What, in your opinion, is the intended effect of Palomar on the reader
It is difficult to differentiate between a book’s intended effect and its actual effect, especially when dealing with an author as well known and as renowned as Calvino, because it is understandable to agree that the effect he intended was the same as the effect he achieved. However, in order to examine Calvino’s aims properly it is important to realise his personal views on Palomar. It is said that Palomar is in part an autobiographical novel. Palomar is not Calvino, but Palomar’s way of thinking, his dilemmas and confusion about his own life philosophy mirror the way that Calvino, to an extent, led his own life.
Calvino intended to make Palomar a laughable character. At first, we might think that Palomar’s way of dealing with life is an admirable one – questioning everything and trying to come up with his own philosophy rather than following the masses and ignoring the possiblity of “knowledge”. To an extent, Palomar’s quest for knowledge is a good thing and Calvino intended to put this across. Ironically, however, it is this quest for knowledge which also makes Palomar a laughable, unenviable character because he simply tries too hard to know. The cheeses in the shop could no doubt be interesting if Palomar’s interest in them had not impeded his actual choosing of one. His over-analysis of this situation to try to clarify it, and in every other situation he finds himself in, has the opposite effect and eventually makes things unclear and unmanageable for Palomar. There is a line between useful questioning of things and over-questioning of things to blow them out of proportion. Palomar crosses this line every time, which is what makes the book humourous.
Another example of this type of humour is in the chapter ‘Il seno nudo’, where Palomar deliberates whether to look at the woman sunbathing topless on the beach or not, and if so, how to approach the situation – whether to walk past as if she was not there, or deliberately to look, or not too look at all. There are two ironically humourous sides to this story. The first is that, in the end, Palomar comes to the conclusion that he should simply walk past her and look, which is what he might have done in the first place without having thought about it. The second part of Calvino’s way of making fun of Palomar is that all his indecisions have led him to walk past the sunbather several times until eventually she is offended by him. There are two points that Calvino wishes to make. The first is that Palomar does not need to think in order to come to a sensible conclusion. The second is that his constant dilemmas and deliberations have a negative effect – they cause him to appear (and to be) detached from what is really going on in front of him, despite the fact that he is questioning that very thing.
Palomar consists of twenty seven chapters, each one of them relating to a different aspect of Palomar’s everyday life. Each of them contains a series of Palomar’s personal reflections on his immediate situation. The reader is allowed as far into Palomar’s mind as Palomar himself. As this is the case, one might think that Calvino meant for Palomar to be a personal novel in which the reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for the protagonist. However, the novel is written entirely in the third person and although the internal workings of Palomar’s mind are given to us, as well as details of his everyday life, we are given no indication of how he actually feels about any of it.
There seems to be no emotion involved in Palomar’s thoughts. It is ironic that the further he tries to explore himself and his own thoughts, he becomes more and more detached from his immediate surroundings and activity. The use of third person in itself signifies detachment between Palomar and Calvino. Although Palomar’s musings are partly autobiographical, if there is one message that Calvino conveys in Palomar, it is that Palomar’s constant questioning is not a useful or productive way to live. Calvino laughs at him because there some of his (previous) personality traits are alive in Palomar and Calvino has evidently come far enough in his life to realise that wisdom and knowledge do not come from excessive searching.
In the case of Palomar, it is perhaps difficult to expect the author’s intentions and the reader’s perception to be the same, especially when the novel is reflective of the author’s own self. Whilst Calvino wants Palomar to be detached and unemotional, analysing everything and doing nothing, leading a sad but unpitiable life, the reader does feel a certain amount of sympathy for Palomar. It is perhaps true that Palomar brings his sufferings upon himself, but it is also true to say that Palomar does not want to be unhappy or to be so obsessive about everything.
Here, Palomar realises his predicament. He understands the error of his ways but is unable to put himself right. This is largely why the reader feels pity for Palomar. He is not deliberately ignorant – in fact, he strives for knowledge. He is not unpleasant – he tries not to offend the sunbather in ‘Il seno nudo’, he yields to his daughter’s wishes at the zoo. For these reasons, the reader does not despise Palomar. There is not a great deal of room for feeling warmth or concern towards him – the worst the reader can be is perhaps slightly scornful, or indifferent.
The name ‘Palomar’ is a type of telescope. This is highly significant to the book as a whole. In the chapter ‘La contemplazione delle stelle’ Palomar uses a telescope to try to see the sky more clearly. However, he soon comes to the conclusion that he prefers to see it without the telescope, with the naked eye. The telescope represents Palomar’s thinking mind, an instrument that he uses to try to see the universe more clearly, but which actually makes things less clear and more superficial. If Palomar applied this philosophy to the rest of his life, it is possible that he would be a much more stable and contented person.
The book’s structure is a symbol of Palomar’s attempt to classify things, to see things in a rigid pattern and to give them form. It is this division of the whole (the whole book) that actually causes Palomar his problems. It is as though he cannot apply the ideas he has learnt in one chapter of the book to any other chapter. It is noticeable, on this point, that it is only in the last chapter, ‘Come imparare a essere morto’ that Calvino refers to previous chapters. Finally, Palomar can see that the division and sub-division of the world into infinite categories, such as the lawn in ‘Il prato infinito’ is the opposite of the actual truth of the world.
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