Italo Calvino's book, "Mr. Palomar," is a superbly crafted novel about an intellectual quest for order and reason in a chaotic and unreasonable world. Should this sound like rather dry and uninteresting reading, be assured that it is not. Calvino is a great story teller, and in Mr. Palomar he has found a character that provides him with a medium, a vehicle, to deliver stories of great beauty, humor, wit and pathos.
In books about the theories of complexity and chaos there is usually a chapter dedicated to the task of explaining that it is only in the boundary between order and chaos that all of the really interesting things are possible, including life. Mr. Palomar's mistake is in thinking that things would be better (or, at least he'd be less anxious) if he could just figure out how to get everything to calmly step over to the "ordered" side of the line. He is the twentieth century's Don Quixote, not on a romantic quest but an intellectual one; not fighting off the advancing windmills (that battle has already been lost), but desperately trying to reason his way into a moment of Zen-like clarity and peace.
It may seem that Mr. Palomar brings to his task of putting the world in order a formidable intellect. He is, indeed, very bright and often brilliant. But Calvino implies early and often that Mr. Palomar doesn't so much possess an intellect as he is possessed by one. Mr. Palomar may have the illusion that he brings his intellect to bear on one thing or another but, in truth, his intellect has its own agenda and Mr. Palomar is simply along for the ride.
It is Mr. Palomar's inability to escape his own intellect that produces both the funniest and saddest moments in the book. The chapter entitled "The Naked Bosom" reads like the misadventures of a philosophical "Mr. Bean." In it, Mr. Palomar is walking along the beach when he spots a young lady sunning herself topless. His initial experience quickly gives way to his trying to deliver a reasonable (a perfectly reasoned) response. Should he look away? Glance? Look for a moment with casual interest? More than casual interest? What is the correct response, free of cultural conditioning? Is his cultural upbringing out of date? As he passes by, he realizes that his thinking wasn't quite right, his response not quite perfect, so he turns around and tries it again ...
By the 4th pass, when he finally thinks he's got it right, the young woman has had enough, covers herself up, grabs her things and storms off. Mr. Palomar's reaction to the young woman's leaving in a "huff" is, as always, intellectually reasonable. He feels insulted that his efforts were not understood and he blames this, implicitly, on her failure to throw off the "dead weight of an intolerant tradition."
Calvino knew that what he was writing would be perceived not only at an intellectual level but also as humor and he crafts his story in a way that pays tribute to both, much as a great composer will intertwine melody and harmony. But he never wants us to forget that these melodies and harmonies are parts of a larger, more subtle theme: Mr. Palomar is imprisoned by a terrible irony: the only thing preventing him from experiencing the moment of clarity and beauty he is so desperate for is the overpowering intellect he is trying to find it with.
Mr. Palomar has far too much reason for the task and absolutely no sense. He can think, but he can't connect. This is why he has absolutely no idea how the young woman on the beach may have perceived him. Worse, he has no idea that she was anything other than a stage prop and audience for his quest for an "enlightened" response. Worse still, for him, he has no idea that he has no idea.
Contrary to what many critics have said of "Mr. Palomar," Calvino is not praising or even paying tribute to intellect or the powers of intellectual (and scientific) observation. His point is that having reason without sense (order without due respect for the messy, chaotic connections that life and living require) is an inescapable trap. In the end, Mr. Palomar's intellect is like a black hole. He begins quite pleased to find that everything comes to mind easily, and then discovers that nothing seems to be getting back out anymore. Then he spirals into himself trying to find some sense of who he is, some place from which to take a stand, but he ends up like a singularity. And then, in an instant, he is nothing at all.
Mr. Calvino makes his point in a way that is never didactic. He makes it in small, often subtle and frequently entertaining steps. If you accompany him along the way, he'll show you ocean waves, turtles, geckos, iguanas and weeds in the front lawn in ways you've never seen before. He'll do the same with goose fat, roof tops and, in another "Mr. Bean" moment, the stars. He'll have Mr. Palomar and an albino gorilla perform a duet for you, and perform a masterpiece in four-part harmony (played staccato, no less) with two birds and a married couple.
This book is without a doubt an intellectual treat, full of profound and deep observations. What makes it a book worthy of a 5 star rating, though, is that it is equally profound in ways our intellects can never fathom.