Franklin Pezzuti Dyer

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Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar is a book of short stories by Italo Calvino. It consists of the observations of the curious protagonist Mr. Palomar, whose tendency to overanalyze mundane things results sometimes in profound realizations and other times in comical silliness. What I enjoy most about this book is its ability to point out the sublime aspect of everyday occurrences and objects. In this post, I’ve tried to write a few short stories using Calvino’s style in a way that displays the results of my own tendency towards overanalysis. If I decide to write more such stories in the future, I’ll add them to this post. Enjoy!

The earthworms

It has just rained: the largest storm clouds have already disappeared and the merciless sun vaporizes puddles on the concrete, producing a humid and suffocating mugginess. Along and above the path, the remaining droplets fall from protruding leaves and sprinkle Mr. Palomar’s jacket. Although the swampy environment prevents him from fully enjoying his stroll, he always finds the perfume of the plants after a rainstorm agreeable.

A subtle and incessant movement from below attracts his attention. Mr. Palomar stops walking immediately upon perceiving the horrible spectacle before him: dozens of worms, scattered all about, are writhing on top of the dry concrete. Presumably, the rain tempted them to escape from the earth, but now they find themselves trapped in a desert of pavement. Some of them already have withered, blackened, and crunchy skin. The worm just in front of his foot bends its purple extremity upwards in desperation as if to plead for help, and Mr. Palomar is overcome by sudden anguish.

He begins to bend down to save it and return it to the humid foliage, but he stops himself. What would saving this worm really accomplish? he thinks. There are probably more than one hundred worms along this path, suffering a long and painful death at this very moment. Rescuing one single worm wouldn’t be worth anything unless he would be willing to go around and help all of them. Even then, thousands more would suffer on other sidewalks around the city without hope of salvation.

In fact, he realizes, to pick up this earthworm and toss it in the shade would have been a horrible deed. It would have allowed him to consider himself just and benevolent despite having done nothing of significance. Peace of mind can’t be bought so easily, Mr. Palomar assures himself.

Despite his pride for having noticed and prevented this error, he fears that the very fact that he had felt so compelled to commit such an act could be a symptom of a grave underlying moral defect. Not being completely ignorant, Mr. Palomar knows that millions of people lack food, potable water, or safe shelter. But, for some reason, this knowledge has never inspired in him as much compassion as that worm, which is more of a biological machine than a conscious being worthy of his sympathy. Perhaps his “sympathy” doesn’t arise from a desire to remedy the wrongs of the world, but rather to hide them from himself and avoid confronting them - nothing more than mere veiled selfishness.

How wonderful to have eliminated this insidious self-deception! Mr. Palomar promises himself that, upon returning home, he’ll do some research into the most effective charities and contribute a sum of his own money. That way, he can be happy about having done some real good. He rushes home, and in his hurry, he doesn’t notice that he’s squished the poor earthworm beneath his rubber boot.

In the dining hall

As he walks along the buffet, Mr. Palomar has to muster all of his willpower to resist the manifold temptations before him. The other patrons have plates piled full with delicacies: fried chicken leg, curly fries, lasagna oozing with melted cheese. To fight against his envy, Mr. Palomar adopts an attitude of disdain towards the others, reminding himself that every slice of pizza will probably cut their lives a year short. Finally, he walks away triumphantly with a large salad, accompanied by a little piece of cake as a prize for his own self-control.

Knowing that gluttony is bad for one’s health, he’s divised various techniques to optimize his enjoyment of a simple meal. For instance, he never eats his favorite thing first. If he ate the cake before the salad, the pleasure would be contaminated by anticipation of those bitter leaves, whose bitterness would be multiplied by their contrast with the preceding sweetness. On the other hand, choking down the most unpleasant part first and savoring his dessert afterwards would leave a good taste in his mouth at the end of dinner. Yes, that would be much better.

Therefore, Mr. Palomar gobbles down the salad chewing quickly, and feels a great sense of relief when the bowl is empty. He gleefully sinks his spoon into the soft cake. He takes a small chunk and leaves it on top of his tongue as long as possible - another of his strategies to make the most of a meal. Theoretically, he could extract all of the flavor by waiting until it fully disintegrates, but for some reason he can never resist the urge to swallow prematurely.

A man sits down at the table beside him with his own beautiful slice of the same cake. He consumes a tiny spoonful and opens a thick book to read. Mr. Palomar throws him a concerned glance. If I finish mine before him, he reflects, I’ll surely be envious of his when I leave with an empty plate. It would be better to wait until he’s finished, in order to avoid washing down this dessert with a mouthful of jealousy.

So he pulls out his own book and reads without concentrating, glancing frequently at the man and checking on his progress. But after a few minutes, the guy hasn’t even eaten a single additional spoonful. Later, by accident, the two leisurely diners look at each other at the exact same instant, and the other fellow smiles drily at Mr. Palomar before returning to his book without even touching his spoon. Mr. Palomar’s willpower is slowly running out. He stands up to get a glass of water, which will help him resist the temptation.

Upon returning, he clumsily sets the glass down on the table, knocks it over in panic, and spills the water on his book and the cake. He stares agape at the ink bleeding through the translucent pages of the soaked book, and then despairingly at the collapsed cake surrounded by disgusting blobs of cream frosting in water. The other man, with his cake still intact, observes the tragedy attentively, closes his book, and continues eating.

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