Mario Vargas Llosa - The Storyteller
The myth of the Noble Savage has existed for centuries, and remains an enduring attraction to those fed up with the bustle, the noise, the smell, the people, buildings, concrete and steel of major cities. There is nothing more romantic, it seems to certain individuals, than to reject the trappings of contemporary life and to live in a manner 'more pure' than they currently experience. Sometimes this involves divesting one's possessions, clearing away the clutter of years and decades of living. Other times it's a more serious venture, such as when couples or families go 'off the grid', eschewing the internet, television and electricity beyond a generator, in an effort to become closer to nature and less dependent on others. And then there's the extreme, which is to lose yourself in the culture of a remote tribe in a faraway jungle, where medicine, technology and science are myth. Needless to say, this last is rarely actioned upon, though it is often wistfully daydreamed about. It's all a bit much, but wouldn't it be nice to not have to worry about it all?
That, then, forms the crux of Mario Vargas Llosa's 1987 novel, The Storyteller. It is a novel told in parallel, its first story recounting the narrator's memories of Saúl Zuratas, also known as Mascarita thanks to a large birthmark covering half his face, with whom he was friends during his University days in Lima, Peru, in the late 1950s. Mascarita's birthmark makes him the subject of stares, of laughter and jokes and, sometimes, cruelty. His defence is to smile, to deflect the negativity of his fellow Peruvians through good humour. Mascarita studies ethnology, while the narrator wishes to be a writer; at any rate, they become friends while sharing classes. The stories Mascarita has to tell of the Machiguenga tribe he has studied on and off during his studies, fascinate the narrator. But Mascarita does not idealise them, and vehemently rejects the idea that the Machiguenga culture, by virtue of it's being 'purer' and 'closer to nature' has any superiority over any other. But they should also not be killed, shifted from their lands, or moved about in the way of progress, as seems to be the case:
”Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them because they don't have such things? Or do you believe in 'civilizing the savages,' pal? How? By making soldiers of them? By putting them to work on the farms as slaves to Creoles like Fidel Pereira? By forcing them to change their language, their religion, and their customs, the way the missionaries are trying to do? What's to be gained by that? Being able to exploit them more easily, that's all. Making them zombies and caricatures of men, like those semi-acculturated Indians you see in Lima.”
Mascarita notes he would have been killed at birth had he been born amongst the Machiguenga people, thrown into a nearby river along with those born with extra or fewer fingers or toes, with stumps, with harelips, and even twins. So no, he says, he does not idealise them.
Once university is complete, the two part ways. The narrator goes to Europe, to be closer to the literary culture he holds dear. Mascarita – well, the narrator isn't sure where he ends up. There are indications he went to Israel, to practice as a Jew. At any rate, the few postcards the narrator writes receive no response.
The second story is alluded to in the opening section, and returns frequently throughout the novel. Its inspiration begins years later, when the narrator is older and remembering back to earlier days. He sees a photograph of the Machiguenga people:
There they were, decorating their faces and bodies in intricate designs with dye from the annatto tree, lighting fires, drying hides and skins, fermenting cassava for masato beer in canoe-shaped receptacles. The photos eloquently showed how few of them there were in the immensity of the sky, water, and vegetation that surrounded them, how fragile and frugal their life was; their isolation, their archaic ways, their helplessness. It was true: neither demagoguery nor aestheticism.
Vargas Llosa takes us through the myths and beliefs of the Machiguenga. These sections are long and involve gods, punishment, retribution, and the social and hierarchical dealings of the tribe. They are presented as though told by a habladores, a storyteller, a respected man who wanders amongst the different branches of the tribe, educating the children in the stories of their peoples' creation, entertaining the adults with myths and legends, and informing everyone about births, deaths and significant events. These sections make up about half the novel, and acts as an exhaustive education in the Machiguenga people.
And suddenly, down below, getting farther and farther away, I saw the alligator, the river, the mud. The wind was so strong I could hardly breathe. There I was, in the air, way up high. There was Tasurinchi, the storyteller, flying. The stork was flying, and clinging to its neck, my legs twined around its legs, I was flying, too. Down below was the earth, getting smaller. There was gleaming water everywhere. Those little dark stains must be trees; those snakes, rivers. It was colder than ever. Had we left the earth? If so, this must be Menkoripatsa, the world of the clouds. There was no sign of its river. Where was the Manaironchaari, with its waters made of cotton? Was I really flying? The stork must have grown to be able to carry me. Or maybe I'd shrunk to the size of a mouse. Who knows which?
A little of this goes a very long way; unfortunately a great deal of the novel is devoted to these stories.
And therein lies the rub. For those interested in anthropology, there is no doubt that this novel provides a great deal to enjoy. The Machiguenga is a real Peruvian tribe, and there is no reason to suspect that these myths are anything but theirs. The stories are varied and range widely, they are coherently and eloquently told, but for me – a person without any real interest in tribal customs – these sections weren't satisfying. I had no grounding, nothing I knew to hold on to, and no interest other than aesthetic, and as such, the stories became a series of unfamiliar names and exotic concepts. Again, as literary anthropology, this novel is quite successful, but otherwise it can't quite hold up.
What is successful is the other half, which has been discussed already, but rewards further analysis. The narrator considers the aesthetic and moral implications of affecting the tribes' environment, and often he uses Mascarita's words as a method for highlighting these arguments.
”The linguists were a different matter altogether. They were backed by economic power and an extremely efficient organisation which might well enable them to implant their progress, their religion, their values, their culture. Learn the aboriginal languages! What a swindle! What for? To make the Amazonian Indians into good Westerners, good modern men, good capitalists, good Christians of the Reformed Church? Not even that. Just to wipe their culture, their gods, their institutions off the map and corrupt even their dreams. Just as they'd done to the redskins and the others back in their own country.”
It's certainly true that there mere fact of making contact with a tribe can be enough to begin its terminal decline. Well-meaning people have been more than capable of causing monstrous damage to others; in this case, the translation of the Bible into the Machiguenga language, the encouragement of the Machiguenga to make permanent villages and speak Spanish – these are, on the surface, positive, or at the very least, not negative, but the Machiguenga have changed, and they aren't as they were.
After many efforts on the part of the authorities, Catholic missionaries, anthropologists, ethnologists, and the Institute itself, the Machiguengas had begun to accept the idea of forming villages, of coming together in places suitable for working the soil, breeding animals, and developing trade relations with the rest of Peru. Things were evolving rapidly.
Near the end of the novel something becomes clear to the narrator that has been clear to the reader since the first twenty pages or so – the storyteller is Mascarita. It's baffling as to why Vargas Llosa kept this knowledge a secret for so long as it was evident from the beginning, aptly foreshadowed and, in all honesty, the story wouldn't make sense any other way. The narrator notes that,
The sort of decision arrived at by saints and madmen is not revealed to others. It is forged little by little, in the folds of the spirit, tangential to reason, shielded from discreet eyes, not seeking the approval of others – who would never grant it – until it is at last put into practice. I imagine that in the process – the conceiving of a project and its ripening into action – the saint, the visionary, or the madman isolates himself more and more, walling himself up in solitude, safe from the intrusion of others.
Mascarita is unfortunately not well-developed enough to carry the weight of the novel. He has vanished for most of it; during the narrator's sequences he is remembered in snippets, wondered about at times, but generally forgotten during the passage of the narrator's life, and during the storyteller's sequences, he is speaking, and not the subject. It is only toward the end when Mascarita is truly able to speak as himself about himself, when he has been revealed as the storyteller and sits among his people, the Machiguenga:
Is a face like mine an evil? Is it a misfortune to look like a monster without being one? A misfortune and an evil at the same time, it must be. To look like one of those twisted, crookbacked, misshapen beings with claws and fangs that Kientibakori breathed out on the day of creation, over there in the Gran Pongo, and not be one. To look like a demon or a little devil, and be only a man breathed out by Tasurinchi, must be both the work of evil and a misfortune. And that's just what it is, I'd say.
It should be no secret by now that I have enjoyed the other novels by Vargas Llosa under review at this website more than I did The Storyteller. Yet I stress again that, should your tastes run to the anthropological, there is no doubt this novel will appeal to you more than it did to me. The familiar themes of Vargas Llosa's works are on display – his love for history, his unswerving belief in literature as profound force, his ability to breathe live into history. The narrator's half of the novel is very good, consistently interesting and wide-ranging in its sympathies. The Noble Savage has never, for me, held any appeal, which is why the other half falls flat.
||Mario Vargas Llosa
(Original Title: El Hablador)
||Faber & Faber
||1991 (English, this edition); 1989 (English, first translation)
Other titles by Mario Vargas Llosa under review include:
---Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
---Death in the Andes
---The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
"for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat"
-Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 Citation