We take the sovereignty of our eyes over our other four senses pretty much for granted; although it is our mind, of course, that is the real sovereign. Otherwise, the blind would be different, instead of differently endowed.
In the playful and provocative pieces that comprise “Under the Jaguar Sun,” the late Italo Calvino assumes other sovereignties--of taste, hearing and smell, and he imagines the tyranny that each, if it had undisputed power, would impose on our cosmology.
He was, we are told, to have written two other pieces; one on touch, and one on sight. How different a vision we would have of our vision had the author lived to alter it for us!
There is plenty of alteration in these tales. It is Calvino’s peculiar style of alteration that allows us to see ourselves, unaltered but deeper.
In the title story, two world-weary Europeans traveling in Mexico find themselves strangely aroused by the exotic and highly spiced meals they are served. It is a sensual arousal, in part, but more than that.
The couple has clearly been everywhere, seen everything, fought everything, tried everything. Nothing can reach them; they cannot reach each other. Only through their sense of taste can they be jarred into an awareness of themselves. It is an awareness, appropriately enough, of death in life; of the cannibalism that can inhere in human relationships.
The theme is somber, but Calvino develops it with a gaiety and ferocity of commedia dell’arte.
Olivia and her narrator-husband are dining in an Oaxaca hotel that formerly was a convent. Hanging on a wall is a painting of a nun who died in ecstacy, moments after her priest-confessor.
It was a spiritual Liebestod ; but the narrator reflects that love “in its spiritual sense sublimated but did not erase the physical emotion.” The notion leaves an uneasy void in him; it makes Olivia ravenous.
“I would like to eat chiles en nogada, " she declares, dramatically. They had been eating their way, in fact, through the flamboyant local delicacies; and, as they dig in, she grows inflamed.
It is virtually an orgasmic state, the narrator suggests; though, he adds delicately, one that did not spread. “It stimulated desires, in other words, that sought their satisfaction only within the very sphere of sensation that had aroused them.”
He muses on love as voracity, reflecting on the nun and the chaplain, and “a love that, in the eyes of the world and in their own eyes, could have been perfectly chaste and at the same time infinitely carnal . . . .”
The eating binge and the inflammation continue. They are told of cannibalism among the old Indian kingdoms. The narrator--who is the more subdued of the pair--suggests that the assertive and buried condimentation was used to disguise human flesh. On the contrary, Olivia argues; it was used to enhance it.
And, by the time this comic and abrasive tale ends, they are--metaphorically, but with an edge of culinary realism--greedily consuming each other. It was “the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies and sopa de frijoles, huachinango a la Veracruzana , and enchiladas.”
If “Under the Jaguar Sun” is a searing and wonderfully inflected use of the sense of taste as an image of human attachments, “A King Listens” uses the sense of hearing to make an even more desolate reflection.
The narrator is a king in a nameless kingdom. He sits alone in his throne room, his crown on his head and his scepter in his right hand. He cannot relinquish either one. He can command whatever he wants; everything will be brought to him; but he cannot leave his throne.
“Who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it?” And how would you prove you were the king, since “a king is denoted by the fact that he is sitting on the throne, wearing his crown, holding the scepter”?
It is a Kafka-esque stasis. “All your previous life has been only a waiting to become King; now you are King; you have only to reign. And what is reigning if not this long wait? Waiting for the moment when you will be deposed, when you will have to take leave of the throne, the scepter, the crown and your head.”
Our achievements imprison us; our power makes us impotent. The king’s only contact with life is the sounds he hears: the changing of the guards, the clanking in the kitchen, the courtiers’ footsteps and the hum of the city below.
But it is an impotent contact. Every unexpected sound and every unexpected silence are ominous; but so are the expected sounds and silences. “Perhaps danger lurks in regularity itself . . . . Do you not catch a strange insistence in the rolling of the drums, an excess of zeal?”
A woman’s song floats through the window; for the first time since he was a conspirator for the throne, the king yearns for something. “All you remember now of the yearning that devoured you is your persistence against the enemies to overcome, which did not allow you to desire or imagine anything else.”
He longs for the unknown singer because--in Calvino’s brilliant phrase--"You would like your listening to be heard by her.” We are heard in our power and accomplishments. Only in our humanity is our listening heard. And, for the king, it is too late.
These first two stories are Calvino at or near his best, though there is some blurring at the end of “A King Listens.” The reader may speculate that a little more work might have been done on it had the author lived.
The same thought arises much more strongly in the final story, in which three men--a French aristocrat, an English rock star and a caveman--each pursue the odor of an elusive woman. It is a carrion love; in each case, the woman is dead.
The images are vivid but they fail to come together. “The Name, The Nose"--this apparent play on Umberto Eco’s novel dangles there to no visible purpose--reads like a sketch awaiting transformation.
Still, the first two stories in this posthumous collection--other writing reportedly is still to appear--are signs that Calvino’s death harbors considerable life in it still.