Thoughts on 'The Storyteller' by Mario Vargas Llosa


Mario Vargas Llosa's Nobel Prizewinning novel, The Storyteller begins in the 1950s, in a small Florentine gallery, where a Peruvian writer (one of the two main narrators), chances upon a photograph of a tribal storyteller deep in the Amazonian jungle. On seeing the photograph he is gripped by the feeling that he knows this individual. More specifically, that the storyteller is his old college buddy Saul Zuratas. He begins to reminisce about the conversations he and Saul had as students, searching for clues that would corroborate his hunch. Saul's most distinguishing feature was a disfigurement - a massive, ugly birthmark that covered the right  side of his face. As a consequence of it, he was nicknamed Mascarita (or Mask Face) and was exposed to a constant barrage of horror, revulsion, unkindness and even abuse from random strangers. He never seemed to mind any of it. That, coupled with the fact that he was raised by a devout Jewish father and had a Creole mother, set him apart from his peers.

On a field trip to the depths of the Amazonian jungle, with the Department of Ethnology (with which he was studying), he became acquainted with an indigenous tribe called the Machiguenga, a people for whom "God is air, water, food, a vital necessity, something without which life wouldn't be possible." The tribe holds a strange fascination for him. He debates the effects of modern civilization on them with his friend, insisting that "taking away their gods and replacing them with our own, an abstract God who's of no use to them at all in their daily life... is damaging."  These realizations  trigger a change in him which culminated in his turning his back on the modern world, eventually erasing his identity within it and transforming himself into 'El Hablador' (the storyteller) within the tribe.

The book traces the trajectory of this transformation, not just in terms of events, but in terms of insights that occurred to Saul as he interacted with the tribe. The interesting aspect of the book was how Llosa chose to delineate the process of change. There is a limited description of events to progress the plot, instead Llosa created a second narrator who is a kind of tribal being or consciousness embodied in a person called Tasurinchi who is a repository of tribal stories and folklore.  His thought and speech patterns are very different from those of modern people. Interspersed between folklore, personal anecdotes and dream-like sequences of seemingly illogical thoughts and correspondences are insights and nuggets of truth and wisdom which modern man has "forgotten".

As the story develops, Tasurinchi morphs into Jehovah-Tasurinchi giving us the first clue that Saul is somehow involved with this "being". Jehovah-Tasurinchi, integrates into the narrative Saul's experiences of injustice, exile, alienation an difference and eventually becomes "El Hablador". Speaking of the process, he says, "I became a storyteller after being a listener. It happened without my willing it, little by little. Without even realizing it, I began to find my destiny... I discovered it myself." His acculturation into the tribe is complete. 

In charting Saul's transformation, Llosa touches on a range of themes including globalization and its dis-empowering impact on indigenous populations, the pros, cons and practicalities of cultural hybridization and cultural nomad-ism. These threads weave their way through the narrative creating a rich tapestry of images and insights that demand a second or even a third reading to reveal their subtleties.

As he spends time with the Machiguenga, Saul intuitively develops an understanding of the wisdom inherent in primitive cultures, but this is not based on the 'noble savage' stereotype that so often underpins writing on these cultures. There is a certain lyricism in the way in which Llosa charts this: "Go on listening, carefully, respectfully... after a while the earth feels free to speak.  It's the way it is in a trance, when everything and everyone speaks freely.  The things you'd least expect speak.".... One and all have something to tell...Some things know their own story and the stories of other things, too; some know only their own.  Whoever knows all the stories has wisdom, no doubt." 

He simultaneously discerns a framework within which to make sense of the reactions he experienced because of his disfigurement or "otherness".  There is poignant vulnerability in the phrases Llosa chooses to express this  - "To look like a demon or a little devil and be only a man... must be both the work of evil and a misfortune and that's just what it is, I'd say... Only their outside is that of a monster, inside, they're still pure, no doubt about it..."

As he assimilates these thoughts, he begins to see parallels between the Amazonian nomadic tribe and the Jewish people - "Yet despite so many misfortunes, that people didn't disappear.  In spite of its sufferings, it survived.  It wasn't warlike, it never won wars, yet it's still here. It lived dispersed, its families scattered through the forests of the world , and yet it endured. Greater people, warriors, strong peoples, ... peoples who seemed indestructible, all went.  Disappeared that is to say.  No trace of them remained in the world, nobody remembered them.... Those survivors, however are still about. Journeying, coming and going, escaping, alive and walking. Down through time, and through all this wide world too."

Then his understanding evolves further and Saul is able to discern the psychology that underlies oppression - "Was it hated because it was different?  Was that why, wherever it went, peoples would not accept it? Who knows?  People don't like living with people who are different.  They don't trust them, perhaps. Other customs, another way of speaking would frighten them, as though the world had suddenly become confused and dark.  People would like everyone to be the same, would like others to forget their own customs... violate their own taboos and imitate theirs. If it had done that [targeted minorities] would have disappeared. Not one storyteller would have survived to tell their story."

Reflecting on all this, Saul comes to understand of the effects of forced acculturation and why he rejects it.   - " I used to think: A people must change.  Adopt the customs, the taboos, the magic of strong peoples...It wasn't true... 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... It may be that when a person loses his soul the most repulsive beings, the most harmful predators, come and make their lair in the empty body..."  In grasping all this, Saul realizes what his own deep needs are and why they matter to him. In fact, why they matter to us all.

Other interesting reviews of books by Nobel Laureates in Literature can be found at Read the Nobels and also at Edith's Miscellany





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