, Palomar’s) place in the world. In this section on the beach, Palomar is swimming at sunset and pondering nature and his own existence. Of course, this could all be very boring but, in Calvino’s hands, it really works, as we see how one man, ordinary, in many senses but also eccentric, looks at his world and tries to interpret it in his own way. Does he succeed? The final chapter is called How to Learn to Be Dead and Palomar has convinced himself that, till he has described every moment of his life, he cannot die. But, like his creator, who was to die not long after, he does.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Einaudi
First published in English 1985 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich