Friday, February 17, 2012

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was not an easy book to read, in fact I put it down frequently to read other books. The concept is interesting, about a Peruvian writer who goes to a photography exhibit of Machiguenga tribal members and is convinced one of the men is somehow his colleague from school. This story is interwoven with folk tales from the Machiguenga, as well as the story told from another perspective about storytellers in the jungle.

These elements were interesting, but ultimately were not woven together enough to form a cohesive whole. I felt like Llosa was fascinated by the Machiguengan culture, the folk tales he had heard, and also wanted an opportunity to make a political statement about cultural and religious indoctrination. I'm just not sure it works as a novel.

I also think the translation was awkward. In the beginning the word "pal" keeps being used, I think perhaps to indicate the more informal "tu" being used in the original, but this was incredibly grating. One does not use the word "pal" the way the Spanish "tu" is used. It read as condescending, not familiar. It just took me out of it every time.

On a personal note, it was interesting to have read a novel that included such a stern critique of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Twelve years ago, I was very close to going to Papua New Guinea with this organization, and not surprisingly, it was because of the very issues Llosa brings up that made me uncomfortable enough to decide not to go. In the end, it wasn't the location (humid jungle with hundreds of unknown languages) that frightened me, but the purpose of SIL in the first place.

"Luckily we know how to walk. Luckily we've been walking for such a long time. Luckily we're always moving from one place to another. What would have become of us if we were the sort of people who never move! We'd have disappeared who knows where."

"You're going to bring on an apocalypse with your tantrum."

"Let's leave them with their arrows, their feathers, their loincloths. WHen you approach them and observe them with respect, with a little fellow feeling, you realize it's not right to call them barbarians or backward. Their culture is adequate for their environment and for the conditions they live in. And what's more, they have a deep and subtle knowledge of things we've forgotten. ... We don't even know what the harmony that exists between man and those things can be, since we've shattered it forever."

"Each man has his obligation. Why is it that we walk? So there will be light and warmth, so that everything will be peaceful. That is the order of the world. The man who talks to fireflies does what he's obliged to do."


  1. I read this book when the author was warded the Nobel Prize, and had also a hard time at the beginning related to translation issues. here is my review:

  2. I think the premise of the book sound interesting, but would be put off by the issues you mention. The folk tales sound like the best part...


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