Calvino belongs to that very small group of writers who seem to keep the reader’s attention on the basis of language alone. His stories seem to exist as if independent of subject: a black hole of narrative pleasures. He works with subjects the way a poet works with traditional forms such as the sonnet and villanelle, writing within and against these enabling restrictions. The sense of taste, or the act of eating, provides the ostensible subject matter in the collection’s title piece. It proves to be less a story than a meditative tour de force about and an alternative to that ache, or hunger, which Calvino’s narrative finds at the very center of experience, that “sense of lack, a consuming void,” which in turn arouses a host of narrative associations, obsessions, and transformations dealing with Mexican food, ritual cannibalism, and marriage.

Calvino performs a similar if less spectacular feat in the third and earliest, as well as the only less than completely successful, story, “The Name, The Nose,” intermingling no fewer than three parallel narratives, this time dealing with the sense of smell. It is the middle tale, “The King Listens,” that is the collection’s most perfect gem, narrower than the others but far more brilliantly evocative, a work as absurdist and paradoxical as the best of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. Here the voice begins by advising the king but soon grows more peremptory, at first hectoring the king and then tormenting him.

The king as well as the reader becomes its captive, bewildered by the uncertainties raised by its insinuating discourse yet attracted too by “the pleasure this voice puts into existing.” That pleasure is no greater than what Calvino must have found in writing these further proofs of his own literary preeminence, and no less than what the reader derives from reading them.

Under the Jaguar Sun Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In a note appended to Under the Jaguar Sun, the author’s widow, Esther Calvino, explains the genesis and development of both the book that the reader has just read and the work that the author, Italo Calvino, conceived but did not live to complete. “In 1972 Calvino started writing a book about the five senses. At his death, in 1985, only three stories had been completed. . . . Had he lived, the book would have certainly evolved into something quite different.” By different, she does not mean merely two stories longer, for Calvino’s aim, she reports, was not so much to complete a sequence as to make a book, and that would have involved providing the stories with a narrative frame, as he did in Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). Just before his death, Calvino began once again to contemplate the nature of the “frame” as used in both the visual and the literary arts. The frame, he realized, at once contains the picture (or story), thus providing it with its own separate, autonomous existence, and paradoxically calls attention to all that the picture (or story) excludes—all that is not in the picture but to which the picture is nevertheless irrevocably connected. The frame thus forms the border, or link, between the specificity of content and the vastness of surmise, between object and world, between concrete statement and metaphoric suggestiveness. Curiously, even perversely, and perhaps a bit impishly (she is after all a Calvino), the author’s widow ends her highly provocative but all-too-brief note by asking “the reader to consider Under the Jaguar Sun not as something Calvino started and left unfinished but simply as three stories written in different periods of his life.” Whatever the merits and intentions of her proposal, her note makes such a reading as the one she proposes—the very reading that the reader has just enacted—quite impossible (unless he first peeked at the concluding note). The note itself half frames Calvino’s three stories and leads the reader to imagine all that the published book does not include. The note leads the reader outside the incompletion of the three actual stories to that perhaps transcendental or maybe wholly literary and therefore illusory wholeness which lies nearly within the reader’s grasp and just off the page, just outside the imagined but nonexistent frame in the realm of myth and meaning (or perhaps not “meaning” at all, but rather in the realm of making).

It is impossible to believe that had Calvino lived to complete the series of stories, one for each of the five senses, that it would or even could have rivaled the complexity and greatness of Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) or Il castello dei destino incrociati (1969, 1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977). Then again, the impossible is precisely what Calvino managed to accomplish in book after book, ceaselessly inventing—and making absurdly plausible—the most impossible ideas in the most matter-of-fact ways. The three fragments of an imagined but only partially written book, these parts of an imagined but only imperfectly imagined order, tantalize the reader with a profusion of narrative delights and tease him with their own unrealized narrative possibilities. These stories prove once again that Calvino is arguably the finest writer of the twentieth century, the maker of a fiction that manages to appear at once remarkably lucid and incredibly dense. The matter-of-factness of his narrative voice—or rather of his narrative voices (no fewer than five in these three stories)—plays against the profusion of ideas, images, and assorted narrative pleasures in stories that manage to appear philosophically rich yet playfully and exhaustively postmodern. Despite their intricate structures, they give the impression of being told intuitively, at times even naïvely, but this naïveté and this intuitiveness tease the reader with the distinct possibility that what lies ahead, beyond the frame, is nothing more and nothing less than the author’s own brilliant and endlessly inventive imagination. Calvino belongs, then, to that very small group of writers who manage to keep their reader’s attention both on the basis of ideas that are as provocative as they are farfetched and, even more, on the basis of a language framed by its own linguistic borders and possibilities. Contemplative as they almost always are, his stories come to exist as if independent of their subjects, a black hole of narrative fireworks. He deals with his subjects the way a poet deals with traditional forms such as the sonnet or villanelle, writing both within them and against them.

The sense of taste, or the act of eating, provides the ostensible subject matter in the first of the three narratives. “Under the Jaguar Sun” proves to be less a story, however, than a meditative tour de force about, as well as an alternative to, that hunger or ache which the narrative posits at the very heart of human existence. This “sense of lack” arouses in reader and characters alike a host of narrative associations, obsessions, and transformations concerning Mexican food, human sacrifice, ritual cannibalism, and marriage. (The juxtaposition of these four is, in Calvino’s telling, far more logical than a bare list such as this would lead one to suspect.) The story focuses on a married couple, tourists in Mexico, and is narrated by the husband, who begins his tale with a lengthy description of a painting which, according to the Spanish caption, depicts the “extraordinary love” of a nun and her confessor. Their love, or rather the painting (with its captioned explanation), leads the narrator to feel the “consuming void” which the rest of the story attempts to depict and explain (as painting and caption) and to fill. That the love of the married couple is both ordinary and moribund soon becomes evident. They seek in exotic foods prepared according to mysterious recipes what they no longer find, or even attempt to find, in each other; unfortunately, the dishes they eat stimulate desires “that sought their satisfaction only within the very sphere of sensation that had...

(The entire section is 2533 words.)