My favorite of the three stories was the underdog third story. I did not like the second story, and I felt pretty ambivalent about the first.
I was excited about “Under the Jaguar Sun” as I read the first few pages -- I have actually wondered before how “Oaxacan” was pronounced, and I always feel good when someone finds a use for the word “somnambulist.” But impressive displays of vocabulary prowess aside, this story was unsatisfying. The whole cycle-of-devouring theme was confusing, and I’m wondering now if it’s partially because I’m a vegetarian with pretty unrefined taste. Food in general is not usually that exciting for me, and eating meat at all already feels a little cannibalistic and icky. I could not get on board with the food/sex connection -- but maybe this is because of my own proclivities, just as Garen admitted feeling especially passionate about the story because of his own. It’s interesting to read how much this story resonated with everyone else since I felt like I really didn’t get it.
I guess I could get behind the idea of the narrator and Olivia’s relationship as bland and tasteless. Are we supposed to want them to work it out? I didn’t think either of them was sympathetic at all, nor did I care about any of their friends or tour guides. I didn’t really like anyone in the story, but no one was unlikable enough to be an antihero or a villain.
I couldn’t get into “A King Listens,” either. Part of the trouble, I think, was the second-person narration that Garen mentioned. The narration made it feel like a choose-your-own-adventure story, except one where someone else is doing all the choosing and he keeps making the wrong choices. I felt like I was constantly struggling against the narrator: “No, I don’t feel that way. No, I wouldn’t do that.” The king’s paranoia and arrogance made him unsympathetic (I guess I really need to connect to characters to like a story). Mostly, I kept reading the story as a less effective version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” with a little bit of Hamlet thrown in, and once I had those works in mind, it was hard to enjoy the story on its own merits.
So, “The Name, the Nose” was my favorite, due in no small part to its involving Paris and rock musicians (here’s where my personal preferences come in again). I noticed that Calvino wrote it in London in 1972, which places it right before the explosion of punk rock. I think “The Name, the Nose” is the most effective at capturing a pure sensory experience and evoking strong emotion. I wonder if it’s because it was written in an environment that must have been frenzied and insane, and because, at least in part, it is about that environment. That is to say, I think “The Name, the Nose” comes from a more natural place than the other two stories. To me, it feels like Calvino was noticing what was really happening around him and working it into his writing. The other two stories feel like an intellectual exercise: “What would happen if I tried to write stories about the other senses?” (This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that 10 years -- I think -- passed between the writing of “The Name, the Nose” and the next story.) The longing and frantic searching in “The Name, the Nose” affected me much more than the carnality of “Under the Jaguar Sun” or the vulgar sexuality of “A King Listens.” Also, I love the idea of a caveman’s narrative voice sounding as elegant as a Parisian fop’s.
Here are some questions I would like to open to the FTC:
What about the two other senses? What does everyone think about the fact that the two senses missing from this book – sight and touch – are the only two you actually use when you read a book? Is it too hard to represent a sensory experience on the page if you’re having that experience as you read? Or is it just a coincidence that Calvino saved those two for last?
Also, did anyone else find multiple senses colliding in some of the stories? I thought “Under the Jaguar Sun” was as much about touch as taste, and the drummer’s narration in “The Name, the Nose” was pretty sound-heavy. What else?