Friday, October 10, 2008

Book Review: The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The fifth part of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to 1950s Peru with Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Storyteller" (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989). The book tells the tale of two college friends, one unnamed narrator and his red-haired Jewish buddy Saul, alias "Las Mascarita" (Mask Face), because of the huge port-wine birthmark that obscures half his face. The pair have many philosophical conversations during their university years, though always given ultimate punctuation with Saul's jovial tone and references to his friend as "pal", "little brother", or "old man".

Their friendship erodes as graduation nears and the narrator seeks out a scholarship for studies abroad while Saul is seen less and less on campus and is rumored to be either somewhere in the jungles of eastern Peru living among the Machiguenga people or has emigrated to Israel. Our narrator graduates and is hired to work with a field team from the Institute of Linguistics and later, as a producer of television documentaries. In both jobs he tries to contact Saul to get his take on Machiguenga culture, but he never hears from him again. There is only a haunting image from the first chapter of the book, which has the narrator viewing photographs at a Florentine art gallery and recognizing Saul as a tribal storyteller among the Machiguengas.

The book juxtaposes chapters in the narrator's voice with chapters about Peruvian Indian mythology and this makes for rich reading. A chapter in which Saul and the narrator discuss the influence of missionaries and Western business interests on traditional Machiguenga culture is followed by a folk tale about the elements, animals and the spirit world. Is this the voice of a Machiguenga storyteller? Or of Saul? I didn't know, but enjoyed the weaving in and out of these two viewpoints and the thought-provoking dialogues between the two "pals".

"The Storyteller" is not light reading, but was an enjoyable excursion into another time and place and brought up many interesting sideline discussions about the definition of "civilization", how anthropologists can properly study other cultures, and how outsiders or minorities fit into their larger society. I will be seeking out other novels by Llosa and have already squirreled away "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" for my winter reading pile.

Recommended for anyone interested in Peruvian culture and history, mythology mavens and armchair travelers.

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