They were no longer that handful of tragic, indomitable beings, that society broken up into tiny families, fleeing, always fleeing, from the whites, from the mestizos, from the mountain people, and from other tribes, awaiting and stoically accepting their extinction as individuals and as a group, yet never giving up their language, their gods, their customs. An irrepressible sadness came over me at the thought that this society scattered in the damp and boundless forests, for whom a few tellers of tales acted as circulating sap, was doomed to disappear.
The last day of July and so I am only just squeaking my thoughts on The Storyteller in to Spanish Literature Month (hosted by Richard and Stu). Published in 1987, the novel opens with the narrator in Florence (or Firenze as he called it throughout to my intense irritation for some reason; I was also riled by one character’s constant use of ‘pal’ as in ‘Look, pal...’, I know it’s an American translation but I could not bring myself to believe that Americans went around saying ‘pal’ quite so much and every time the word popped up it knocked me out of the novel, so to speak, and yes this is a ridiculous complaint and I am embarrassed that it annoyed me so much but it did), to forget his native Peru and Peruvians for a while (although why he needs to is never explained). In an exhibition of photographs of the Machiguenga people from the Amazon he recognises a figure, and this inspires him to reminisce about Saúl Zuratas, a friend from university disfigured by an enormous birthmark on his face, who became obsessed with the Machiguenga and in turn aroused the narrator’s fascination with them. After the Jewish Saúl ostensibly leaves Peru for Israel and drops out of the narrator’s life, the narrator visits the Machiguenga, reads about them, films a documentary on them and tries repeatedly to write a novel about them, but is left frustrated by all his attempts. His experiences are interleaved with sections on life in the Amazon in the voice of the hablador or storyteller of the Machiguenga, a mysterious figure whom the people are reluctant to discuss with outsiders. The Machiguenga are a scattered people living in small family groups in the forest and the hablador travels between them, telling stories, listening to them, passing on news. Or so it seems. In fact the current hablador (or one of them) is Saúl, whom the narrator has recognised from the photograph (or believes he has). The figure of Saúl finally allows the narrator a way in to write about the Machiguenga, discussing their myths, their way of life, from a perspective that is not exactly Machiguenga but very close.
In this delicacy regarding the portrayal of the Machiguenga, his reluctance to enact a sort of imaginative colonialism by writing ‘as’ a Machiguenga and preference for the outsider’s voice, the narrator reflects the novel’s central question of how we relate to such tribes and what place they can have in our world. Missionaries, rubber-planters, ethnologists, linguists – all who have contact with the Machiguenga threaten to destroy their health – through the transmission of infectious diseases, to which the Machiguenga have no resistance, or their enslavement – or their culture. Saúl argues that they should be left alone, but as is clear, he is unable to follow his own advice and goes to live with them. His choice of the Machiguenga is intriguing since had he been born into the tribe he would immediately have been killed because the Machiguenga slay all babies who are not physically perfect. As the hablador, Saúl is the glue that keeps the scattered Machiguenga together and perhaps thus he slows their inevitable assimilation into Peruvian society; there’s also a hint that since he has lived with them they have become less fatalistic, and perhaps we should see him as showing not all contact with the Machiguenga is destined to be destructive. However, the words given to him are not his own, they are the narrator’s. The Machiguenga created in these pages are the narrator’s idea of the Machiguenga. Even the rôle of the hablador is largely the narrator’s conjecture, something with which he has fallen in love. After all, the Machiguenga are the blank page onto which the narrator projects his own fantasies, even if they are based on research and two brief visits to the Machiguenga.
(Photograph from here)
What I think this novel offers is a new way to understand the Machiguenga and peoples like them. It demonstrates the limitations of ethnography and documentary even while it implicitly suggests that these are just other ways of telling stories. It reflects on its own method of storytelling and how it gains its material for stories. The narrator of The Storyteller knows as well as any anthropologist that whatever he writes is as much a reflection of himself and his values as it is an account of the subjects he studies, yet by using his imagination and acknowledging the limits of it he is able to ‘know’ the Machiguenga in a way that more academic approaches cannot.
And what of the future of the Machiguenga themselves? This is what the hablador says near the end of the book:
Before I was born, I used to think: A people must change. Adopt the customs, the taboos, the magic of strong peoples. Take over the gods and the little gods, the devils and the little devils of the wise peoples. That way everyone will become more pure, I thought. Happier, too. It wasn’t true. I know now that’s not so. I learned it from you. Who is purer or happier because he’s renounced his destiny, I ask you? Nobody. We’d best be what we are. The one who gives up fulfilling his own obligation so as to fulfill that of another will lose his soul. And his outer wrapping too, perhaps, like Gregor-Tasurinchi, who was changed into a buzz-buzz bug in that bad trance. It may be that when a person loses his soul the most repulsive beings, the most harmful predators, come and make their lair in the empty body. The botfly devours the fly; the bird, the botfly; the snake, the bird. Do we want to be devoured? No. Do we want to disappear without a trace? No, again. If we come to an end, the world will come to an end, too. It seems we’d best go on walking. Keeping the sun in its place in the sky, the river in its bed, the tree rooted in the ground and the forest on the earth.
That, anyway, is what I have learned.