The Storyteller – Mario Vargas Llosa

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.

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My next read is going to be Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

The Green House – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s classic early novel takes place in a Peruvian town, situated between desert and jungle, which is torn by boredom and lust. Don Anselmo, a stranger in a black coat, builds a brothel on the outskirts of the town while he charms its innocent people, setting in motion a chain reaction with extraordinary consequences.

The Green House, Llosa’s second novel, was the fifth of his I have read and it demonstrates all the hallmarks of his work: a long time span, interwoven plots, intersection of purity and corruption, and nicknames designed to allow the action bleed together, and a story that didn’t pull together until near the end. The Green House had its moments, but yet came across as a promising work rather than a masterpiece, falling short of The Feast of the Goat, The Time of the Hero, and The Bad Girl.

The quote that opens the post comes from the dustcover and it is a game effort to capture some of this deeply inexplicable novel. The factual details are true, but it doesn’t capture the story at all. Even the eponymous brothel, which exists in two iterations, features as a setting with some symbolic weight, but is largely a prop in the story rather than a central feature. Of course, The Green House is a particularly difficult book to summarize because there are at least seven plots that are interwoven, sometimes overlap, and sometimes have a collapsed chronology such that the characters will be having two conversations decades apart on the same page without warning. The effect is dizzying. Llosa’s flaunting of an easily-followed narrative bleeds over into the descriptions of the locations. Simplistically, there are three settings: Piura, a town of moderate size (and growing) between the jungle and the desert, and Santa María de Nieva, a small jungle town on a river, and the rivers and native villages they border. However, in one scene a village (including Piura) will be devoid of electricity, while, the next, characters will wield flashlights and hail taxis. The colors and textures and climates remain the same, but the shapes of the towns are in flux.

“Really, Don Anselmo?” Wildflower asks. “You were born there too? Isn’t it true that the jungle’s beautiful, with all the trees and all the birds? Isn’t it true that people are nicer back there?”

“People are the same everywhere, girl,” the harpist says. “But it is true that the jungle is beautiful. I’ve forgotten everything about what it’s like there now, except for the color, that’s why I painted my harp green.”

More than setting and plot, The Green House is a character driven story. There is the criminal-cum-leper Fushía, the goodhearted and loving Lalita, the boatman Aquilino, and the pilot Adrian Nieves. However, using the eponymous Green House as the central unifying feature of the story, there are two stories that drive the novel, one from the outset and one at the conclusion. From the outset, there is the story of Bonifacia, a native girl (whose father also appears) who is raised by nuns, expelled from mission and raised by Lalita, marries, is raped [arguably more than once] and becomes a prostitute at the Green House, even while her husband is forced to watch on. She bears slights big and small and does so with infinite compassion and perpetual innocence. On the other end there is the story of Anselmo and, by extension, his daughter Chunga, the proprietors of the first and second Green Houses, respectively. These two entertain the people of Piura–Anselmo with his harp-playing and the offerings of his establishment, Chunga with her establishment and allowing her father to play–and both have their sympathies, but there is a callousness to both characters. This, combined with the issue of morality, arouses the ire of the local priest, Father Garcia, who lives long enough to see what the Green House is, why he sermonized against it, become part of mainstream culture.

I should note that I had some difficulties with the chronology that could be due to the book’s publication fifty years ago this year. It is probable that when it was published there would have been a clear terminus ante quem, as it were, a date that the events clearly took place before, which then makes the early stories fall into a clearer sequence. As it was, I spent too long trying to figure out when the most recent story was set, because it could have been 1960 or 1980, which affected how old the characters were, etc.

This issue with chronology should not distract from the story itself, which certainly has its moments, and I found the ending particularly affecting, but, for me, The Green House tried to do too much–and did too much too successfully, with the result that I suffered from sensory overload. The Green House is a difficult book to read, both for its bewildering structure that, to be honest, still has me trying to piece together things that happened in the first half of the book because the story seemed like a jumbled mess, and for its atmosphere. Even the moments of fun and levity are layered with a sense of oppression and sadness. I might reread The Green House at some point to let myself get lost in its complexity. For now my opinion is that it is a fascinating novel and one that grows with reflection, but not quite a masterpiece. Nothing about it diminishes my excitement about diving into another Llosa novel, The Way to Paradise, in the near future.

Next up, I am about a third of the way through Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants and enjoying it immensely.

The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa

From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a military strongman named Raphael Trujillo, also known as The Goat. Contradictions defined Trujillo’s rule. He established environmental protections and allowed a middle class to prosper, but eliminated personal liberties and brutally punished any dissent. He granted refuge to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, but promoted a racially-charged anti-Haitian ideology that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. He restored Dominican pride in themselves and independence from US occupation, but oppressed them. Political opponents were killed outright or disappeared, their bodies never found, yet Trujillo was a staunch ally of the United States first against Hitler and then Communism and the D.R. was a charter member of the United Nations. Trujillo’s family in particular flourished, despite their mistakes and flaws. This period is known as the Feast of the Goat.

Llosa’s novel is an exploration of these paradoxes and memory, centered on the last year of Trujillo’s reign. The narrative consists of three distinct timelines, two from 1961 and one from 1995, with the later arc forming a frame for the overall story.

Thirty five years after Trujillo’s death, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of The goat’s most loyal ministers, returns to the D.R. for the first time since she left as a teenager and is immediately swept back into the trauma that precipitated her exile and her excommunicating her family. Those events and thus her memories fit into the context of the other two narratives: Trujillo’s desperate bid to cling to power against internal dissent, international pressure, the incompetence of his family, and the inevitability of aging; and the assassins on the night of their coup. Llosa slowly weaves these three timelines together, bringing them closer and closer until they meet in the assassination of Trujillo, the purges that followed, and the subsequent creation of the modern Dominican state.

Like another of Llosa’s book, The War of the end of the World, the core events of The Feast of the Goat really happened and could be considered more appropriately the province of non fiction. however, Llosa is not primarily interested in causation or change or social structure. His story is much more visceral. Llosa’s tale evokes the experience of life during Trujillo’s dictatorship and the transition, examining the processes and changes on a personal, extremely limited level and thereby bypassing the events as a historian would look at them. Llosa builds on the internal contradictions of Trujillo’s D.R. through the medium of memory in order to explore the characters. Trujillo dies, but it is hard to say the story has a happy ending. Everyone suffers.

I knew nothing about Trujillo and little about the D.R. (other than baseball) when I picked up this book, but am looking forward to reading Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of Butterflies, which focuses on one of Trujillo’s particular atrocities, the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.

As I said in reviewing The War of the End of the World, Llosa is an incredible storyteller and, with Orhan Pamuk, is one of my favorite currently-living high literature authors. The added caveats are for simplicity’s sake. I am currently reading Pamuk’s The Black Book and wanted to take a moment to compare the two nobel laureates, whose subject matter and writing styles differ wildly, but whose interests in identity and memory overlap. Llosa is the easier author to love. He paints with every color of the rainbow in sharp, graphic quality every experience and image from the most grotesque suffering to the most titillating encounter to the most poignant loss. At his best, both here and in The Bad Girl, Llosa meshes all three into a single scene. The story can be understated, but the writing itself is not. Llosa’s style tends toward the straight forward and brash, drawing the reader forward with the sheer charisma of the characters. In contrast, Pamuk’s style is understated and subtle. Other than in My Name is Red, where bright colors are central to the story itself, he prefers the muted and the drab. Not shabby, but shades of gray that make colors all the more potent when they appear. His stories give the reader nothing certain, with a path to follow and the answers eternally a step into the darkness.

January Reading Recap

  • Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Hesse – Much like the rest of Hesse’s oevre, this novel is the story of male friendship and the different types of spiritual completion. Narcissus is an academic and a man of religion, while Goldmund is a young man who seeks experiences, but only finds satisfaction through art. Everything Hesse published is set in the German intellectual tradition of his lifetime, although his moralizing may be a bit more heavy-handed than in some of the other books. It is a good read if you like Hesse, but if you’re new to his work, start with Siddhartha, then move to Magister Ludi and if you haven’t lost interest yet, then pick up this one.
  • The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa – My favorite novel this month, and also the saddest, reviewed here. It the story of a life-long relationship between a translator, Ricardo, and the eponymous “Bad Girl.” He loves her, she abuses him; she stays with him for a while and leaves him for someone with more money. but she always comes back. It is a novel about love and obsession and one that continues to cling to me.
  • The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi – A sequel to Old Man’s War, this is a novel set in space, where humans are just one of a number of intelligent species vying for power and the human government uses the minds and experience of the elderly moved into genetically modified and advanced bodies. It is light and fun, clever and witty, as one would expect from Scalzi.

Life got a bit hectic when the semester started, so I only got through the three books this month. But I am also in the middle of reading A Cultural History of the Arabic Language and recently received a copy of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, which will probably be the next book I pick up.