June 15, 2011

The Storyteller by Marios Vargas Llosa


Reading The Storyteller was my first experience with 2010 Nobel Laureate Marios Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian born writer now based in Spain. Known as one of the Latin American "Boom" writers, Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero, was released in 1963 shortly after he completed his doctoral thesis on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since that time, Vargas Llosa has developed an international reputation for his gift of invention in the realms of narrative techniques and perception, both quite palpable in The Storyteller.

The novel, published in 1989, artfully weaves together two distinct yet interconnected accounts of Peru's relationship to the Amazon Rainforest and the Machiguenga indigenous tribes in particular. The alternating narrators (each written using alternating literary styles as well) begin as college friends, but Saul abandons his life in the bustling capital of Lima to live among the Machiguenga. Using emigration to Israel as a cover story, he leaves no trace of his whereabouts and disappears. Years later an old friend comes across an image of Saul on display in a photographic exhibition about the Amazon in a Florentine gallery worlds away in Italy...

The Storyteller is bursting with interesting themes and literary traits. A few of the most important are: identity, alienation, multiculturalism, and the act of storytelling i.e. how it relates to/departs from the written word. Cultural hybridism is put forth as the only plausible approach to modern life in the age of globalization, as opposed to the common overarching nostalgia for isolated, "untouched" cultures, which in truth, never existed to begin with. I came across the following passage on Vargas Llosa's hybridism on Emory University's website and I think it does a tidy job of summing up the overriding theme of The Storyteller:  

In the novel, Indian cultures are not sacrificed but become an inseparable part of the society as nationalities and identities merge to make it practically impossible to grasp any kind of 'cultural authenticity', be it dominant or subaltern. The novel has two narrative threads that follow two main characters: one protagonist goes to Florence in order to "read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings" and stumbles on the Amazon Forest exhibition where he sees a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller. The storyteller - another protagonist of the novel - appears to be his old friend, a Jewish anthropology student Saul Zuratas. Saul becomes obsessed with this group of Amazonian Indians and decides to go native. Saul loses touch with everyone he knows in Peru. He tries to acquire a new identity by becoming one of the Machiguengas. But the reader soon realizes that what Saul has to retell 'his' tribe is just a re-narration of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, the story of Jesus Christ, and the Exodus of the Jews. History has changed reality and Saul's attempt to return what has already been lost is futile. Hybridism, thus, becomes the only solution - there is no center and periphery.

The protagonists of The Storyteller travel through geographical and cultural spaces and encounter parts and pieces of places that are familiar to them in the most unlikely territories. There is also a more abstract kind of travel - the one that the writer himself undertakes, when he chooses an anthropological discourse as a point of departure in his novel, as well as when he tries to establish similarities between the storytellers as forgotten, archaic figures and the writers as their modern substitutes. Through the interweaving of the interior and exterior, the displacement of the center and the periphery, through the mixture of a tale, an entertaining story, and a scientific discourse, Mario Vargas Llosa conceives modern society not as idiosyncratic entity, but one that is hybrid and multifaceted from every angle.

Here in France where our right-wing government has launched a debate on "national identidy", i.e. the French culture and how to defend it in the wake of immigration, The Storyteller is refreshing for its support of the myriad identities and cultures that all of us are capable of encompassing, both the multiple  aspects we are born with and those of our own choosing. The Storyteller reminds us there is no such thing as a pure or untouched culture, and recounts a fascinating tale along the way. 

The Paris Review published an interesting interview with Vargas Llosa HERE.  He is an author whose other novels and essays will certainly be added to my already-overwhelming TBR pile. 

3 comments:

  1. I haven't read enough of this type of Latin American literature. I have read many of Marquez's works, and some of Sandra Cisneros's works, but as a Hispanic, you would think I would have embraced this genre more.

    This sounds like a wonderful read. I am interested in reading about the indigenous population, as that is something I find endlessly fascinating.

    Thanks for the review.

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  2. Hi Jen, I think if you're a fan of Marquez, you will enjoy Vargas Llosa. Even though Marquez is a generation older than Vargas Llosa, it seems like they often get compared to one another and after reading this, I can understand why. The mood or feeling is so strong in both, it really sweeps me away each time. Incidentally, I read that the two were good friends for years until they had a serious falling out after one of them punched the other in public (how dramatic!).

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  3. Oh also, forgot to ask, can you recommend some Cisnero? I don't know much about her, but would like to!

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