Monday, June 26, 2017

Under The Jaguar Sun

Book: Under the Jaguar Sun (Sotto il sole giaguaro)
Author: Italo Calvino
Translated by: William Weaver
First Published: 1986 by Garzanti Editore, English translation copyright in 1988 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
No. of Pages: 86
Genre: Speculative fiction, fiction

Under the Jaguar Sun is a collection of three short stories: Under the Jaguar Sun, A King Listens, and The Name, The Nose by the Italian author and journalist Italo Calvino. An exploration of the senses, the tales delve into a world of flavors, sounds, and fragrances. Each story is an exquisite journey, thoughtfully crafted with a powerful language so engrossing that the moment you start reading it, you are caught up in a web of vivid imagery.

It was in 1972 that Calvino began working on a book about the five senses. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1985. By that time, he could complete only three stories. As a note at the end of the book, Calvino’s wife Esther tells us that had Calvino lived, the book would have transformed into something different, and he would have provided a frame and structure to the stories, and added the “missing senses”. She tells us that before he succumbed to his illness, Calvino was thinking about the importance of the frame and wrote:

“Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls-and somehow stands for-everything that remains out of the picture.”

Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, Translated by William Weaver

The titular story “Under the Jaguar Sun was first published as “The Jaguar Sun” in the New Yorker (English translation copyright 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). On the surface, it is a story of a couple vacationing in Mexico. On a deeper level, it is a rich gustatory exploration that reconnects a husband and wife going through a relationship that seems to have lost all flavor, all taste. There are three areas of the couple’s trip that the writer has woven brilliantly into this tale: experiencing the bold and exotic Mexican cuisine, exploring the ancient temples and excavations at Monte Alban where they learn about human sacrifices and cannibalistic elements in the Aztec and Olmec culture, and last but not the least how the narrator and his wife Olivia’s experiences on the outside impact the dynamics of their strained monotonous relationship.

For both the characters, the trip has significant value. This vacation acts as a bridge that brings them together. Unlike her husband who at first seems apathetic, and the kind of fellow who goes along with the flow, Olivia, is interested in observing the history manifested in the art and architecture of the country. For her the trip is much about reveling in the profusion of taste, and being in complete communion with the extremely hot Mexican food, new to her palate. This is perhaps her way of communicating with her husband and trying to involve him in how she feels. Olivia is not at all shy when it comes to vocalizing her wants. There is a point in the story where she complains,

“You’re always sunk into yourself, unable to participate in what’s going on around you, unable to put yourself out for another, never a flash of enthusiasm on your own, always ready to cast a pall on anybody else’s, depressing, indifferent—Insipid”

To this the husband replies, “I may seem insipid to you, but there are ranges of flavor more discreet and restrained than that of red peppers. There are subtle tastes that one must know how to perceive.”

This conversation clearly shows the presence of a void, a missing element at this stage in their marriage. They are both unsatisfied and are looking for something to satiate their hunger. As we progress, we find a note of self-awareness and sexual tension that is very well interspersed with the savoring of the gustatory sensations. As the couple try the traditional delicacies like tamal de elote, chiles en nogada, ''wrinkled little peppers, swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender,'' guajolote con mole poblano “turkey with Puebla-style mole sauce”, the narrator realizes that his wife wants his complicity in shared emotions, showing he was indeed indispensable to her. It heartens him to know that by the very act of eating, she is sharing all of her with him, and he starts noticing her more and more. He reflects,

''I realized my gaze was resting not on her eyes but on her teeth . . . which I happened to be seeing for the first time not as the radiant glow of a smile but as the instruments most suited to their purpose: to be dug into flesh, to sever it, tear it.''

Later, as they explore the Monte Alban, the site of the ruins of ancient Olmec, Zapotec, and the Mixtec civilizations, the guide informs them that these temples and ancient ruins were once the sacred platforms where human sacrifice rituals were practiced. The sacrificial meat would then be offered to the gods. But it is obvious that the food would not be consumed by the stone statues, and was left for the vultures to devour. This arouses Olivia’s interest and she questions the guide about the fate of the leftover meal, that surely not all the meat would be consumed by the scavengers alone. She wonders how the high priests would consume the “ritual meal” of the willing human sacrifices. She asks another guide back at their hotel, if the priests used any special seasoning to mask or perhaps enhance the flavor of the human meat. The guide defers the question saying that the lives of the priests was shrouded in mystery and they left no instructions for the sacred cuisine.

The narrator (later as they eat) makes a note:

''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… 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.''

The next day, they leave Oaxaca, and see a stone statue that catches their attention: A little chacmool (half reclining human figure) with a tray on his belly. This statue with the tray represents the utter reciprocity of a victim willing to sacrifice himself to the gods, offering them his heart. Basically, you eat and you are eaten. We are all part of this universal cannibalism.

This makes the husband discern something important:

“Meanwhile I understood: my mistake with Olivia was to consider myself eaten by her, whereas I should be myself (I always had been) the one who ate her. The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh. It was only by feeding ravenously on Olivia that I would cease being tasteless to her palate.”

As the narrator becomes more mindful of his wife, and opens himself to the experience of the food, the spell of monotony is broken. He realises that only by completely surrendering himself could he gain her whole self. So, when they taste the gorditas pellizcadas con manteca, ''plump girls pinched with butter'', they go back to their hotel room and for the first time during their trip satisfy their sexual appetite.

The story concludes with some food for thought when the narrator feeling completely as ease under the Mexican sun and in tune with newly kindled palate, observes:

“…our teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’- 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 and sopa de frijoles, huachinango a la vera cruzana, and enchiladas.”

A King Listens

As far as literary masterpieces go, this short story takes its place rightfully among the best. My favorite of the three, A King Listens is an intense ride into the mind of a tyrant who now that he is king is besieged by fears and paranoia of retaining his usurped powers. From the very first line we get the picture of a king troubled about his scepter, worried about the position of his forearm on the chair, and petrified of holding his head in any but an immobile way so that the gold filigree and diamond studded crown doesn’t fall off his head in case he happens to doze off or let his chin sink. Even though everything is under his control, he is plagued by anxieties.

“If you rise, if you take even a few steps, if you lose sight of the throne for an instant, who can guarantee that when you return you will not find someone else sitting on it? Perhaps someone who resembles you, identical to you. Go ahead then and try to prove you are the king, not he! 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.”

The captor becomes the prisoner, and soon feels caged in the palace of his dreams. It is difficult to pass time in a place where everything moves like clockwork in a preordained manner established by you. Sitting on the throne, his sense of hearing becomes acute. He listens to the sounds and the silences, the slamming of a door, a stifled cry, he listens to the spies posted by him behind every curtain, and frets about secret whispers and conspiracies being hatched to dethrone him while he empties his treasury paying that very staff.

Brilliantly written, it reveals the insecurities of a ruler. The palace becomes a symbol of his body sending him signals and messages which he receives with fear and apprehension. He believes there is always danger lurking in some part even when everything moves as it is should. Every now and then, he hears a sound— the sound of somebody knocking at a door perhaps. 

He wonders if it is a prisoner trying to establish a dialogue with him. He knocks on the wall and hears a sound in response. Terrors gnaws at him, and the “formless reverberations” turn his imagination into a living nightmare. Paranoid, he tries to ascribe every rap or knock with some meaning.

“Your Majesty…we… your loyal subjects…will foil all plots…long life”
“Bastard dog usurper…vengeance…you will be overthrown…”
“The coffin… your coffin... I will emerge from this coffin…and you will enter it…buried alive…”

He tries not to get tormented by these interpretations, and thinks of the city stretched out in the night, rumbling at the bottom of his ear. He rationalizes,

“It is within you that the ghosts acquire voices.”

And then he hears a love song carried by the breeze through some open window. He becomes drawn to the woman’s unique and inimitable voice, and deliberates if he would want to summon her to his court to hear the throbbing of her throat. His imagination runs rampant to no end. Trapped in the palatial maze of sounds, drawing one conjecture after another, we see the metamorphosis of the captor into a fugitive, and his descendance into a captive. By the end, the identities blur, and it is a treat to read Weaver’s translation of how the monarch fails to reckon if he is a king or a prisoner.

 “The night is all breathing. A low wind has risen as if from the grass. The crickets never stop, on all sides. If you isolate one sound from another, it seems to burst forth suddenly, very distinct; but it was also there before, hidden among the other sounds.

You also were there, before. And now? You could not answer. You do not know which of these breaths is yours. You no longer know how to listen. There is no longer anyone listening to anyone else. Only the night listens to itself.”

The Name, The Nose

The Name, The Nose (Il Nome, Il Naso) was first published in Antaeus (English Translation copyright 1976 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc). Shortest of the three tales, it focuses on the olfactory sense.

“When the olfactory alphabet, which made them so many words in a precious lexicon, is forgotten, perfumes will be left speechless, inarticulate, illegible.”

This story has three characters: a French man named Monsieur de Saint Caliste, a prehistoric man, and a musician. Written in three parallel narratives, the characters chase the scent of a female that’s completely taken hold of their senses. In their quest to find the one captivating scent, all three find that the odor they had been searching for was in fact Death itself.

“I go from one skin to another, hunting for that lost skin that isn’t like any other skin.”

Though at par with the other two in terms of its linguistic flair, it definitely lacks the kaleidoscopic insight into the king’s psyche in A King Listens, and the raw flavor of Under the Jaguar Sun.

I give it 7/10.

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