Mario Vargas Llosa | Critical Essay by Peter Standish

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Mario Vargas Llosa.
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Critical Essay by Peter Standish

SOURCE: "Vargas Llosa's Parrot," in Hispanic Review, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 143-51.

In the following essay, Standish contends that The Storyteller examines storytelling as a sacred vocation in society.

Vargas Llosa on Literature and History:

[Literature] is the domain par excellence of ambiguity. It is always subjective; it deals in half truths, relative truths, literary truths which frequently constitute flagrant historical inaccuracies or even lies. Although the almost cinematographic description of the battle of Waterloo which features in Les Misérables may exalt us, we are aware that this was a contest fought and won by Victor Hugo, and not the one lost by Napoleon. Or—to cite a Valencian classic (since I write this in Valencia)—the conquest of England by the Moors described in Tirant lo Blanc is totally convincing, and no one would think of questioning its credibility with the petty argument that historically no Moorish army ever crossed the English Channel.

The reconstruction of the past through literature is almost always misleading in terms of historical objectivity. Literary truth is one thing, historical truth another. But, although it may be full of fabrication—or for that very reason—literature presents us with a side of history which cannot be found in history books. For literature does not lie gratuitously. Its deceits, devices, and hyperbole all serve to express those deep-seated and disturbing truths which only come to light in this oblique way.

Mario Vargas Llosa, in his "The Power of Lies," in Encounter, December 1987.

Titles are hooks set to catch readers. Publishers and authors need to set them, of course, because of the importance of being earners, but also because literature is nothing until the reader is hooked. Broadly, titles can be said to work by reference or enigma: they refer to some key element in the ensuing text or are intriguing in their obscureness. El hablador does both, but it is the very banality of reference that lends it the power of intrigue. Hablador, in ordinary use, is really rather colourless: it is parenthetical, appositive, deictic, in a way which allows us to go on to other more interesting things; what interests us when someone uses this word is not to know that the person so identified is a speaker, so much as what he might be speaking about, or what "else" he is, or is up to. The most that can be said of hablador by itself, in ordinary use, apart from the fact that it identifies a speaker, is that its connotations are pejorative, referring to a gossip or a garrulous or indiscreet person. None of these meanings seems to be very relevant to the context of Vargas Llosa's novel; rather, his use of the word is not ordinary: the whole point is that he is elevating it to a new meaning and a special status. All of which justifies my beginning where so many other critics have done, with a little etymology. The Latin verb, from which hablador derives, fabulari, (itself derived from fari: to speak) was to tell tales, fabulae; hence it also gives us English "fable," and that obsolete word resurrected some years ago by Robert Scholes, "fabulator," which now comes to mean the self-conscious storyteller. [My essay title, "Vargas Llosa's Parrot,"] is chosen to encourage speculation about the relationship between these words and what I will argue is the central meaning of Vargas Llosa's novel. Fabulari also gave us hablar, hence hablador, the person engaged in the act of speaking; except, perhaps, in the sense of chismoso, in normal modern Spanish usage there is little in the meaning of hablador that is fabulative or fabulatory or fabulous, little, so to speak, to write home about. But these are precisely some of the layers of meaning that Vargas Llosa gives to this normally somewhat dull term.

El hablador is a story (fable) told by one self-aware storyteller (fabulator) about another, who is also telling stories including other stories. Broadly, the form of this book can be compared to that of La tía Julia y el escribidor in that there are two narratives which proceed in alternating chapters until their interrelationship is made clear at the end of it all. Armed with knowledge of how that earlier novel worked, the reader is alerted to the probable outcome of El hablador. Not that clues are lacking earlier in El hablador itself; rather, the reverse is true, for as early on as page seventeen Vargas Llosa writes that his friend Saúl "me tuvo toda una tarde … muy entretenido, hablándome … con su lorito en el hombro." The outer narrative of the author-narrator encompasses and frames the other; the reader's contract with fiction 1 has priority over his contract with fiction 2. So it was with the earlier novel: one writer (escribidor) told of his own apprenticeship as a writer of fiction, while working as another kind of writer, in the company of yet another, whose fictions were themselves presented as raw material in alternate chapters. The relationship between Pedro Camacho's stories and Vargas Llosa's autobiography is, however, only one of implication: the farcical nature of the Camacho situations makes us view the Vargas Llosa predicaments with amusement. Characters, names and roles are switched in the various Camacho stories, which become confused, but no such confusion occurs between them and the outer narrative. By contrast, in El hablador, the Saúl of the outer narrative is revealed as the tribal hablador of the inner one; in other words, a character has crossed from one fictional level to the other.

The escribidor of the title of the earlier novel referred to two writers within the outer fiction; the hablador of the more recent title implies an oral fabulator in the inner fiction and a scribal one in the outer. The scribal fabulator is an Hispanic criollo who sees things from the analytical perspective of a man sitting, appropriately, in the renaissance city of Florence, but he longs to penetrate the mentality of the primitive oral fabulator, for whom words are not burdened with the western cultural baggage, a fact which makes them more creative. On a more abstract level, both books deal with what it is to be a storyteller, considered from a personal standpoint and also from a societal one.

Several critics have remarked on the long history of Vargas Llosa contemplating his own art. There were always essays on the subject, and in his fiction perhaps even Alberto, the Leoncio Prado cadet, with his poems and his pornographic stories, was early evidence of this. After La tía Julia it becomes a major element in his fiction, particularly in the theatre and in Historia de Mayta. What is it to be a storyteller? There is what we might call a literary dimension to this question, involving, in particular, the nature of inspiration and the relationship between history, invention, and truth. There is also an existential one, which acquires added weight in El hablador, though it was previously there to be observed, especially in the essays and the criticism; it concerns storytelling as a vocation or as a personal necessity.

Thus, it is stated at an early stage that Saúl is embarked on an inevitable journey; when it ends with him becoming the hablador, he has fulfilled his destiny:

Para entonces, sin la menor duda, ya había descubierto lo que le interesaba en la vida. No de manera relampagueante, ni con la seguridad que después, pero, en todo caso, el extraordinario mecanismo estaba ya en marcha y, pasito a paso, empujándolo un día acá, otro allá, iba trazando ese laberinto en el que Mascarita entraría para no salir jamás.

"No de manera relampagueante." A flash of lightning of sorts, as we shall see, later turns this inevitable role into a conscious vocation, much like the vocación excluyente which Vargas Llosa has argued must guide every writer and which he so admired in Flaubert. Related to this is the admission by the author that he sees a "vínculo sentimental entre los Machiguengas y mi propia profesión" and his talk of the need to write about the habladores turning into a demonio personal, a recurrent obsession which goes with him from his last moment of contact with Saúl, immediately before the author's first trip to Europe.

Finally, there is also what might be called a social dimension to this question of what it is to be a storyteller. The hablador is at the hub of Machiguenga society; in his absence that society turns to diaspora. Habladores are "contadores de cuentos trashumantes [que sirven] de savia circulante" who serve a people who, according to an account by a Spanish missionary, read by Vargas Llosa while in Madrid, "tenían una propensión casi enfermiza a escuchar y contar historias." So important is the institution of the hablador for the Machiguenga that he reserves information about the figure and its function, even when all other aspects of his society have suffered acculturation. The latter-day missionaries from Oklahoma have failed fully to penetrate this part of Machiguenga culture; they explain:

—Para ellos, la diversión es una sola en el mundo. Los habladores no son nada más que eso.

—Nada menos que eso—, lo corregí yo, suavemente.

—¿Sí? —, dijo él, desconcertado. —Bueno, sí. Pero, perdóneme que insista, no creo que haya nada religioso detrás. Por eso Ilama la atención todo ese misterio, el secreto de que los rodean.

The hablador is the incarnation of speech, the word made flesh. He is repository of tribal news and history; he is compared to medieval jongleurs or Irish seannachies; but most important of all:

Sus bocas [son] los vínculos aglutinantes de esa sociedad a la que la lucha por la supervivencia [ha] obligado a resquebrajarse y desperdigarse a los cuatro vientos.

For Vargas Llosa, that the storyteller can fulfil so crucial a social role is, in a sense, in need of no further explanation. That storytelling of itself should be so important is precisely what the author would wish.

In a moment, I shall return to the question of a possible religious significance in the figure of the hablador. For now, however, I wish to consider the obviously symbolic role of the parrot. It is beyond the scope of this [essay] to dwell on the lead-heavy reference to Kafka's Gregor Samsa contained in the bird's name. The first observation to be made is that the parrot is the "speaking" bird, which accompanies Saúl from the outset and symbolically heralds his destiny. That this parrot is primarily symbolic is shown by the fact that all it ever says is its owner's name, alluding not only to his deformity, but also to the role hidden behind his mask. More remotely, but no less importantly, it reminds us of Flaubert's parrot. It is quite possible that Vargas Llosa, consciously or not, had in mind both the bird that sat on Flaubert's desk and the novel by Julian Barnes. So the parrot represents the storyteller, of any sort; it is the "lorito hablador." In general use, hablar como una cotorra is ser hablador. As an example of Amazonian wildlife, the bird, like the fish on which the Machiguenga depend, is under threat; and so Vargas Llosa allies the assault on Nature with the assault on the primitive culture and its key institution.

This assault is motivated by two kinds of zeal, the material and the spiritual: the viracochas are out for money or conversions. Repeatedly, the author mentions his mixture of amazement and fear at the conviction, the certainty verging on fanaticism, that inspires the missionaries:

personas que creen, que están haciendo lo que creen y que saben a la verdad de su parte, que a mí siempre me ha fascinado y asustado.

The Schneils' supposition that there is no religious significance in the figure of the hablador proves to be ironic, given the determination of Vargas Llosa to endow Saúl with precisely that kind of significance. To begin with, Saúl is part Jew by birth, caught between the traditional Jewish customs, as represented by his father, and the dominant Catholic culture of the Lima of the fifties. When he disappears, he is presumed to have returned to Israel, to his cultural and spiritual homeland; in fact (or should I say "in fiction"?), it transpires that Vargas Llosa has decided to send him to a new homeland among the Machiguengas: "la transformación del converso en hablador." An old Vargas Llosa trick covertly announces the identification of the hablador with his friend Saúl, and that right at the start: Chapter 1 concludes with the naming of the first and Chapter 2 opens with the naming of the second. Soon, Vargas Llosa is overtly referring to conversion:

Saúl experimentó una conversión … en un sentido cultural y acaso también religioso … Mascarita fue atrapado en una emboscada espiritual que hizo de el una persona distinta.

In the hablador sections there are numerous assimilations of Jewish and Christian myths to Machiguenga ones, or vice-versa. I have already alluded to diaspora. Also we have (particularly page thirty eight and following) paradise and fall, God and Devil, resurrection, a lost tribe, a promised land, a land of milk and honey, a Messiah, a myth of creation. A chosen people is protected by Tasurinchi-Jehova, a Christ figure is born, and there is a Trinity: "Soy el soplido de Tasurinchi, soy el hijo de Tasurinchi, soy Tasurinchi."

The Christ-figure is hailed as an hablador (prophet?), miracles raise the dead or multiply food, the seripigaris are comparable with the elders of the tribes, the viracochas with the Romans. But one other episode, in particular, deserves closer attention.

The biblical Saul of Tarsus was converted on the road to Damascus, when God appeared to him in a vision. Saúl Zuratas (his surname is almost an anagram of Tarsus) recounts a similar occasion in the last of the hablador sections. He has a thorn in his foot, which has forced him to stop walking; but his suffering is less due to the infected foot than to his being besieged by parrots, "sobre todo cotorras." Seeking to understand where they come from and what they mean, he realises that they, too, are habladores, that they are sent to accompany him in his time of trial, for according to myth every man is accompanied by a guardian creature. Now a further speculation on the Peruvian Saúl's name will connect us back to the man on the road to Damascus: źurita means turtle dove; zuro is an adjective applied to the paloma silvestre. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit, which reveals itself to Saul, transforms his life, and makes him the apostle Paul, is frequently associated with the image of the dove. It is thus this episode with the flock of parrots to which I was alluding when I made an early reference to a "flash of lightening of sorts." Saúl, like Paul, has "seen the light." [In a footnote the critic adds: "It seems that this well-worn English phrase does stem from this same biblical episode, although no such words are used during the accounts of it in the Bible."]

Flaubert, too, used his bird in a similar way at the end of one of his novels, Un coeur simple. His protagonist, appropriately called Félicité, dotes on her parrot, even once dead and stuffed; at the end of the novel she comes to wonder whether this articulate beast, this imitator of human sounds, might not represent the Holy Ghost, and as she dies imagines a huge parrot hovering above her head.

In addition to this, in the New Testament Paul speaks, more than once, of a thorn in his flesh; it is a phrase generally taken to refer to a physical defect, one which left him unsightly. Other elements in Paul's biography seem to tally with El hablador. After his conversion he proved a champion of tolerance and sought to reconcile Jewish orthodoxy with Christianity; in part, his death is attributable to his efforts to cross racial divides. By addressing various groups in his writings he gives identity to them. According to both Acts and Galatians, he seems to have disappeared for some twelve years. Finally, he is, of course, a consummate writer/speaker. So Saúl Zuratas the freak has had a revelation like that of Paul and assumed his new role; he has moved from the margins of one society to the focal point of another. The problematic nature of his deformity has been overcome, as has his cultural dilemma, in a process of synthesis. The parrot on his shoulder is the symbol which heralded his destiny, which was to become hablador and in doing so find peace in his spiritual home.

I began by speculating on the terms "fabulator" and "fable." A fable seeks to convey a moral lesson, and Vargas Llosa's novel is clearly rich in issues, such as the ethical basis for missionary work, acculturation, and the search for authentic roots. These, however, fall outside the scope of this [essay], in which I have tried to establish that the central preoccupation, drawn out from reflections on the novel's title and associations with the symbol of the parrot, concerns the storyteller in society; the hablador is here accorded a status encompassing prophet, leader, guardian of knowledge, and vital link to guarantee society's cohesiveness:

uno más de la vieja estirpe que … recorría los bosques de mi país llevando y trayendo … las fabulaciones … que hacen de ese pueblo de seres dispersos una comunidad.

El hablador begins and ends with the author asserting his own presence; its conclusion is not dramatic but contemplative. Is the writer anything more than a jumped-up parrot, wonders Julian Barnes [in his Flaubert's Parrot, 1984]? Vargas Llosa likes to think he might be.

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