Friday, January 6, 2012

The Story Teller - Mario Vargas Llosa

The tradition of oral storytelling is a very important one. For one it was probably the first artistic form to be developed by humans after the initial drawings in caves. The word 'storytelling' itself conjures many images, from a wizened old man sitting in front of the fire along with a group and telling them stories, to the stories one heard in their childhood from their grandparents. More importantly these oral traditions of story telling offer a different perspective of history in several cases. Given the fact that history is generally written by the victors and hence a mostly sanitized version is what we get to read, oral story telling gives voice to the marginalized,  vanquished keeping alive in someway their history, their actual presence itself. So it could be termed even as the collective consciousness of a society,tribe with all their myths, legends, history mixed into it. It is one such storyteller and indeed the art of storytelling itself that Llosa, himself a consummate storyteller has taken as the subject for this novel, entwining it with the progress of modernity and the destruction of pre-historic cultures.

The novel consists of two stories told in parallel in alternating chapters. In one the narrator recounts the friendship he had with 'Zuratas' a student who became very interested in the tribes of Amazonian regions of Peru particularly with a tribe 'Machiguenga', the interest that became an obsession, Zuratas's sudden disappearance from his life. In another an unnamed story teller tells about the myths and legends of the Machiguenga tribe, who feel it's their destiny to always keep walking never putting down their roots in a particular place for a long time. 

As the novel progresses, in one strand of narration, we learn from the narrator the manner in which the Amazonian tribes were persecuted by the Westerners, forcing them to completely change their way of living and their suffering due to that. Under the guise of anthropology the tribes are converted by linguists/missionaries. On the other hand they are also deployed to work under inhuman conditions while the West uses the trees in Amazon for rubber production. As a final atrocity, they are turned against one another when the white man offer the tribes freedom if they are able to capture and bring in other people as replacement for them. In short a complete destruction of the tribes and their lifestyle. We also get to know  the extent of Zuratas's obsession with the Machiguenga tribe, the fascination the narrator himself forms for the 'storyteller' of the tribe. We also learn of  Zuratas's sudden disappearance from Peru with narrator not knowing what happened. 

From the unnamed story teller we get information on the myths the Machiguenga have for the origin of the world, their idea of the cosmos, their shamans/gods (both good and bad), the reason behind their moving from place to place. Their way of life and relationship with nature is brought out nicely, particularly their carefulness in ensuring that the delicate balance is never broken. For instance, getting anger is a very bad thing as it will disturb the balance. Alongside this myth making, we get the tribe's perspective on their persecution by the white men. Though a single storyteller tells this narration, it doesn't mean that there is only one storyteller for the tribe, rather a set of people whose job is to keep on moving from place to place without stopping, all the while updating people of the tribe about happenings in other parts and also his own inventions as to the tales. The tribe being scattered all over the place, he is always on the move. 

Towards the end we get an inclination that there is a relationship between the 2 narratives. We get an inclination of what happened to Zuratas from the narrator while the storyteller strand ends with a very evocation portion where the storyteller finally communes with nature and becomes one of as it were. This part is sure to give one goosebumps. However, I was left with a lingering doubt. Given the narrators obsession with Zuratas and the storyteller how can one be sure that the storyteller strand of the novel was not written by the narrator, how can we be sure that the narrative is reliable? Well, that's just thinking out loud.

Some questions lingered in me after reading this. Should the tribes (everywhere) be allowed to live their lives as it has been going on for centuries. Yes their traditions, religions etc should not be tampered upon. But considering that their standard of life is pretty much abysmal should some of the modernity be passed on them. What to make of some of their practices (headhunting etc). Should these too be allowed. At what cost should progress be allowed. An ideal scenario would be where they retain most of their lifestyle/religion while getting a better standard of living. But can greed for money and progress be controlled so that their culture is not entirely obliterated. As a person with a general interest neither do I not have any answers nor can I spell out the issues in detail. Maybe people with more in-depth knowledge in anthropology would be able to answer this better. This thought process that was triggered in me could be said as the most important thing about this novel. Do not miss it if you come upon it.