Monday, May 17, 2010

Under the Jaguar Sun - Italo Calvino

Summary: Taste, hearing, and smell dominate the lives of the characters in these witty, fantastical stories. In “Under the Jaguar Sun” a couple tours Mexico to discover a startling combination of sublime and erotic love in the cuisine of fire-hot chiles and exotic spices. In “A King Listens” the enthroned tyrant is prisoner not only of his power but also of his ear, as echoes in his huge palace carry contradictory messages of deliverance, love, and betrayal. In “The Name, the Nose” a man of the world consults a fashionable Parisian parfumerie in search of a scent worn by a mysterious masked lady, while in London a drugged rock musician is lured into the crazed pursuit of a female whose odor has inflamed him. (Summary from book - Image from

My Review: These three stories are part of a series of five, each centered on a different sense, that was left unfinished by the author’s death. Before reading them, I hadn’t realized what a loss two unwritten stories could be. Each of the three existing stories, though very different in tone and style, is a small, multifaceted masterpiece.

One of the startling aspects of these stories for me is the effect they have in the hours, days, and weeks after I’ve read them. The first story—in addition to making me crave spicy foods—has forced me to re-evaluate the way I handle myself in my close relationships. Who would have thought that cannibalism could be inspiring as well as entertaining?

The second story is a sort of existential nightmare, a shifting minefield of meaning and identity. If modern philosophy—from Hegel’s dialectic to Foucault’s critique of power relationships—were a tragic love story, this would be it. Or perhaps it’s the story of an ego divorced from its id. Either way, you don’t need to know, or care, about philosophy or psychoanalysis to get caught in this story’s mad web of words.

For me, the third story was the weakest, but that might be because I have a nonfunctional sense of smell, so it’s hard for me to relate to characters who live through their noses. Like the sense that it centers on, this story seemed a bit muddled, lacking the crispness of the other stories. But perhaps that was the point. Regardless, Calvino’s off days would be another writer’s strokes of genius, so perhaps I’m just jealous.

Star Rating: 5 stars. Contains mature themes maturely handled.

Sum it up: Three of the most entrancing short stories I’ve read; whoever let Calvino die before he finished the other two should be shot.


MindySue said...

First, this book sounds amazing. Too bad our local library doesn't have it (grumble). I'll have to keep digging.

Second, you have a non-functioning sense of smell?!?! Seriously?

Rebecca Rose said...

His non-functioning sense of smell is nice for me...I don't have to worry about if I have morning breath or not. :) Since he can't smell he also can't taste very well so my cooking is always good, as far as he's concerned.

Italo is good enough to buy without reading.

Rebecca Rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Nighting said...

Yeah. Unless it's very odiferous, or very close, I can't smell it. I don't know if it's always been that way; I didn't notice that everybody else could smell things I couldn't until I was in college.


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