Outside, Looking In: Aunt Julia and Vargas Llosa

Article excerpt

In Mario Vargas Llosa's late 1980s novel The Storyteller, his typical and frequent narrator, who is a thinly fictionalized Vargas Llosa, beckons the reader to join him in Florence during an undated stay there, while Vargas Llosa, pursuing his European agenda, reads Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli in the tourist-ridden summer heat. The story that he draws us into, after seeing an exhibition of photographs depicting an Amazonian tribe by a recently deceased Italian photographer, is that of a college friend of his, a Peruvian Jew named Saul Zuratas, marked by otherness not only by his Jewish background but also by a huge disfiguring strawberry birthmark that covers the entire right side of his face. Zuratas's subsequent nickname, Mascarita, indicates his life within and behind a mask, his very being altered by the marred countenance he presents to the world.

Vargas Llosa has also posed for the camera with a mask coquettishly held beside his face--an indication no doubt of his disguised persona in the novels. That persona, he argues, is automatically a mask or fiction, although it might call itself Mario, Marito, Varguita, Vargas Llosa. That all too thinly disguised hero dominates the form and function of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977; trans. 1982) as it later does The Storyteller (1987; trans. 1989). My emphasis on the mask would, however, be an inefficient introduction to a brief commentary on Aunt Julia if a simple but important semiotic reading were not called into play. Abe Franjndlich's photograph of Vargas Llosa (reproduced on p. 8) depicts the writer in partial three-quarter facial view, the face nervously grim and cropped off at the right border. Held in the subject's right hand is a carnivale mask that dominates two-thirds of the photograph and is presented full face to the viewer. The allegorical reading is straightforward: the writer Mario Vargas Llosa dons the mask of literary fiction in order to alter freely the autobiographical self presented. The mask is the fictional representation; the reality behind that mask is inaccessibly other.

The complication that presents itself, of course, is the fact that the face is not behind the mask but beside it. Vargas Llosa doesn't don a mask but holds it out at a fair distance and angled away from his face, stressing the separation between the two--and no doubt cautioning critics to beware of the salacious voyeurism of autobiographical commentary. I shall return later to the hauteur of such a warning, but for the moment I wish to contrast it to the lived-in, inescapable mask of Saul Zuratas in The Storyteller.

Against all odds, in an extended act of passionate identification, Zuratas sheds his Jewish and Peruvian cultures and becomes a speaker or story teller among the isolated, uncontaminated Machiguengas, a wandering Amazonian tribe spread through the "unhealthy forests of eastern Cusco and Madre de Dios." Vargas Llosa's narrator describes the habladores or speakers thus:

I was deeply moved by the thought of that being, those beings ... bringing stories from one group of Machiguengas to another and taking away others, reminding each member of the tribe that the others were alive, that despite the great distances that separated them, they still formed a community, shared a tradition and beliefs, ancestors, misfortunes and joys: the fleeting, perhaps legendary figures of those habladores who--by occupation, out of necessity, to satisfy a human whim--using the simplest most time-hallowed of expedients, the telling of stories, were the living sap that circulated and made the Machiguengas into a society, a people of interconnected and interdependent beings. (93)

Saul Zuratas knows that, marred and masked as he is by his bizarre birthmark, he would not have survived the first culling within the tribe; he nevertheless gives himself, body, life, and soul to them, leaving the Vargas Llosa narrator to puzzle his way through a situation that is alien to him. …