Under The Jaguar Sun – Book Review

Title – Under The Jaguar Sun

Author – Italo Calvino (translation by William Weaver)

Genre – Fiction

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“I climbed into the light of the jaguar sun – into the sea of the green sap of the leaves.”

Under The Jaguar Sun” is a collection of intoxicating stories revolving around the senses, with Italo Calvino attempting to create a story for each sense organ. We begin with “taste” amid the flavors of Mexico’s fiery spices in the titular story, as a couple embarks on a holiday to experience the food and culture of a new country. From one locality to the next, the self-proclaimed “somnambulists in the dining room”  find themselves in varying gastronomic lexicon – new terms to be recorded, new sensations to be defined. “Guacamole to be scooped with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream” – the couple imagines entire lives devoted to the search for new blends of ingredients, new variations in measurements, alert and patient mixing, and handing down of intricate and precise lore. What starts off as a gustatory exploration, takes on darker hues as the narrator ponders, “The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” , and the reader is questioned what exactly comprises “food”? Archaeological wanderings raise many queries by the couple, which their guide seems unable to satisfactorily answer – Who are the messenger of the gods? Are they demons sent to earth by the gods to collect the sacrificial offerings? Or do emissaries from human beings take the food to the gods? When vultures clear the altars, do they physically carry the offerings to the heavens?” A thought-provoking take on how “taste” comes to define the couple’s relationship.

From here, we move on to “sound” with “A King Listens” – bringing attention to the menacing echoes within us and outside ourselves. The gripping portrait of a king’s thoughts, as he believes a coup is being planned to destroy him, just as he had done to his predecessor, resulting in a frenzied mind trying to salvage the throne by being acutely aware of every single sound inside the palace walls and outside in the city. He pursues every breath, rustle, grumble and gurgle, moves through clangs and curses, and is guided by echoes and creaks – the palace is a construction of sounds expanding and contracting. Distinct or imperceptible, he can distinguish them all as they reach his tympanum – the palace itself being his ear and the walls listening for him. Where does one draw the line between alertness and paranoia? A city awakens with a slamming, a hammering, a creaking, a rumble, a roar. Every space is occupied, all sighs absorbed. Listen to the breathing of a city – it can be labored and gasping or calm and deep. If you listen to the whorls of a shell, how do you know what is ocean, ear, shell? Where is the sound? What significance does sound play in our lives? “Are your ears deafened by unusual sounds? Are you no longer able to tell the uproar outside from that inside? Perhaps there is no longer an inside and an outside” , the author seemingly questioning the king, provides food for thought for the reader as well. There is a wondrous segment on “voice” as an entity. A voice is not a person, though it comes from a person. It is suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. Voice and person are different from each other, but a voice means there is a person, with his throat, chest, feelings, very much alive, who sends into the air this voice unlike voices emanating from other persons. Does this mean you and your voice are one? Or two separate entities?

We then move on to “smell” with “The Name, The Nose” on the streets of Paris – a network of assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas. Musk from verbena, amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter almond – the olfactory alphabet is made up of so many words in a precious lexicon, without which perfumes would be speechless, inarticulate, illegible. Monsieur de Saint-Caliste visits a parfumerie not to buy perfume for a person, but seeking their help in identifying an unknown woman from her perfume. “Martine was tickling the tip of my ear with patchouli, Charlotte was extending her arm perfumed with orris for me to sniff, Sidonie put a drop of eglantine on my hand” – the staff try to help him out in various ways. Madame Odile, the owner of the parfumerie, is much sought after  for her experience is “giving a name to an olfactory sensation”. The reader is led through enchanting aromas  across space and time. “There is no information more precise than what the nose receives.” We are taken through prehistoric times when man relied on the nose rather than the eyes – the mammoth, drought, rain, food, cave, danger, the world was perceived through the nose. Will Monsieur Caliste ever identify his elusive scents?

Under The Jaguar Sun” was written over a period of time. Calvino started in 1972 with “The Name, The Nose” , followed by “Under The Jaguar Sun” in 1982 – both written in Paris, and wrote “A King Listens” in 1984 in Rome. The author sadly passed away in 1985 when only the three stories on “taste”, “hearing” and “smell” were completed – “touch” and “sight” never got written. Calvino was working on a frame to connect the senses in a way that would amount to another novel – kind of like a book within a book. His wife Esther decided to salvage the ones written from being lost in literary oblivion by releasing the trio of senses in 1986, and Weaver’s English translation came out in 1988.

The beauty of Calvino’s writing is his ability to make the reader think. His books are not quick or light reads; every sentence needs to be absorbed and savored. On it’s surface, this is a simple collection of three stories, but the lines take you beyond the senses as we know them. “There is no night darker than a night of fires. There is no man more alone than one running in the midst of a howling mob.” Do not look at “Under The Jaguar Sun” as an unfinished work of literature. Readers familiar with Calvino’s masterpieces like “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” , “Cosmicomics” and other works will no doubt be disappointed about missing out on where he might have taken this book had he lived long enough to complete the remaining two senses. Use this, however, as an opportunity to marvel at some more of his pieces. As his wife Esther writes in the epilogue, “We consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.” Read this off-beat trio of tales for what they are, and still bask in awe of the brilliance of this writer. And maybe you will find yourself questioning the way your sense organs work. That is the effect of Calvino’s writing – makes one ponder while reading and long after one is done.

My rating – 5/5

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