Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Storyteller

October's book of the month for the student services blog...

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature for “his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat” (prize committee). Vargas Llosa is a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction; 25 of his books exist in English translation. His The Storyteller has been one of my favorite novels since I first read it in the late 1990s.

The Storyteller begins with a Peruvian writer touring Florence. He stumbles upon an exhibit entitled “Natives of the Amazon Forest” at a small gallery. In that exhibit he sees a photo of a tribal storyteller and is overcome by a sense of recognition.

It then begins to tell the story of the writer’s school friend Saúl Zuratas (known as Mascarita, mask face, on account of birthmark covering most of the right side of his face). Brilliant, but alienated, Zuratas is an outsider because of the birthmark, his Jewishness, and his inability to live the life his family wants for him. He decides to leave urban Lima to study the Machiguenga tribe deep in the Amazon. He goes native, eventually becoming a central figure in the tribe. As hablador (storyteller), Zuratas is responsible for preserving and sharing the history and mythology of the tribe.

Zuratas’ storytelling is interspersed throughout the narrative. While the Machiguenga stories are interesting in their own right, what is most fascinating is how elements Zuratas’ own history, experiences, and belief system begin to creep into their stories.

The Storyteller is about storytelling and identity, memory and truth. It questions the attempts of anthropologists and ethnologists to preserve native societies and the benefits and disadvantages of hybridism. The novel is multilayered and builds to a thought-provoking conclusion.