Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Storyteller

I've just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Storyteller. The narrator is, like Vargas Llosa himself, a Peruvian writer, a filmmaker, a teller of stories, and the story he tells is the story of his college companion Saul Zuratas, known as Mascarita. Mascarita starts out as a student of anthropology who becomes interested in the fate of the Machiguengas, one of the tribes of natives living in the jungle and under constant threat of extinction, either in the form of physical destruction by their own enemies or by any of the various governmental or capitalist agencies bent up getting them under control, or in the form of the more apparently benign but nonetheless insidious and culture-destroying ministrations of the missionaries and human-rights organizations looking to help the Machiguengas "assimilate."

The response of the Machiguengas is to retreat deeper into the jungle, to become "the people who walk." And in this mobile, earthbound culture, one of the most important figures is that of the roving storyteller, who carries in his head the stories and legends and myths that bind the Machiguengas together and provide them with an identity.

In middle age, the narrator discovers that his friend Mascarita, who has disappeared and is presumed to have moved to Israel, has in fact gone into the jungle, joined the tribe, and become their storyteller.

There are eight chapters in the book. There is a brief introductory chapter, and then four chapters in which the narrator, speaking in present time, tells us about his own studies of the Machiguena and his relationship with Saul. In between each of these four stories there is a chapter narrated in the voice of Saul, the storyteller, spinning stories and myths end to end as if he were entertaining a circle of entranced Machiguenas. These interchapters are initially confusing and strange and somewhat inconsistent, but the with the help of the surrounding narrative in the main thread of the story and the repetition of certain story motifs within the myths, the logic of the stories and the storytelling process gradually comes into focus.

The essential question that is addressed at many levels in this multi-layered book is: how does a smaller culture maintain its integrity in the face of extreme pressure from powerful outsiders? That's the question Vargas Llosa the storyteller is exploring, and that's the question that his character Mascarita the storyteller addresses explicitly in this passage near the end of the book:

Before I was born, I used to think: A people must change. Adopt the customs, the taboos, the magic of strong peoples. Take over the gods and little gods, the devils and the little devils of the wise peoples. That way everyone will become more pure, I thought. Happier, too. It wasn't true. I know now that that's not so. I learned it from you. Who is purer or happier because he's renounced his destiny, I ask you? Nobody. We'd best be what we are. The one who gives up fulfilling his own obligation so as to fulfill that of another will lose his soul. And his outer wrappings too, perhaps...It may be that when a person loses his soul, the most repulsive beings, the most harmful predators, come and make their lair in his empty body. The botfly devours the fly; the bird, the botfly; the snake, the bird. Do we want to be devoured, no. Do we want to disappear without a trace? No, again. If we come to an end, the world will come to an end, too. It seems we'd best go on walking. Keeping the sun in its place in the sky, the river in its bed, the tree rooted in the ground and the forest on the earth. (220)
This is a very ambitious and innovatively structured novel. It's not a page-turner, but it's rich and surprising and thought-provoking. Varga Llosa credits Father Joseph Barriales, O.P., as the source for the many Machiguena songs and myths that he has incorporated into his narrative. It's a book that is simultaneously an entertainment, a report, and a gesture of respect both for a way of life that is under threat, and for the role that poweful stories play in allowing all of us to hold out against those the forces—whether generated from without or from within ourselves—that have the capacity to destroy us.

1 comment:

Biby Cletus said...
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