One of Calvino’s later works, Under the Jaguar Sun aims to do the thing that’s hardest for the writer: touch the reader’s senses.
Books have a distancing effect: to read one, we imagine ourselves out of our bodies, and into the scene depicted on the page. Under the Jaguar Sun wants to short-circuit us back into our meatsacks using specifically-written stories about taste, smell, and sound. Not sight and touch, notably. Calvino never completed those. In an afterword, his wife urges us to think of the three written stories, and forget the two unwritten ones. (In any case, there are more than five senses).
The first story in the cycle is “taste”, or Sotto il sole giaguaro. A pair of tourists explore Mexican locales such as Tepoztlán and Monte Alban, eating local cuisine such as chiles en nogada and guajolote con mole poblano while reflecting on the history of the region. Conflicting flavors are used to symbolize religious and political strife, as well as possibly their own sexual tension. Calvino focuses on the exterior state of the characters: we’re meant to infer things from Olivia’s flaring nostrils, or the pause of her lips. Soon the narrator isn’t staring at his partner’s eyes, but at her teeth.
He suspects that she may want to eat him, driving fangs through the softness of his skin, as a jaguar might. His mind fills with bloody images: cut-out hearts, and blood steaming upon temple altars. I wonder if there are things not said: and that food is a distraction for something unspeakable about their relationship.
The prose of William Weaver’s translation is itself a bit too rich at times, evoking those terrible cooking blogs (“…somewhat wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender”). I could have done with less of that, but I was relieved that the characters can’t remember if cilantro is the same thing as coriander.
Eating is described as an act of travel. You are digesting a country and its history—and if that history is a bloody one, what effect will eating have on you? Calvino (through his narrator) scorns the poor imitations of “regional” food found in big restaurants, which he considers as fake as stage dressing on a movie set. But Mexico isn’t what it once was. The narrator imagines the hot, ancient land that Cortez once walked through…but that place doesn’t doesn’t exist anymore. He’s just summarizing ruins, inventorying echoes of echoes. He prizes “real” food because that’s the only form of reality available to him.
Un re in ascolto is the next story, themed upon “hearing”. It’s a lot of fun, much better than the first, with some great writing and the same twisted fairytale quality of Marcel Schwob. It also reminded me of the Truman Show.
A king sits upon a throne, a virtual prisoner. His crown is uncomfortable but he cannot move his head to adjust it. His scepter is heavy but it must never leave his hand. His throne doubles as a bedpan so he can relieve himself without ever being out of sight of his adoring subjects. In short, he might as well be made of glass. He’s inactive, defunct, just a monarch-object who exists to sit and be admired by the court until his death.
Which might come sooner rather than later. Despite existing under such pitiless, endless love, the king knows he is surrounded by enemies. Whether he’s right or merely paranoid doesn’t matter to us. He’s convinced that men are plotting and scheming in court: the palace is full of his spies, but they cannot catch everyone, and although reams of surveillance and interrogation are piled at his feet, there is too much of it to read.
With his eyes useless, he relies on hearing. The king learns to enjoy the sound of the wind blowing along the corridors; the sound of the guards slamming rifle butts in salute on the battlements. And soon, beyond the baldaquin of his hollow coffin-throne, the king hears a woman singing a love song…
It’s a good one—maybe a great one—about paranoia and suspicion and obsession. It made me feel closed-in and itchy. Uneasy hangs the head that wears the crown? No, it’s the ears beneath the crown that are the trouble. They keep complicating things.
Lastly comes Il nome, il naso, or “smell”. It’s a wild, decadent romp, braiding together three separate stories and letting strange things happen from their union. We get the perspectives of a wild beast, a French decadent rather like Huysmans’ Jean des Esseintes, and a drug-addicted musician. They are united by search for sensation, which is most potent in the form of olfaction.
It’s the shortest but also the messiest of the stories, and I can’t say I understood much of it. But that might be entirely appropriate: smell is the most fragile and easily overwhelmed of the senses, for me. The eyes see endlessly, the ears hear endlessly, and both touch and taste . But scents, however, quickly go dead. I’m not sure that I’d want to live in a world where the nose is king, but that’s the point of the story, we once did. And maybe there’s something latent there, hidden in our DNA and ready to become manifest.
This is an intimate and voluptous volume, and the fact that it’s incomplete reveals something important about senses: they often go away. A single lesion in the brain might take one (or more) of them away, silencing a world of meaning. In this book, we are blind and anaphiac. Sometimes we understand. Sometimes we grope in confusion.
It’s worth reading if you can find it cheap, and it encapsules much of what made Calvino great as a writer. It sets fires in the mind, and opens the imagination to worlds and words beyond, barely glimpsed off the margins of the page.$i;?>
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