El Hablador [The Storyteller]
I remember reading Conversation in the Cathedral twice: first I started it in highschool – right after I had discovered Marquez – but I never got further than 50 pages. The second time – I was in college…maybe my 2nd year? I did work through it, and I remember a general feeling of enjoyment, but not so much the particulars of it. Which is a shame really – and which is why I enjoy the blogging: it forces me to go through the books I read one more time and to maybe remember a little more than “a feeling”.😀
But back to The Storyteller. A short novel set in Peru, about Peru – without the politics in Conversation… but with an added dosage of local color – specifically, the machiguenga, a tribe in the Amazonian jungle. It all starts out in Florence, where our narrator, the “I” of the story (not to be confused with the storyteller😉 ) walks into a photographic exposition with images taken in the Amazon jungle and Peru. Nostalgia and homesickness are what bring him there, but fascination and curiosity over one figure in the photos are what bring him back over and over again. Completing the final piece of a puzzle he’d been carrying around for years – namely the destiny of his youth friend Saul Zuratas, he also realizes one of his biggest dreams: the novel about the machiguenga tribe. In alternating chapters, we are introduced in the story of Saul and his attachment and fascination with this tribe and in the universe of the machiguenga, through the stories told by a very important figure in their social order: the storyteller. The complex role that el hablador is taking on – news bringer, story waver, tradition carrier and all around entertainer – fascinates the narrator a lot more than any other piece of the otherwise primitive machiguenga culture. Of course, the two narratives will eventually be entwined – and you will see it a mile away – but it’s really more about the journey.
The institution – I know it sound pretentious – of the storyteller is indeed fascinating: he is the one that keeps the culture alive, that keeps the traditions and animist beliefs fresh in the natives’ memory, that does not allow them to simply melt in with the white culture or with Christianity. The funny thing is Saul, [SPOILER ALERT =)) ] after he becomes not only part of the tribe but also hablador attempts to protect them, to warn them to stay away from missionaries out to convert them or ethnologists out to study them by telling them modified – or better yet, applied – version of Jesus’s story and of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (which, in his “previous” life, used to be his favorite book).
In the closing chapter, as the pieces fall together, Llosa tries to explain the motivations behind Saul’s odd life altering choice – motivations which are, to some degree, quite obvious. But though the narrator is very troubled by them, Llosa’s real purpose is to weigh in on the pros and cons of civilization, of displacement and ultimately of cultural hybridism.