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.

 

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Italo Calvino’s 1985 lectures went unfinished (he got 5 out of 6 written) when he died, but cracking this book open decades later, there is plenty of advice for us in those. Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity were the ones he wrote, meaning to tackle Consistency as well.

In Exactitude, he dives deep on the pestilence of images. “We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors… Much of this cloud of visual images fades at once, like the dreams that leave no trace in the memory, but what does not fade is a feeling of alienation and discomfort.”

Writing prose should be the same as poetry; the goal is to look “for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.”

Calvino’s motto has been the Latin Festina lente: hurry slowly.

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them.

De Quincey’s “The English Mail Coach” essay bumps into my consciousness again in his lecture on Quickness. A copy of that essay awaits me at the library, having come across it when it was mentioned as Joseph Cornell’s favorite book.

On objects: “the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships…. in a narrative any object is always magic.”