Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Italo Calvino - 'Mr Palomar'

There's a sleight of hand going on with Mr Palomar. As a character, he's barely there in his own story, being merely present at the events it encompasses, often playing no part at all. On the occasions when he does, it's usually to be sneered at by passers by. He's a watcher, a thinker, an insignificant ponderer. His creator appears to have no more regard for his character's social significance than do George and Weedon Grossmith for Mr Pooter's, but there is a further point being made, that solitary observations can themselves be more significant than social success, and by many orders of magnitude. To be lost in contemplation of a wave, a cheese counter, or an albino gorilla; giving up TV to watch a gecko illuminated on a window. The gecko's elaborate form inspires the thought:

...you begin to wonder if all that perfection is not squandered, in view of the limited operations it performs. Or is this perhaps the secret: content to be, does he reduce his doing to the minimum? Can this be the lesson, the opposite of the morality that, in his youth, Mr Palomar wanted to make his: to strive always to do something a bit beyond one's means? (p.54)
Mr Palomar does strive to act, or at least to understand, beyond his means, but he does it slowly, steadily, always making sure of his footing. In the opening chapter he gazes out at the ocean but tries to isolate a single wave - because how can he understand the ocean without a firm grasp of its constituent parts? This is typically his approach, and the only time he reverses it he comes unstuck: in 'The Universe as a Mirror', deciding that he's insufficiently at ease with people, this happens:
All his efforts, from now on, will be directed towards achieving a harmony both with the human race, his neighbor, and with the most distant spiral of the system of the galaxies. To begin with, since his neighbor has too many problems, Palomar will try to improve his relations with the universe. (p.105)
He fetches his telescope. His logic is wonderfully warped here, past breaking point. There is clearly no connection between astronomy and always having the right thing to say. Elsewhere, Palomar's leaps are equally abrupt but less nonsensical. Watching Copito de Nieve the albino gorilla playing with a tire, Palomar glimpses the root of language, culture, civilisation:
For 'Copito de Nieve' [...] the contact with the tire seems to be something affective, possessive, and somehow symbolic. From it he can have a glimpse of what for man is the search for an escape from the dismay of living: investing oneself in things, recognising oneself in signs, transforming the world into a collection of symbols; a first daybreak of culture in the long biological night. (p. 74)
There's a balance between Palomar's ridiculousness and his wisdom, but the most important thing, it seems, is taking an interest, and really seriously looking at the things around you - because if you look hard enough, there nearly always is interest to be found, extrapolations to be made. This is why it makes sense for Momus to be recommending Palomar, and that's where I heard about him.

(Quotations from William Weaver's translation, Vintage 1999)

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