Italo Calvino’s take on Taste, Hearing, and Smell

Under the Jaguar Sun is my first book by Italo Calvino, the Italian fictionist that has been much recommended to and highly anticipated by me. According to some sort of preface, Calvino originally planned a novel that puts together narratives on the five senses but he died before finishing it. So what I got are three incredible short stories that each center on a single sense – taste, hearing, and smell. I happily chanced upon Under the Jaguar Sun in a secondhand bookshop back in Iloilo.

In the first story, “Under the Jaguar Sun,” a couple visiting Mexico discovers the country through its cuisine.

…the true journey, as the introjections of an “outside” different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country – its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or the stir the pot) – making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus. (12)

It is also through this way that the two rediscovered their sensuality and strengthened their bond as a couple.

…serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn, as we were aware, in our turn, of being swallowed by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion, in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies… (29)

“The Name, The Nose,” the last story in the book, starts by positing a future in which the sense of smell has disappeared.

…the phials, the ampoules, the jars with their spire-like or cut glass stoppers will weave in vain from shelf to shelf their network of harmonies, assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas: our deaf nostrils will no longer catch the notes of their scale. (67)

It then jumps into a series of narratives demonstrating the link between smell and identity with (1) a beast looking for his mate in the herd by smell, (2) a gentleman searching for a masked lady from the ball through her perfume, and (3) a drugged rock band member seeking out a woman through her scent.

A King Listens

“A King Listens,” on the other hand, is an allegorical tale on how those in power are caught in the problem of holding on to that power rather than doing something positive with that power. One of the few fictions narrated in the second-person that I’ve read (the other one being Julio Cortazar’s “Graffiti”), the story begins by describing what it takes for a King to sit on a throne, hold his throne, and carry his crown.

When you feel it is about to slip, you have to clever enough to adjust its position with little twitches of the head; but you must take care not to straighten up too brusquely or you will strike the crown against the baldaquin… (34)

In short, “…everything is foreordained to spare you any movement whatsoever. You would have nothing to gain by moving, and everything to lose.” The King thus sits alone in his throne, listening to all the sounds that reverberate through his court and the halls of his palace and searching for signs of a plot in each little thud or echo. But then it’s also suggested that “[p]erhaps the threat comes more from the silences than from the sounds.”

I’m sure all tyrants – past, present, and future – can relate to this tale, including our very own outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is now on the road to the Speakership of the House of Representatives in order to avoid facing charges of grave human rights violations, corruption scandals, and other controversies during her term.

Ultimately, the story concludes that “when a desire to be fulfilled presents itself to you at last, you realize that being king is of no use for anything.”

Calvino is renowned for his playful and labyrinthine complexity, but in this selection he’s a bit more modest. The concepts surrounding the stories are simple but the execution, the way he puts the feel associated to such disparate senses into words, is superb. ■

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4 thoughts on “Italo Calvino’s take on Taste, Hearing, and Smell

  1. I recently also read and posted on my first Calvino, “The Cloven Viscount”-I enjoyed it a good bit-kind of shows a lot the influence of Borges-I enjoyed your bringing in current politics here in the Philippines (I am in QC)

    • I sure would love to read more Borges and Calvino but what I end up reading tends to be shaped by whatever turns up at secondhand bookshops/or the university library. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Intriguing, Karlo. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading a Calvino yet but have been hearing wonderful things about him… and now this review! Thank you for sharing those passages from the book. They are teeming with rich meaning and metaphors. I hope one Calvino will find its way to my shelf soon.

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