This is Vargas Llosa’s official website; even if you don’t read Spanish, you can see pictures of him when young. He married two relatives: an aunt-in-law (Julia Urquidi), and then his first cousin (Patricia Llosa). Our novel is dedicated to the Machiguenga storytellers and to his uncle and then father-in-law, Luis Llosa Ureta, who appears to be especially important to him given his poor relationship with his own father.
First section of the novel:
– The narrator has come to Florence – city par excellence of the European Renaissance – to forget Peru and all of its problems (of which it had very many in the 1980s when this novel was being written). But has seen in the window of an exposition the primitive tools and photographs of the Peruvian Amazon, and this disturbs his peace.
– The photographer proposed to photograph the Machiguengas “without demagogy or estheticism”
– The narrator feels terribly anxious and does not know why. He swears this is not a false memory (and there will be much in this novel about memory, rumor, projection, narration, what is “storytelling” if not these things, or as opposed to these things — one does want to know?)
– He recognizes some of the people in the photos, due to his earlier expeditions with the Linguistics Institute; he sees a picture of a child (with facial ulcers, common some parts of rural Peru) he has seen himself, and he is sure to see a picture of … someone … and there is the picture of a storyteller.
– The gallery must close and the photographer died of fever contracted on this trip.
Second section of the novel:
– Story of Saúl (“Mascarita”) with whom the narrator makes friends in college — “to the extent one can be friends with an archangel.”
– His mother was not originally Jewish, and was not of the right social class — and was not from Lima
– He is more involved with Amazonian cultures than meets the eye (note: this is discussed in the form of questions: did he? was he?)
– His pet parrot is named after Gregory Samsa, the Kafka character who turns into a cockroach (Metamorphosis)
– He says the Machiguenga artifacts are all written on in sacred writing
– For the Machiguengas the most important thing is to keep an even temper — if you don’t, you can cause accidents or storms
– He is more than professionally interested in this tribe (is “going native”) — his interest is “excessive”
– He is very concerned about the colonization of the jungle, which is pushing the Machiguengas off their traditional land
– What does the narrator think of his friend’s attitudes and activities? How can we tell? What sort of words (in addition to “excessive”) does he use to describe them? How important is the survival of these tribes to him?
– They kill defective children, like the Spartans; Mascarita would not have been allowed to live
– The narrator tries to psychoanalyze his reasons for liking these Indians … and his father has done the same; Mascarita laughs
– He rejects a scholarship to France to do the PhD in this area; he has ethics related doubts about his field
– Porras Barrenechea (really a professor at the university at this time, playing himself in the novel): “Ethnology is a pseudoscience invented by the gringos to destroy the Humanities”
– There is a long meditation on how Mascarita may have decided to turn into a storyteller (and note: do we know for sure that he has?)
Third section of the novel
– Here, Mascarita is telling a story (the narrator is imagining him telling a story)
– What is he talking about, what is the structure of the story, what are its themes?
Fourth section of the novel
– Now we’re back to our first narrator, who is getting to go on a university-organized expedition to the jungle with the Linguistics Institute
– It’s like Paradise, a “recently created” world
– He is convinced that what Mascarita wants for the jungle is pre-Columbian purity. What were his own politics then, and what are they now?
– The Schniels have information on the culture (and problems) of the Machiguenga culture Mascarita had studied (they don’t have names and they die easily, and there is more)
– Returning, the narrator meets Mascarita, who is violently opposed to the Linguistics Institute (it will effectively kill the culture, he says, and perhaps the actual people)
– Then in Madrid, he finds the book by the Dominican missionary who had written about the Machiguengas [in the colonial period] … decides to write a novel about Machiguenga storytellers … writes Mascarita to ask for consultation … works on it but gets poor results … speaks with a friar who knows Machiguenga mythology, having lived in the Urubamba region … goes to Paris and tries to find out more in the anthropological museum … gives up …
– And Matos Mar, Mascarita’s thesis director, is in Paris for a conference, and the narrator looks him up; and Mascarita has allegedly emigrated to Israel.
– AT THIS POINT I am starting to wonder whether Mascarita isn’t an avatar of the narrator — who by now is doing a lot of his own research on Machiguenga culture.