Tag Archives: Mario Vargas Llosa

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.

Photo: machiguenga.wordpress.com

Photo: machiguenga.wordpress.com

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.

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A brief life, perpetual despair

In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.

“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”

High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).

Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.

4368456Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.

Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:

“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”

Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”

Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”

Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.

In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that people believe they’re condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives.”

As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul  is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.

In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.

Onetti-682x1024Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.

Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.

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