Under the Jaguar Sun

Calvino meant to write a book about the five senses but had only written about three before his death. This is a beautiful collection of stories about taste, sound, smell. The postscript from his wife Esther suggests that he would have added a framework to the book that would have transformed it even further.

The eponymous story, Under the Jaguar Sun, is about taste, as experienced through the mouths of a couple touristing in Oaxaca, Mexico. Tasting the food of the region where you travel “is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays (1982), when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.” Amid mouthwatering descriptions of chiles, tamales, sauces, there lurks a hint of cannibalism.

My favorite was A King Listens (about sound/hearing), imagining the life of a king who is trapped on his throne, unable to move, and he lives vicariously through his ears.

For you the days are a succession of sounds, some distinct, some almost imperceptible; you have learned to distinguish them, to evaluate their provenance and their distance; you know their order, you know how long the pauses last; you are already awaiting every resonance or creak or clink that is about to reach your tympanum; you anticipate it in your imagination; if it is late in being produced, you grow impatient… Vestibules, stairways, loggias, corridors of the palace have high, vaulted ceilings; every footstep, every click of a lock, every sneeze echoes, rebounds, is propagated horizontally along a suite of communicating rooms, halls, colonnades, service entries, and also vertically, through stairwells, cavities, skylights, conduits, flues, the shafts of dumbwaiters; and all the acoustical routes converge on the throne room. Into the great lake of silence where you are floating rivers of air empty, stirred by intermittent vibrations. Alert, intent, you intercept them and decipher them. The palace is all whorls, lobes: it is a great ear, whose anatomy and architecture trade names and functions: pavilions, ducts, shells, labyrinths. You are crouched at the bottom, in the innermost zone of the palace-ear, of your own ear; the palace is the ear of the king.