In a gallery in Florence an ex-pat Peruvian writer (Mario Vargas Llosa) comes across a photograph of a gathering of Machiguenga natives and is transfixed by the sight of the storyteller with a conspicuous birthmark. Familiar with the Machiguenga, but not privileged enough to have met a reclusive storyteller, the narrator is certain that he knows that man, in a past life as a student in Peru. The novel unfolds in two symbolically linked narratives. In the first, the narrator thinks back to his days in Peru, remembering the young jewish man Saul Zarutas, called Mascarita, and everything he knows about the Machiguenga while in school or working as a television producer. These wandering peoples only recently came into contact with the modern world through missionaries who translated the bible into their language, but already their ways have begun to change. In the second, he imagines the tales of the Machiguenga storyteller, etiologies for the indigenous environment and Mascaritas transition to the channeler of these semi-divine stories.
The Storyteller, conspicuously told by an outsider looking back on his native land, deals with the issues of identity, particularly with regard to the duality inherent to some extant in all American countries. The chapters dedicated to Machiguenga cosmology offer insight into the tribe of nomadic walkers, as the tribe considers themselves, and work backward toward Mascarita’s transition. The closer to the modern world they come, the more imbued with western symbolism that is nonetheless presented as universal.
I liked The Storyteller and Llosa is an excellent author, but this was one of the weaker stories of his I have read. For one thing, the dual narrative works, but it is not as tightly linked as in The War of the End of the World or The Feast of the Goat. For another, Mascarita’s transition and Llosa’s nostalgia are poignant, but not as powerful as The Bad Girl. More importantly, though, I simply was unable to connect as strongly as I would have liked to the Native American portion of the story—it was interesting, but there was always some distance that I was unable to close.
My next read is going to be Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.