Storytelling—a delicate balance

Every now and then a news item appears about the discovery of some remote Amazon tribe that survives in a pristine, Neolithic state. The stories occur less and less, as fewer and fewer tribes remain untouched by the modern world. Disease and development have devastated most.



What is lost in this process of destruction? Does it matter if a Neolithic people, their entire language and culture, is lost or transformed? Is there anything that these peoples, so separated by superstition and suspicion, can teach us? For their own good, should we gradually introduce them to our world and ways or leave them to subsist in isolation in the rain forest?

53931These are questions that inevitably surface as you read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, first published in 1987 as El hablador. The Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist was ahead of his time writing what might be described as an ecological novel. For the questions he raises are about the delicate balance of an entire ecosystem, of a people and the environment that sustains them, where the essential tool for group survival is the knowledge passed down through storytelling.

Vargas Llosa approaches this complex issue through the first-person narrative of a Peruvian novelist and documentary film producer who while traveling to Florence, Italy stumbles upon an exhibit of photographs of the Machiguenga tribe in the Amazon. It’s a tribe he knows firsthand, and one photo in particular sends him reeling back in time to his university-days friendship with Saul “Mascarita” Zuratas. Mascarita, a Peruvian of Jewish descent with a face stained by a birthmark, became obsessed with the Machiguenga as an anthropology student and disappeared from the narrator’s life years before. In the photo in the exhibition, the narrator believes he has seen the stained face of his old friend, dressed like a Machiguenga, at the center of a circle serving as a tribal storyteller. Could it really be him?

Vargas Llosa is a daring writer, always willing to experiment with narrative form. In this novel he makes a “qualitative leap in reality” (a phrase Vargas Llosa borrowed from Hegel to describe this narrative device in his primer on fiction writing, Letters to a Young Novelist) by shifting between two narrators, one being the novelist in Italy recalling his old friend in Peru, and the second being an anonymous storyteller narrating the stories of the Machiguengas. It’s a bold move and Vargas Llosa succeeds in the enormous challenge of creating the magical and dreamlike narrative of the Machiguenga genesis.

This is a book of ideas, of two “communicating vessels” (to use another Vargas Llosa term for his narrative device) that try to elevate those ideas. And in this sense Vargas Llosa succeeded. But, for me, he failed to deliver an engaging story. The novel lacks tension because the novelist-narrator reveals where the story is going in the first few chapters and there are no surprises or conflicts. Nor is there any significant character development in either protagonist, although the anonymous storyteller (big spoiler, it’s Mascarita) does become amusingly creative, embellishing Machiguenga myths with stories from Kafka and the Old Testament. As accomplished as the writing is, ultimately these weaknesses led to my disappointment.

At one point in the story the novelist-narrator describes how he struggled to write a book about his experiences in the Amazon but somehow his notes on his encounters with the Machiguengas always failed to come together. One senses that Vargas Llosa struggled with the same problem. Storytelling is its own ecosystem, requiring a delicate balance of tension, development and unpredictability; it requires more than ideas, which are often better presented in an essay. For this reader, the writer failed at the most important task of storytelling—to beguile his audience.


Filed under Books, Reviews

12 responses to “Storytelling—a delicate balance

  1. The Storyteller is one of my favourite Llosa novels for many of the reasons that you have indicated. Llosa has been an experimental novelist and has often not delivered a consistent output, particularly after (IMHO) “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta”. It is a pity that his later works show only some flashes of brilliance that remind us that he was one of the towering figures of the Boom era. Despite its drawbacks that you have succinctly put, this is one of the more important novels in his long list- even if it is because of the theme rather than the technique. His later work The Bad Girl was worse as a novel, but had a very powerful theme.
    I wish I could comment more on your review of the novel, but it has been a while since I read it. Thanks for reminding that it’s probably time to pick it up again.

    • Yes, Bhupinder, I saw that many people on Goodreads loved this book. I agree that Vargas Llosa was a bold experimenter, and I think it’s important that writers take chances and try to stretch the limits. Not every novel has to succeed for every reader. As you said, the ideas in this book are compelling enough on their own to make it worth reading.

  2. Put this story in the hands of Salman Rushdie, and it would sing like a colorful cockatiel perched on a thick jungle vine! Did you ever read him? What an excellent narrator!

    • Hi Aisha, I haven’t read that one of Rushdie’s. It has been a long time since I have read him at all, so thank you for the suggestion. And thanks for commenting.

      • Very welcome, this was the first book of Rushdie that I read. I adore his beautiful command of English vocabulary – I heard an NPR interview of him, reading from his Enchantress novel and was so spell bound, I just had to buy it immediately.

        Rushdie has ulterior motives at play in this story, a minor irritation I forgave him for – we all carry our baggage with us, don’t we, but his I found his storytelling enchantingly complex and never drops a beat. Enjoy! I look forward to your review!

  3. I have heard of this guy but never had the pleasure as of yet. It is a fascinating concept, if you ignore all the worries of disease etc, the idea of learning something from ‘primitive’ people is very intriguing, of course would the world listen in its cynical ways?

    Keeping them pristine in terms of culture whilst getting healthcare etc in would be an extremely delicate process. The simple act of showing an atlas to them would have such seismic effects on their whole culture.

    • Yes, one of the issues Vargas Llosa addresses is the influence of religious groups who are about the only ones attempting to learn these peoples’ languages. Of course the reason they do so is not to preserve cultures but to proselytize. VL is worth reading, but some of his earlier books are better in my estimation: The Green House; Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and Feast of the Goat (which did come later).

      As always, thanks for your comments.

  4. I’ve never been a fan of Vargas Llosa despite reading a few of his books. I like the themes but there’s something about the telling of the stories or the style that doesn’t appeal to me. Although, I’m not reading them in the original Spanish so I know that’s not really a fair assessment. Sigh.

  5. Hello Tom,
    Such an interesting an in depth approach to Vargas Llosa’s writing process…
    I enjoyed knowing how he made reference to the importance of balance of “an entire ecosystem” as it involves people and the environment that sustains them…
    I have never heard of “El hablador”, until now…
    However, I read “El arte de contar Historias” by Gabriel García Márquez and it is the same kind of reading and a good one too!.
    Thanks for sharing. Best wishes to you,
    Aquileana 😀

    • Hi Aquileana,
      I haven’t heard of that Garcia Marquez work, so thanks for mentioning it. I’ll have to look for it. El hablador wasn’t my cup of tea but you might like it given your interest in mythology. It goes to the root of storytelling, which is what the Greeks were really doing, too. That, in a sense, was on of Vargas Llosa’s points. Best regards, Tom

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