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.