Darker sensations | A review of Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun

I read Italo Calvino’s posthumous collection Under the Jaguar Sun over the past three days (in William Weaver’s 1988 translation). When I bought it last month I had no idea that it was a collection of stories (and not a novella), nor posthumous. I didn’t read the summary on the back. I just knew it was a thin Calvino I hadn’t read and I’ve been into thin reads lately. (I have two fat novels in translation staring me down from across the room as I write this. Their accusations linger.)

But Under the Jaguar Sun is posthumous, and it is a collection–a thin collection, sure, but the stories are strong. In her note at the end of the book, Esther Calvino offers the following:

In 1972 Calvino started writing a book about the five senses. At his death, in 1985, only three stories had been completed: “Under the Jaguar Sun,” “A King Listens,” and “The Name, the Nose.” Had he lived, this book would certainly have evolved into something quite different.

Esther Calvino suggests that Italo “would have provided a frame, as in If on a winter’s night a traveler, a frame that amounts to another novel, virtually a book in itself,” but concludes that the book should be read “simply as three stories written in different periods of his life.” That conclusion was the last thing I read in the book, which I think is fortunate–my reading wasn’t colored by a sense of lack, a sense of what could have been.

The first story, “Under the Jaguar Sun” (1982), is the strongest. The unnamed narrator and his companion Olivia (presumably his wife) are traveling through the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. They visit temples, soak in history, but mostly enjoy the food. “Under the Jaguar Sun” is the “taste” episode of Calvino’s would-be five senses novel, and at times the story reads like a gourmand’s travelogue. The couple, led by Olivia, seek newer, stranger flavors. Calvino’s narrator renders the gustatory titillation in fatty detail. Our boy gets his first taste of guac:

… we found guacamole, to be scooped up with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream (the fat softness of the aguacate — the Mexican national fruit, known to the rest of the world under the distorted name of “avocado” — is accompanied and underlined by the angular dryness of the tortilla, which, for its part, can have many flavors, pretending to have none); then guajolote con mole poblano — that is, turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce, one of the noblest among the many moles, and most laborious (the preparation never takes less than two days), and most complicated, because it requires several different varieties of chile, as well as garlic, onion, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cumin, coriander, and sesame, almonds, raisins, and peanuts, with a touch of chocolate; and finally quesa-dillas (another kind of tortilla, really, for which cheese is incorporated in the dough, garnished with ground meat and refried beans).

The real flavor the pair (again, led by Olivia) seems to truly hanker after though is, uh, human flesh. There’s a light parody of tourism happening in “Under the Jaguar Sun,” but the story’s core is cannibalism, victors and victims, the predatory past. Olivia repeatedly seeks to learn about “that flavor” — the flavor of humans sacrificed by Aztecs through ritual sacrifice. She even asks if the priests who oversaw the sacrifices left any recipes.

The cannibal motif slithers into the couple’s (perhaps-failing) relationship. The narrator imagines himself as a willing victim to his partner:

It was the sensation of her teeth in my flesh that I was imagining, and I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines. I sat there facing her, but at the same time it was as if a part of me, or all of me, were contained in her mouth, crunched, torn shred by shred. The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body. I was the one who aroused her every vibration — it was a reciprocal and complete relationship, which involved us and overwhelmed us.

“Under the Jaguar Sun” is unusually dark for Calvino. The sinister pulse in the background and the enthralling unresolved mystery recall the work of one of Calvino’s descendents, Roberto Bolaño—or really any descendent of the Marquis de Sade.

The next story, “A King Listens” (1984) is also uncharacteristically dark for Calvino, although it is composed in the master’s standby, the second-person perspective. Here, the you is a king. Despite its shadowy contours, “A King Listens” finds Calvino in familiar territory, playing with semiotics:

A king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing the crown, holding the scepter. Now that these attributes are yours, you had better not be separated from them even for a moment.

That core anxiety—holding onto the attributes of rule, of the symbols and signs of kingness—form the backbone of the fevered plot. The You-King finds himself imperiled by the ever-present specter of a coup. And the ever-present threat of a coup is, of course, part and parcel of the kingness of being king.

“A King Listens” plays out like something out of Poe:

Your every attempt to get out of the cage is destined to fail: it is futile to seek yourself in a world that does not belong to you, that perhaps does not exist. For you there is only the palace, the great reechoing vaults, the sentries’ watches, the tanks that crunch the gravel, the hurried footsteps on the staircase which each time could be those announcing your end. These are the only signs through which the world speaks to you; do not let your attention stray from them even for an instant; the moment you are distracted, this space you have constructed around yourself to contain and watch over your fears will be rent, torn to pieces.

With its paranoid court intrigues and shadowy dream-logic, “A King Listens” reminded me very much of a sketch that might find its way into Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.

The last piece in Under the Jaguar Sun is “The Name, The Nose” is the shortest and earliest (1972). I imagine Calvino might have expanded (and improved on) it had he lived to see (taste smell feel hear) his five senses book to completion. The narrative trick behind the “The Name the Nose” is a fairly straightforward postmodern conceit: three narrators from different eras tell stories that are archetypically identical. Their stories are all versions of Cinderella, only told from the prince’s perspective. Oh, and that glass slipper is a very specific scent. We get a 17th. century French dandy, a 1960s rock star, and a caveman (had Calvino read William Golding’s The Inheritors?) all sniffing after a particular lady’s singular scent. Calvino’s conceit allows him to riff on anthropology and biology, and the conclusion seems to be that all of the manners, modes, and airs that we might put on doesn’t change the fact that we are beings who sense, who smell to survive and procreate. Our caveboy:

 Odor, that’s what each of us has that’s different from the others. The odor tells you immediately and certainly what you need to know. There are no words, there is no information more precise than what the nose receives.

The dark trajectory of each male pursuant is again Edgar Allan Poe territory, gothic ground. In the end, the odor that haunts them is death. (I wonder if Patrick Süskind read this story, which seems like a condensation of his novel Perfume.)

Under the Jaguar Sun is probably the darkest thing I’ve read by Calvino. The stories here suggest that human perception is inexorably linked to death and sex, and that attempts to turn those links into signs and symbols are survival mechanisms. There might not be a soul in this world. But perhaps the darker sensations here are really just senses evading signs, senses just sensing. The world is dark without sense; sensation illuminates darkness. That’s what Calvino has done here.

I don’t think this collection is the best introduction to Calvino for those interested (although I think anyone interested probably knows to start with If on a winter’s night a traveler or Invisible Cities—or, hey, listen to me, start with The Baron in the Trees). I think Under the Jaguar Sun does offer a different flavor, or scent, or tone to Calvino’s oeuvre, though, and I enjoyed my time in these tales.

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