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Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun is based almost entirely on a foundation of three essential themes, all of which relate in some way to the sensation of taste. While Calvino creates many antitheses, the dissonances actually turn into wonderful resolutions. This applies specifically to the narrator’s transformation from the beginning to the end and through the Mexican cuisine. He stresses the need of reciprocity in the tradition of human sacrifice and cannibalism (everyone was potentially sacrificer and victim) – and that the reciprocity is the prime (if not the only) reason that the practice endured. Lastly, he establishes the principles of the ouroboros, arguing that life must feed on other life in order to live. Calvino weaves these three themes into a harmonic core for his overarching theme of taste and digestion, establishing the ritual cannibalism not as repulsive, but rather as uniting and intimate.
Calvino uses numerous antitheses throughout Under the Jaguar Sun, and indeed they seem to make up the strongest basis for all his other themes. By the second sentence, the reader is already hit with an antithesis: the hotel (which is considered largely secular) was once the Convent of Santa Catalina (which is sacred). This transformation from religious to profane reappears in a scene near the very end of the narrative, in which the narrator and Olivia (who, although not with absolute certainty, appears to be his wife) take on the chacmool pose. Whereas the original chacmool would have held a tray to hold divine offerings of human hearts for the gods, the narrator and Olivia have on their laps a “tray with the anonymous hotel breakfast” (Calvino 27), which is far from godlike. However, they still attempt to hide the “subtle messages of asperity and sourness” (Calvino 27) with sweet pulps, which isn’t unlike what Salustiano Velazco speculated the Aztecs may have done with the human flesh. Perhaps, then, this scene also symbolizes the narrator and Olivia’s understanding or growth in the Mexican culture. This growth extends from the beginning to the end of the piece and is shown distinctly in the narrator as he transforms, so to speak, from someone who tends to “define experiences verbally and conceptually” (Calvino 11), placing a heavy emphasis on word use and diction, to someone who becomes a part of nature as a whole- an experience that words cannot adequately describe. His transformation is probably the most overarching of all of Calvino’s antitheses. It takes place over the course of the entire passage, and most of the other antitheses branch off of the narrator’s transforming experiences.
For instance, the narrator’s recurring experiences of Mexican cuisine highlights one of Calvino’s most important antitheses that harmonize into one coherent blend- and that cuisine itself is the product of Mexico’s own blending heritage. “The calendars of the ancient Mexican civilizations, carved on the reliefs, represent a cyclic, tragic concept of time” (Calvino 13), and indeed, “time was not an empty, abstract measurement to the Aztecs, but rather something concrete, a force or substance or fluid perpetually being used up” (Paz 93). However, although Octavio Paz argues that “one period of time ended and another came back” (Paz 94), “perhaps the peoples that history defines as the successive occupants of these territories were merely a single people” (Calvino 13). Perhaps each cycle in the ancient Mexican civilizations’ weren’t completely separate from one another, but instead all contributed to the beginning stages of an “elaborate and bold cuisine” (Calvino 5), which occurred “where the two civilizations [America and Spain] had merged, or perhaps where the conquered had triumphed” (Calvino 7). And just as the “differing traditions and cultural heritages mixed together and at last became one” (Paz 91), various flavors in its cuisine also were brought together into a remarkable blend, which the narrator describes numerous times during his experiences of Mexico: his chiles en nogada are “swimming in a walnut sauce whose harshness and bitter aftertaste were drowned in a creamy, sweetish surrender” (Calvino 5), his “crisp tortillas […] dip like spoons into […] the fat softness of the aguacate”, and “cabrito […] provoked surprise, because the teeth would encounter first a crisp bit, then one that melted in the mouth” (Calvino 23)- to list a few. As he traveled “from one locality to the next the gastronomic lexicon varied, always offering new items to be recorded and new sensations to be defined” (Calvino 8). Each new menu symbolizes- literally and figuratively- a new experience that brings him closer to the lived experience in the heart of Mexican culture.
Before they are ingested by any menus, however, Olivia and the narrator’s original temperaments can be captured through the painting of the young nun and old priest, as it depicts a nearly opposite situation from the one that they are in at the time: while the nun and priest desperately love one another but cannot seem to reach one another, “the physical bond between Olivia and [the narrator] was going through a phase of rarefaction” (Calvino 10), meaning that they had the capability to reach one another but did not have much of a desire to do so. As a couple, they contrast with the couple in the painting. Yet they also display differing thought processes amongst themselves regarding the painting: he is greatly concerned with slight nuances in the exact words in the painting’s caption (such as his careful distinction between three different words for “love”), while she, although interested in the painting as well, seems almost impatient to move on, “to eat chiles en nogada” (Calvino 4). Thus, Olivia is the first to have the desire to actually experience Mexico. It is fitting, then, that she immediately took a curiosity and interest in the ancient practice of Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism, repetitively asking “what [was done] with the victims’ bodies afterward” (Calvino 15). And, also to be expected, the narrator “could not explain her insistence to [himself]” (Calvino 15).
Although at first glance it is mostly unapparent, Calvino also sneaks in a few synesthesias- that is, he produces other sensations (mostly taste) through his descriptions of sounds- throughout Under the Jaguar Sun. These synesthesias create an underlying tone so that the experiences of taste are “exercised on the receptivity of all the senses” (Calvino 5). The most obvious example of this is displayed through the cuisine that makes the “flavors’ highest notes vibrate, juxtaposing them in modulations, in chords, and especially in dissonances” (Calvino 5), but other intriguing examples can be uncovered upon closer examination of the piece, including one that can be comparative to the flavors’ harmonizing: the orchestra that was playing for “the varicolored, shirtsleeved tourists” (Calvino 21) both old and young- merging them all together as if they were the same, neither old nor young. So, just as flavors harmonize into chords, the different people harmonize into one culture. As a further example, the tea party was largely a “spectacular acoustical event […] [made up of] the tinkling of cups and spoons and of knives cutting slices of cake” (Calvino 17), which largely attribute to the sensation of taste even though the description itself is of sound. However, since the narrator himself is not experiencing the taste, the noises are represented as clashes rather than chords, as he isn’t tuned in to the flavors.
Interestingly, although the astonishing blend of flavors in Mexican dishes amazes the narrator, he doesn’t seem to begin becoming experience-oriented until nearly the middle of the narrative. The turning point, one could argue, is when he “realized [his] gaze was resting not on [Olivia’s] eyes but on her teeth, […] which [he] happened to be seeing for the first time not as the radiant glow of a smile but as the instruments most suited to their purpose: to be dug into flesh, to sever it, tear it” (Calvino 16). From that point forward, it seems, he finds it more and more difficult to hold onto his detail-oriented self; he must rely more heavily on experiences. For instance, when Salustiano is conversing with them on the patio outside the tea party, “the archeological and ethnographical details [that the narrator] would have very much liked to hear sentence by sentence, […] were lost in the reverberations of the feast” (Calvino 18). How fitting, that the feast would make “the flavors’ highest notes vibrate, juxtaposing them in modulations, in chords, and especially in dissonances that would assert themselves as an incomparable experience” (Calvino 5), that drowns out the narrator’s once-precious words and details! Furthermore, when “[Salustiano] was talking about the human sacrifices” (Calvino 18)-which is more directly about cultural experience- “his words now overcame more easily the barrier of sound that separated [them]” (Calvino 19), despite their increased softness. Surely the narrator’s transformation is largely the cause of such a paradox.
However, although it is apparent that the narrator is well on his way on his transformation, there is evidence suggesting that it is still incomplete. For one, the narrator imagines Olivia eating him, a “relationship which in [his] imaginings [he] thought corresponded to Olivia’s deepest desires” (Calvino 24), yet she apparently found him to be “insipid” (Calvino 25), or without flavor. Thus, he reasons “the Mexican cuisine, with all its boldness and imagination, was needed if Olivia was to feed on [him] with satisfaction” (Calvino 25)- a conclusion that obviously points out his need to taste more of Mexico, and actually to take on some of Mexico’s harmonic flavor to cover up his own blandness. His old self would have been too preoccupied with details and words to realize this. Additionally, even after having been in Mexico for a lengthy period of time, the narrator still continues to place high importance on information that he can find in reading- such as when he read that the chacmool was a “messenger of the gods […] in a guidebook” (Calvino 25). But he did continue further, asking intelligent questions that would have only occurred to him from experiencing and understanding the ancient culture- not simply regurgitating words from a guidebook. In conclusion, the narrator is gradually being absorbed into the Mexican culture.
And as such, the height of the narrator’s experience can be depicted through his want to taste human flesh (this is his last “menu item”, regarding my former statement that each new menu brings a new experience), which obviously reflects ancient Aztec traditions. This need for the experience of cannibalism (in a metaphoric sense) brings in the next of Calvino’s themes: the need for reciprocity. Although the narrator was imagining “the sensation of [Olivia’s] teeth in [his] flesh” (Calvino 23), at the same time he “felt also that [he] was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body” (Calvino 23). Therefore, “it was a reciprocal and complete relationship, which involved [them] and overwhelmed [them]” (Calvino 23). In the same sense, “all were potentially both sacrificer and victim” (Calvino 26) in the ancient tradition of human sacrifice, and, indeed, “without this reciprocity, human sacrifice would be unthinkable” (Calvino 26). Largely due to the fact that Aztec human sacrifices were reciprocal (and that the tradition endured), the narrator concludes that “the most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” (Calvino 26). Through this conclusion, he comes to yet another transforming realization: “it was only by feeding ravenously on Olivia that [he] would cease being tasteless to her palate” (Calvino 26). In other words, he couldn’t just imagine her eating him; in order for it to be a successful relationship, he would have to eat her as well. Their relationship must be reciprocal, just as the ancient human sacrifices were reciprocal.
Thus, reciprocity marks a milestone late in the narrator’s transformation- whereas at the beginning of the narrative he is largely separate from his wife, eating side by side, now that he is being further infused into Mexican culture he is beginning to realize that instead they should interact with each other- which goes beyond eating “normal” food, no matter how well blended that food may be. By eating each other, their ties to Mexican culture transcends time and brings them into the “universal cannibalism” (Calvino 29) that everything in nature takes part in. And indeed, this universal cannibalism represents Calvino’s third theme, the theme regarding the ouroboros, which brings the narrator fully into his new, transformed self.
Even if we attempt to ignore it, we are all part of the this “universal cannibalism”, although unlike the ancient Aztecs, for whom “there was no mystification”, (Calvino 22), Olivia realizes that we “tear one another apart, pretending not to know it, pretending not to taste flavors anymore” (Calvino 22). This statement echoes the one Howard Neverov makes in his poem “Grace to Be Said in the Supermarket”, in which he refers to mankind as “Great Geometers” to portray us as sort of gods, who put animal meat into “cubes,” “cylinders,” “ellipsoids,” and “squares and oblongs with all the edges beveled”. Basically his main point is that we try to ignore the fact that we are eating life because we find it repulsive- and Calvino produces the same message through Olivia. Yet no matter how we present it, the fact remains the same: we are all basically “a bunch of tubes with teeth on top”. We eat life to live, and through living produce more “tubes with teeth on top”; the cycle continues on and on, just as the ouroboros symbol would suggest.
It is when the narrator realizes this- when he suddenly realizes that he must become part of the life around him and not merely describe it- that he completes his transformation. He jumps from being just halfway infused into his newfound self to suddenly “living and dying in all the fibers of what is chewed and digested and in all the fibers that absorb the sun, consuming and digesting” (Calvino 29). There is nothing gradual about the final stage of his transformation. As the narrator is exploring the Palenque temples in a constant “up-and-down” movement (through his climbing of staircases etc), he takes a final “[plunge] down, [his] throat cut by the knife of the king-priest, down the high steps onto the forest of tourists with super-8s and usurped, broad-brimmed sombreros” (Calvino 28). This plunge could easily represent “the descent of [his] body to the subterranean gods and its rebirth as vegetation” (Calvino 28). If so, then one could argue that he became part of his surroundings, part of the vegetation, and “the solar energy coursed along dense networks of blood and chlorophyll” (Calvino 28). All in all, his transformation was complete.
Furthermore, the narrator describes personal “ups and downs to which, over a long period, the life of every couple is subject” (Calvino 10)- and his rebirth (or his coming “up” from his downward plunge) blatantly illustrates this prospect. He has been in a “phase of rarefaction” (Calvino 10), but now that he has been brought back “up”, so to speak, “[his and Olivia’s] teeth began to move slowly, with equal rhythm, and [their] eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents” (Calvino 29). Whereas flavors were made “especially in dissonances” (Calvino 5) in the beginning of the story, the harmonious and reciprocal intimacy of cannibalism between Olivia and the narrator is in “equal rhythm” (Calvino 29) by the end. In short, Calvino has resolved the dissonances of his earlier antitheses into harmony through the transformation of the narrator.
Actually, that is but one of Calvino’s themes that completes in this final scene. In fact, it is in this scene during which the narrator and Olivia join together with renewed fervor that all three of Calvino’s themes merge: While Calvino’s early synesthesias are displayed “especially in dissonances” (Calvino 5), by the end of the piece they are displayed in “equal rhythm” (Calvino 29); Olivia and the narrator are “swallowing each other in turn” (Calvino 29), just as was essential for the practice of ancient human cannibalism; and they become part of “the universal cannibalism” (Calvino 29)- that is, they are part of the ouroboros, symbolized by “being swallowed […] by the serpent that digests us all, assimilated ceaselessly in the process of ingestion and digestion” (Calvino 29). The narrator has transformed, he and Olivia are reciprocally intimate, and through eating each other they replace the serpent eating its own tail as the symbolic ouroboros. In short, Calvino has beautifully tied his three themes together into one final harmonic, cohesive conclusion.
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