Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95; 126 pp.)
For the late Italo Calvino's Mr. Palomar, life is a bicycle that topples over the moment he begins to meditate upon his balance.
He always does meditate, this post-Einsteinian Everyman. He is pure consciousness and no experience. He is Calvino's wry notion of where we stand in the modern universe. He is naked, alone, inhabiting a society that does not touch or sustain him and mistrusting sensation, the solidity of the physical world and his own existence.
He is a geometer without axioms and, as Euclid knew, you cannot do geometry that way. But in 27 brief episodes, Calvino sends him off to try to figure out some aspect or other of the everyday world. He sets out resolutely each time, confident that he will make sense out of things; and returns, baffled, clutching some exotic insight that quite fails to fit in with anything else.
Like the bearded man who got no sleep after somebody asked him whether he slept with his whiskers on top of the sheet or underneath, Mr. Palomar finds a distressing puzzlement in the smallest events.
He goes to the seaside and decides to look at a wave. But how do you look at a single wave? Where does it separate from the one behind it? How far down the beach is it the same wave? "Mr. Palomar goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything."
But this is nothing compared to walking past a sunbather who has taken off the top of her bathing suit. Palomar politely averts his eyes; then he worries about being reactionary. "I create a mental brassiere suspended between my eyes and that bosom," he scolds himself. So he walks back again, this time taking the woman in with the same unwavering gaze he directs at the sand and the water.
But this reduces the human to the level of an object, he reflects. Back he goes once more. This time he takes a quick, deferential peek and looks away. But it is still unsatisfactory and so he returns a third time--at which point, the indignant woman gets up and walks off.
Doubt propels Palomar through his days and sometimes as far afield as Paris, Barcelona and Kyoto. Blackbirds sing in his garden, and he wonders whether he should join in. What are their two notes saying; or are the notes simply punctuation, with the message coming in the pauses between them?
With the ghost of Bishop Berkeley chilly on his heels, Palomar is not certain about his responsibility to the universe. The moon should be looked at in the afternoon, when it is faint and "when it most needs attention since its existence is still in doubt." He rushes around, perpetually behind in his task of witnessing things so that they can be. He is the attentive host at a party whose guests speak a language he doesn't understand.
Because of his name he has a certain influence in astronomy circles, and gets the loan of a telescope. The planets take on moral characters: Jupiter is classical and stolid, Saturn is exciting, and as for Mars, "it is a more perplexed planet than it appears to the naked eye."
Palomar visits zoos, a Japanese shrine and the Mayan ruins at Tula. A Mexican friend delivers a subtle and sophisticated account of what the Mayans were like, but Palomar's attention is drawn to a rural schoolteacher shepherding his charges around the ruins. The teacher restricts himself to naming the objects and, as if to ward off questions, saying over and over again: "We don't know what it means." There may be more truth, Palomar reflects, in this untutored refusal to speculate about what is gone than in the entire corpus of archaeological and anthropological theory.
At the Barcelona Zoo, he watches the albino gorilla. Its gaze "expresses all the resignation at being the way he is, sole exemplar in the world of a form not chosen, not loved, all the effort of bearing his own singularity, and the suffering at occupying space and time with his presence so cumbersome and evident."
The gorilla clutches a tire, and Palomar sees in it "what for man is the search for an escape from the dismay of living--investing oneself in things, recognizing oneself in signs, transforming the world into a collection of symbols." Later he reflects:
"We all turn in our hands an old empty tire through which we try to reach some final meaning, which words cannot achieve." Did Italo Calvino, through Palomar's eyes, see himself in the white gorilla and his tire?
In his best work, Calvino, who died just weeks ago, brought out an image of man's existence as both estranged and magical. His characters look at the world with a puzzled innocence and reinvent what they do not understand. It is fragile and exciting, and cosmic loneliness is held in a glittering balance with cosmic possibility.
The best of the Palomar fragments keep up this balance, but in many of them we get a sense of something tiring and forced. If the gorilla passage is moving and the topless quandary delightfully absurd, a certain aridity has crept in elsewhere. Palomar was only fitfully our exemplar as human firefly in the modern labyrinth. He buzzes more than he glows, his energy flags, and his paradoxes become intellectual exercises.