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A Novel

translated by Helen Lane, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1989
ISBN: 0312420285
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Vargas Llosa is so skilled and intelligent that when a merely good idea gets caught in his head, it has a tendency to be played out (Updike's another writer like this). The War of the End of the World (1984) was just such an idea cumberously overproduced, and this smaller book's another: maybe not coincidentally, both have to do with Indians and ethnology. The narrator is a Peruvian writer visiting Florence who walks into a photo gallery one day and finds an exhibition about an Amazonian tribe, the Machiguenga. One picture shows what the caption says is the tribal storyteller--and the narrator has the dizzying feeling that he knows exactly who this is. Back in Peru, as a student, a close, friend of the narrator's was Saul Zuratas: Jewish, birthmarked, and a passionately self-immersed anthropologist, obsessed with the Amazonian Indians. Saul eventually went to Israel, and the friendship dwindled--but who was this in the picture if not the man himself?. Vargas Llosa interlaces the story with some actual Indian storytelling--confusing at first in its mimicry of primitive rhetoric and cosmogony; then overly clear as Saul-the-storyteller goes on to retell in Machiguenga-style Kafka and Old Testament tales. The point about storytelling's crucial role as something more life-defining than simple entertainment or trance is made smartly enough, but you sense that the whole book has hinged on this one not-so-startling notion (not startling at least from this fine writer). Unsatisfying and cobbled-up.