Tag Archives: The Storyteller

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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