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This is a sprightly and accessible tour of the mind of an ordinary man on a quest to see the world in simpler, truer terms and thereby reduce his anxiety with its confusion and paradoxes. In a series of 27 vignettes, he takes his common experience from the natural and human world as a series of problems in looking and interpreting the nature of reality. These little episodes or essays sometimes have the flavor of whimsy, sometimes of spiritual mediation, and other times of what you could be considered natural language philosophy. The character often seems brave in his dedication and other times foolish for proceeding with no attempt at recourse to accomplishments of scientists and philosophers. For some reason Calvino put the table of contents and information about a pattern to its segments at the back of the book. Maybe he expects the reader will get a special pleasure from discovering that on his own. Thus, in simplified terms I say only that a prospective reader should expect a progression with each three vignettes from a perceptual issue, to one concerned with human meanings and symbols, and ending with one that focuses on an abstract topic dealing with time, the cosmos, or relations between the self and the world. Settings for the reveries are diverse, including the beach on vacation, his garden and terrace in Rome, a trip to the zoo, shopping for food in Paris, a visit to a Zen garden in Japan, and a stop with tourists at an archeological site with carvings related to human sacrifice in Mexico. In most cases he ends with lessons learned about the contrasting realities of different perspectives and the challenges in harmonizing the relativity of truth. In one of my favorite pieces, he experiences while swimming at dusk the a sword of light sparkling in the water that moves with him. “This is a special homage the sun pays to me personally,” Mr. Palomar is tempted to think, or rather, the egocentric megalomaniac ego that dwells in him is tempted to think. But the depressive and self-wounding ego that dwells with the other in the same container, rebuts, “Everyone with eyes sees the reflection that follows him; illusion of the senses and of the mind holds us all prisoners, always.” A third tenant, a more even-handed ego, speaks up: “This means that, no matter what, I belong to the feeling and thinking subjects, capable of establishing a relationship with the sun’s rays, and of interpreting and evaluating perceptions and illusions. “All this is happening not on the sea, but in the sun,” the swimmer Mr.Palomar thinks, but inside my head, in the circuits between eyes and brain. I am swimming in my mind; this sword of light exists only there; and this is precisely what attracts me. This is my element. The only one I can know in some way”.That may be a little abstract and dreamy for your taste, though I believe most of us have experienced a comparable satori without putting it in words. In one of the pieces I like that sheds light on human elements, he touched my heart over his innocence and the lonely isolation he is putting himself into. In this one he is dwelling on the possible meanings of the two-note calls of blackbirds to each other and the potential significance of the silence between calls. He recognizes how the telegraphic utterances between him and his wife (she says “Here they are” and he follows with “Sshh”) may share a lot of comparable hidden meanings. As usual, he has no easy summary of the knowledge he gains from his efforts:The equal whistle of man and blackbird seems to him a bridge thrown over the abyss…between what and what? Nature and culture? Silence and speech? Mr.Palomar always hopes that silence contains more than language can say. But what if language was really the goal toward which everything in existence tends? Or what if everything that exists were language and has been since the beginning of time? Here Mr. Palomar is again gripped by anguish.As an example on one of his whimsical pieces, a visit to a Paris cheese shop has him torn between wanting to taste everything and the urge to home exactly the cheese that somehow is his alone. Each one seems the “legacy of a knowledge accumulated by a civilization through all its history and geography.” I empathize with this reflection: There is a reciprocal relationship between cheese and customer: each cheese awaits its customer, poses so as to attract him, with a firmness or somewhat hauty graininess, or, on the contrary, by melting in submissive abandon.Toward the end he begins to question his own enterprise. The looking at the world through the windows of his eyes as a source of true knowledge is undermined by his own mind being part of that world. And the uncertain veracity of the world looking at the world depends on his choice of what to look at and the timing of the looking. Looking at the stars uplifts him with a sense of infinite space and timelessness, but renders his own life as insignificant. An epiphany about connectedness of it all leads him to the absurdity that a compression in the Andromeda Galaxy might influence the freshness of his watercress. Still, it seems clear that knowledge of the larger reality depends on knowledge of his own self and that he needs to learn to be more social to achieve the ease of special people who always seem to know the right things to say and be able to help others do the same. They seem to truly be in harmony with the world: “To the man who is the friend of the universe, the universe is a friend”. By comparison “everything he says or does proves clumsy, jarring, irresolute”, and in turn comforts of looking at the starry sky begins to acquire the perspective of a “stalled mechanism, which jerks and creaks in all its unoiled joints, outposts of and endangered universe, twisted, restless as he is. He turns to the ultimate task of imagining the harmony of being dead, an ultimate irony for Mr. Palomar’s admirable quest and suitable conclusion to this elegant parable about the human journey.

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