The People Who Walk - and Talk to Fireflies

THE STORYTELLER by Mario Vargas Llosa, Translated by Helen Lane, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux 246 pp., $17.95, (to be published by Faber & Faber in London, spring 1990) AT the same time Mario Vargas Llosa is running for president of Peru, he is learning to walk as a novelist.

He has already won many international awards for his novels: Several have been adapted for the screen. He has written a hit play and hosted a weekly television show.

Today he is the front-runner in an election that has already seen more than 100 mayors and other officials assassinated.

His pro-market-economy, anticocaine-cartel campaign has split the left into those who want to beat him and those who want to see him win because they think his policies will create a reaction advantageous to the radical left.

``The Storyteller,'' his most recent novel, explores the issue of Peru's identity. It avoids politics. Rather, it focuses on an Amazonian tribe, the Machiguenga, that Vargas Llosa has already explored in a television documentary.

Machiguenga means ``the people who walk.'' They see their coming and going as part of the cosmic rhythm; it's their destiny. It is in violent discord with attempts by others to Westernize them, to make them settle down, learn Spanish, accept Christianity, farm rubber, or grow cocaine. At the center of the people-who-walk is the one who talks - the storyteller of the title, ``the living sap'' of this forest people.

Vargas Llosa seems genuinely fascinated by the idea of walking. He himself tends to walk away from trouble. After his basic education, he went to Europe, and did not return to Peru until the establishment of democratic government in 1980. During his campaign, he walked away again - to Paris - but later returned to the fray.

Formally, his novels are like fugues; they flee from style to style, theme to theme. ``The Storyteller'' is no exception. It strikes an exquisite balance, preserving a creative tension at the heart of his vision.

THE novel opens in Florence, whence the narrator has fled from the disgusting reality of Peru. He is drawn into a gallery. While he fully intended to spend his vacation reading Dante and Machiavelli, he is brought up short by a collection of photographs of Amazonia. He pauses, spellbound, at the last photograph. ``I kept looking at it, smelling it, piercing it with my eyes and imagination....''

The gallery hostess becomes alarmed; it's closing time. Ironic self-portraits of the connoisseur alternate with sterner stuff in this novel.

The photograph stunned him because he thought he recognized somebody or something - a ghost of reality that had eluded him since he became interested in the Machiguenga. The photographer - now dead - had actually seen a storyteller at work.

The modern connoisseur-intellectual is frequently drawn to the primitive. Vargas Llosa creates a second character embodying an explanation of why.

Saul Zurata, ``half Jewish, half monster,'' a Peruvian Jew with a shock of red hair and a purple birthmark across half his face, is the narrator's friend from student days.

Saul becomes fascinated by the Amazonian people; he begins to identify with them. His experience at the hands of modern society makes him sympathetic to this endangered people.

Described by the narrator as the perfection of kindness and innocence, Saul ``converts.'' He becomes obsessed ``by two concerns which in the years to come would be his only subjects of conversation: the plight of the Amazonian cultures and the death throes of the forests that sheltered them.''

These concerns have been shared by the real Vargas Llosa, and it must be asked: Why does he split himself into two for his novel?

The question can only be answered by reading the book - that is, by undergoing, suffering, the sometimes bewildering alternation of styles - from memoir to myth and back - that constitute the specific fugue of ``The Storyteller.'' Why does he become two characters? One half reads Dante and Machiavelli, those world-weary analysts of culture and morals; the other half gives voice to primitive myth and the anxieties of Stone-Age people. He does it because both have their truth.

``The Storyteller'' is a paradoxical novel - that is, etymologically speaking, a novel beyond conventional beliefs. We begin to understand that the myth sections originate from the mouth of the storyteller himself, even though who he is, perhaps, is irrelevant. It could be Saul, who disappeared after his father's death.

The voice is vivid, eloquent: ``Why is it we walk? So there will be light and warmth, so that everything will be peaceful. That is the order of the world. The man who talks to fireflies does what he's obliged to do.''

Both the narrator and Vargas Llosa, the author, appear to contrast the sense of responsibility displayed here with the irresponsible exploitation of earth and humanity characteristic of modern man.

Is this romantic? Only if, the novel seems to say, one begins to identify with it completely; only if it blinds one to the assets of civilization. The tension caused by this twin recognition is considerable, but one must learn to bear with grace, Vargas Llosa suggests, by walking.

The novel closes with an unforgettable scene. The estranged Peruvian, sitting among his books, cocks an ear. The night is silent. He hears, in his imagination, the ``unceasing, crackling, immemorial'' voice of the Machiguenga storyteller. We know what makes Vargas Llosa run: the dream of walking with the Machiguengas, of talking to the fireflies.

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