Thursday, July 28, 2011

That, anyway, is what I have learned.

This is another new idea for the blog. I'm calling it "debriefing." I've written stuff to comment on, explain to myself, write about, toy with, and explore the stuff I've been reading for quite a long time. This is the latest installment. But the good thing is that I've always written with the nonexistent audience motif, so at least this time there is the possibility that someone might read this. That seems more sane than talking to your imaginary friends about how they are imaginary. So the book I'm going to write about here is... Not Pale Fire. I bet you were expecting that one. Actually, I think that will come later. I might even write another style and design post about the book first. No, this one is about the Mario Vargas Llosa novel The Storyteller. (Which is quoted in the title if you don't believe me.)

El Hablador, Mario Vargas Llosa's novel on the storytellers of Machiguenga culture is a masterpiece. Of course, I was forced due to my own failure to learn the Spanish language to read Helen Lane's translation. So you could always give me shit for talking about the original when I've only got the translation. At least it's not a Zemblan translation of the Timon of Athens. (Pale Fire joke.)

The back cover of my copy has the following quote: "Brilliant...A whole culture is contained within these dreamy narratives," sourced to Raymond Sokolov at the Wall Street Journal. Now I've begun to think that reviews that claim a novel contains an entire culture are not just a bit Orientalist in thought but also a dime a dozen. The Murakami novel in my bathroom that I still might not be halfway through (and this is years later) is supposed to have "all of Japan packed into it" or something with slightly better phrasing (I'm not moving the laptop and going to the book to correct my error because it's just not worth it. Neither was writing this. Fuck all) and I don't know if that's right or not. The book, the famous one, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is obviously a masterpiece (which you could also give me shit "masterpiece" again for a book I've only read [less than half of] in translation), but I'm just not sure it has all of Japan. Japan is huge. Murakami, like Top Gear, somehow has his own list of critics, who I'm sure would not be admitting that he's gotten all of Japan into the book.

That said, I think The Storyteller really comes close to Sokolov's quote. Now I'm sure the Machiguenga aren't going to agree with me there. But that's the beauty of Llosa's book. His narrator, who I read as being a somewhat fictionalized (if at all unreal) version of Llosa himself, writes the book from Italy, which is pretty damn far from the Peruvian jungle where the Machiguenga live. It is this distance that adds the sincerity to the work. The eponymous storyteller only appears in Llosa's memory and imagination, himself an outsider among the Machiguenga. This causes the reader to view the novel with irony, with disbelief, with an idea that within the fiction there is fiction. But I'm probably not making sense. My major point is that Llosa never comes out and says "this is what happened, this is what they were, are, this is the Machiguenga." No, he finds a character to voice an important theme of the novel, "That, anyway, is what I have learned." Implying that the speaker has been taught. Questioning the ideas themselves so far as in, if they are wrong, I learned them wrong (my own personal interpretation and not completely implicit in the quote, I know).

So we do get some "facts" about the Machiguenga: they do not use names but refer to each other in some relational fashion (e.g. "the man who lives next to me," "the girl who climbs trees," "the butcher," etc.), they appear to refer to a lot of people as "Tasurinchi" or ... I think ... god (which is a beautiful thing to consider isn't it), and they do quite a bit of walking. But ultimately it is the "dreamy narratives" of Sokolov's quote that hits me hardest. The Storyteller is beautifully dreamy (I sound like I'm asking it out on a date); from the delightful fictive nature of the entire book to even Llosa's truly "real" scenes in Italy, which seem driven by some logic that we don't abide by while awake.

It is in fact this "dreamy" element of the novel that makes it work. While I think it does its best justice to the Machiguenga by way of its insistence on its own unproven nature, it also launches itself artistically on these same aspects. Namely, Llosa imagines the storyteller as a speaker who then narrates several chapters that can be seen as somewhat prosey prose poetry. Which seems a downright stupid way to look at it, to stretch the piece into a category it doesn't quite fit and then to call it a square peg in a round hole...But I really think it's an important part of the novel to note. Llosa creates two speakers that gives us two completely different styles, that I feel I could somewhat facetiously call "prose" and "poetry." Somewhat loyal readers will recognize writings on this divide.

I actually had a somewhat dreamy entrance in this book, now that I think about it. Llosa, you might actually know, won the Nobel in 2010. I saw this on Ron Silliman's blog. (Another recognition for the loyal reader.) So I looked up Llosa's novels on wiki. And found The Storyteller. This was quite the gold nugget: an anthropological novel based in Peru for the anthropology major who was once attempting a Latin American studies minor, match made in heaven, I'm telling you. So then and there I decided I was going to check it out from the library at some time. And then Borders, my favorite chain book store I might add, began their slow descent to nonexistence. This led to me finding myself at various times in a Borders picking up books ranging something 30-70% off. And during one of these hunts of the now randomly shelved books I found The Storyteller (as well as Zero History, as well as Freedom...both of those hardcovers I wouldn't be caught dead having if I didn't get them for about 30% cover price).

I bought the book and I began reading it then. But stopped, just as I had done a long time before with Pale Fire. It was actually my vacation and the specter of it in my future weeks before it happened that had me restart and finish both books. The Storyteller did not let down the surprising way I came by the novel, and speaking of odd, poetic, dream like connections: both books (The Storyteller and Pale Fire) both make mention of the conversations to be had with fireflies.

I must apologize to the reader for this haphazard post, but The Storyteller is a very good book. I believe that the best way to learn is through benevolent dictatorial lecture, although this is extremely rare, and combining sources is never a bad thing. I have tried to portray that this novel's portrayal of the Machiguenga is beneficial even if it's all you are ever going to learn about them.

And of course as always there were a good many more thoughts I wanted to share that I have forgotten. Both Pale Fire and The Storyteller have their great parts of debate where clashing ideologies are shown each to have their strengths and faults. In closing I will note here that it seems that Kundera is onto something when he refuses to admit that his works try to get you to think anything. They don't. They supply you with a lot of information. They don't want to make you think a certain way. I don't and neither would, I suppose, Llosa or Nabokov.

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