Italo Calvino’s “Under the Jaguar Sun”: Cannibalism and All Consuming Love
“Under the Jaguar Sun” is a story in a small eponymous collection, a collection which Calvino had slowly been putting together before he died in 1985. He was writing a book that would discuss each of the human senses and completed taste, hearing and smell. “Under the Jaguar Sun” uses the concept of, and focus on, taste, and more specifically, cannibalism, to illuminate the primal, the mundane, the sensual, our obsession with death and all consuming love.
Calvino and Olivia are traveling through Mexico, and their love, while strong for each other, has become chaste. The story begins with a description of a painting:
that portrayed a young nun and an old priest standing side by side; their hands, slightly apart from their sides, almost touched…The painting had the somewhat crude grace of colonial art, but it conveyed a distressing sensation, like an ache of contained suffering.The lower part of the painting was filled by a long caption…The words devoutly celebrated the life and death of the two characters, who had been chaplain and abbess of the convent…The reason for them being painted together was the extraordinary love (this word in the pious, Spanish prose, appeared charged with ultra-terrestrial yearning- that had bound the abbess and her confessor for thirty years, a love so great (the word in its spiritual sense sublimated but did not erase physical emotion) that when the priest came to die, the abbess, twenty years younger, in the space of a single day fell ill and literally expired of love…”
Calvino and Olivia are affected by this painting, stunned even: they react by eating. Their trip contains intense experiences with the extreme, often wildly hot, food of Mexico, perfectly rendered in Calvino’s deliberate, dry style, a style that feels like a membrane over an intensity of emotion underneath. As Olivia eats she asks Calvino, “Did you taste that? Are you tasting that?” Calvino reflects:
Olivia’s needs to involve me in her emotions pleased me greatly, because it showed that I was indispensable to her and that, for her, the pleasures of existence could be appreciated only if we shared them. Our subjective, individual selves, I was thinking, find their amplifications and completion only in the unity of the couple.
Besides eating, they travel to visit various ruins, including Monte Alban. There, they take a tour, visiting places of human sacrifice and Calvino notes; “Horror, sacredness, and mystery are consolidated by tourism…we try to imagine the hot blood spurting from the breast split by the stone axe of the priest.”
Olivia becomes obsessed with what was done with the human remains of the sacrificed. Their guide answers, “The vultures. They were the ones who cleared the altars and carried the offering to Heaven.” But Olivia is not happy with that answer. “‘The vultures. Always?’ Olivia asked further, with an insistence I could not explain myself.”
They take a bumpy bus ride back. Indeed, it is so bumpy that even though Calvino tries to catch Olivia’s eyes, he keeps instead, seeing “her teeth…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, to tear it.”
Back at the hotel, they run into a friend, Salustriano, a man from the area, who Olivia questions:
“Who knows? The priests…This was also a part of the rite—I mean among the Aztecs, the people we know better. But even about them, not much is known. These were secret ceremonies. Yes, the ritual meat…The priest assumed the functions of the god, so the victim, divine food…”
Later Olivia says, “It must have required seasoning—strong stuff.” Then Calvino and Olivia walk around the main square, talking and thinking about, essentially, cannibalism, before going out to dinner. Calvino offers, “You mean that here—that they need stronger flavors here because they know, because here they ate…” These conversations are followed by beautiful descriptions of their supper. During their supper, Calvino lets himself imagine:
It was the sensation of her teeth in my flesh that I was imagining, and I could feel her tongue lift me against the roof of her mouth, enfold me in saliva, then thrust me under the tips of the canines…The situation was not entirely passive, since while I was being chewed by her I felt also that I was acting on her, transmitting sensations that spread from the taste buds through her whole body.
But this imagining is not satisfying to Calvino and it is not until he imagines “feeding ravenously on Olivia that I would cease being tasteless to her palate.” That night, they dine on a spicy meatball dish, called gorditas pellizcadas con manteca which translates into “plump girls pinched with butter.” And later that night, their carnal love for one another is reignited or as Calvino writes, “the inspiration that had blessed the finest moments of our joint life came to visit us again.”
Reading this story was a bit like watching a mind work. There is a detachment, a distance, used as a tool to help illuminate a subject matter which demands a certain amount of perspective. And while reading this story, I immediately was flooded with thoughts of my sons when they were babies, toddlers. I thought of how animals lick their newborns clean, and how my sons were born with a white Vernix covering them that needed to be washed off and could very well have been licked off by the Aztecs. I thought of hippies in Vermont planting their placentas under trees after giving birth at home. I thought of how involved I was with the minutia of my sons’ bodily selves, with their flesh, their inner fluids, their snot and feces, their vomit and sweat. I used to say to my older son when he was two and three, “I love you so much, I just want to eat you up!” (He didn’t like me saying that. So I stopped. I expressed my consuming love for him in other ways. But I didn’t stop thinking, in my mind, “I want to eat you up.”) And as my sons grew bigger and away from me, it was like a part of my own body was gone. The comfort of their bodies was taken away from me. It is one of the greatest losses of my life. I live with empty holes, the scars of flesh wounds, where they once were.
Erotic love often has undertones of our loves for our mothers or fathers. Erotic love is often thought of as a “devouring”, love often called “a hunger”. We eat pussy or cock, we eat each other. Our mouths are all over each other. To Calvino’s credit, he explores this theme uniquely, and more importantly, with a huge heart and mind. But all this carnal, consuming love is an echo, in my mind, of the consuming, ravenous love we have for our children. While nursing, they literally ate from me. And after all, they started out inside of me, why wouldn’t I want to put them back? I read an excerpt of a poem by Andrew Michael Roberts which linked in my mind to my feelings for this “Under the Jaguar Sun”:
Before I got hungry enough to go home I watched a train throw sparks, setting fire to the wheat fields as it passed. I think it’s true what they say—when you’re human you’re either creating or destroying. Nothing’s in-between. When I start to feel like somebody, I just imagine the smell of bread and burning birds and keep running.
I really like the line “when you’re human you’re either creating or destroying.” Perhaps also, we are always consuming and wasting as we go about our living, birthing, begetting and dying.