This section contains 1,656 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Review by Ursula K. Le Guin
SOURCE: "Feeling the Hot Breath of Civilization," in The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, pp. 1, 49-50.
An American novelist and critic, Le Guin is considered one of the most important authors in contemporary science fiction and fantasy literature. Her works have been especially praised for their style, rich inventiveness, and deep humanism. In the following excerpt, she praises The Storyteller, contending that Vargas Llosa's imaginative rendering of a preserved ancient culture provokes much-needed self-examination by modern society.
We human beings long to get the world under our control and to make other people act just like us. In the last few centuries, some of us—variously described as the White Man, the West, the Colonial Powers, Industrial Civilization, the March of Progress—found out how to do it. The result is that now many of us all over the world are eating hamburgers at McDonald's. Since other results include forests destroyed for pasture for the cattle to make the hamburgers, and oceans suffocated by the waste products of making plastic boxes for the hamburgers, the success of the White Man's control of the world is debatable; but his success in making other people act just like him is not. No culture that has come in contact with Western industrial culture has been unchanged by it, and most have been assimilated or annihilated, surviving only as vestigial variations in dress, cooking or ethics.
To make this tremendous process of acculturation the central subject of a novel is a tremendous undertaking. Mario Vargas Llosa is not a tremendous novelist, but he is a wise and canny one, and very skilled. His fascinating new book opens this subject, the impact of "civilization" on the "primitive," to intellectual consideration in the novelistic mode of passionate emotional and moral involvement….
The Storyteller is science fiction at its best. Accurately following the investigations of a science—anthropology, in this case—as far as they have gone, it then asks: what if? What if there were (and indeed there is) a remote Amazonian tribe that had kept itself unacculturated, so far, by moving away from the Incas, the conquistadors, the Jesuits, the evangelists, the rubber planters, the tree cutters and the anthropologists, by keeping on the move, not running but walking? "The men who walk," the Machiguenga call themselves. And what if a young Jew at the University of Lima became intrigued by these people and began to follow them farther and farther into the jungle and into the spirit, until he became himself a man who walks?
More than one voice tells this story. The first is that of a thoughtful, amiably cynical Peruvian, in Florence "to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while," who sees in a gallery the photograph of a storyteller of the eastern Peruvian Amazon amid a circle of women and men: "They were absolutely still. All the faces were turned, like radii of a circumference, toward the central point: the silhouette of a man at the heart of that circle of Machiguengas drawn to him as to a magnet, standing there speaking."
The narrator recognizes in that silhouette his old college friend Saúl Zuratas. And so he begins to tell the story of the storyteller, for this is a book of and about stories, the stories that history silences, the stories of the obscure, the private, the prehistoric; and it all centers on that point, the person at the heart of a circle of people, speaking.
So, circling back to college days, he tells us about Saúl, Mascarita, "Mask Face"—the student with a terrible purple birthmark over half his face, the bright, funny, gentle, half-Jewish ethnologist with a pet parrot called Gregor Samsa. And with him we begin to circle around that question of acculturation, of the fatal impact of the industrial West on the wilderness and the so-called savage. Saúl asks his friend: "Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them because they don't have such things? Or do you believe in 'civilizing the savages,' pal? How? By making soldiers of them? By putting them to work on the farms as slaves?… By forcing them to change their language, their religion, and their customs, the way the missionaries are trying to do? What's to be gained by that? Being able to exploit them more easily, that's all."
But Saúl does not fall into the Noble Savage trap. Finding many customs of the Machiguengas self-destructive, unjust and cruel, he sees them as no more superior to us than we are to them, though their practices, following the patterns and needs of the world more closely than ours, do far less violence. But women are worse used among them even than among us, and they kill babies born with the least blemish, in superstitious fear. Why then does he passionately defend them? Because he is "half Jewish and half monster" and so identifies with the outcast and the underdog? But had he been born among them he would have been killed at birth, and he knows it.
This is a tale of a researcher gone native. The term is used derogatively by anthropologists, for to go native is to lose the perspective, the observer status that is essential to the practice of any science. But scientific detachment is itself in question when it reduces human beings to objects, pretending that the trained mind can understand human behavior without bias, without participation, without imagination and without moral concern. No novelist is likely to let such a pretense go unchallenged.
Certainly the concerns of The Storyteller are intellectual, ethical and artistic, all at once and brilliantly so. To me this is Mr. Vargas Llosa's most engaging and accessible book, for the urgency of its subject purifies and illuminates the writing. I was spellbound, as if by the voice of that storyteller in the circle of listeners; his voice is many voices, his voice is the tribal voice: "After, the men of earth started walking, straight toward the sun that was falling. Before, they too stayed in the same place without moving. The sun, their eye of the sky, was fixed…. There was no war. The rivers were full of fish, the forests of animals…. The men of earth were strong, wise, serene and united. They were peaceable and without anger. Before the time afterwards."
We live, and our story is told, in "the time afterwards"—after the Fall, after the Exodus, after the Dreamtime. The author, in a masterly interweaving of actual myth and novelistic imagination, takes us directly and immediately into the Machiguenga world, yet never presumes to speak as one of them. There is no observer and observed here, only participation—which is what storytelling is all about. To hear the Machiguenga stories, to participate in that life, is an experience of horror, exhilaration, beauty, great strangeness and deep concern. Encircled by their fierce cosmogony and the fearful legends of their past, we begin to walk with them; we begin to understand why they must walk, must never cease moving on: so that the sun will rise, so that the world will be in order, so that the obligation will be fulfilled.
For these too are a chosen people:
For a family and for a people too, the worst evil would be not knowing their obligation…. If an evil occurs on the earth, it's because people have stopped paying attention to the earth, because they don't look after it the way it ought to be looked after…. How do we help the sun, the rivers? How do we help this world, everything that's alive? By walking. I've fulfilled the obligation, I believe.
But if the missionaries and linguists and ethnologists respectfully let this tiny group of people walk away from them, what protection will they have against the worst of our civilization? There is nowhere left for them to walk to. They are defenseless against helicopter, bullet, bulldozer, exploitation, enslavement and genocide. The question that could be put off, walked away from, has become unavoidable. And here Mr. Vargas Llosa, who is running for President of Peru, speaks with an authority almost unique to the novelists and poets of Latin America, whose responsibility is wider and more public than that of our writers, and more overtly political. He names the new evils of our day:
"First came the oil wells…. Later on, or at the same time, the drug traffic began and, like a biblical plague, spread its network of coca plantations, laboratories, and secret landing strips, with—as a logical consequence—periodic killings and vendettas between rival gangs of Colombians and Peruvians; the burning of coca crops, the police searches and wholesale roundups. And finally—or perhaps at the same time, closing the triangle of horror—terrorism and counterterrorism. Detachments of the revolutionary Sendero Luminoso movement, severely repressed in the Andes, have come down to the jungle and operate in this part of Amazonia, now periodically reconnoitered by the Army and even, it is said, bombarded by the Air Force.
The Inca and Spanish invasions, the enslavements, the missionaries' efforts to corrupt culture, the exploitations by profiteers of rubber and wood and gold and land, and now this. "For the Machiguengas, history marches neither forward nor backward: it goes around and around in circles, repeats itself." And now we are in that circle with them. The horrible triangle of environmental rape, drug traffic and political terrorism is the trap we too are caught in. What are we to do? Shall we, like them, "start walking"—shall we remember our obligation to one another and the earth?
Although in the Machiguenga language "now" means both the present and the past, leaving only the future clearly defined, the storyteller does not presume to foretell, to say what will happen next. In the gallery in Florence one of the storytellers watches another of them go into the shadows, like a shadow, with "the men who walk." All we know is that as he goes he is telling a story.
This section contains 1,656 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)