by Elizabeth Lee
Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique (Solibo Magnificent, 1988) and Mario Vargas Llosa’s El hablador (The Storyteller, 1987) depict intricate late 20th century post-colonial Martinican and Peruvian societies where cultural boundaries become blurred and traditional customs continue to disappear due to lingering colonial influences. Under these conditions, defining a culture and consequently orienting oneself within that space become challenging endeavors. In Solibo Magnifique, the titular character, who is a storyteller in Fort-de-France, Martinique, passes away unexpectedly during carnival while speaking to a crowd of listeners, spurring a farcical police investigation that leads to violence and additional deaths. The narrator Oiseau de Cham2, who acts as a “marqueur de paroles” (“word scratcher” )3, then attempts to recreate a memory of Solibo and of the vanishing oral tradition, transcribing his words and recognizing in the process the difficulty—and impossibility—of directly translating the oral into the written. El hablador similarly addresses this tension between orality and literary tradition when the Peruvian narrator comes upon a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller surrounded by an audience in the Amazon. Imagining that this storyteller is his ex-university friend Saúl Zuratas, he attempts to once again write a novel about the Machiguenga and its storytellers.
The narrators and storytellers in both texts are therefore situated among a mixture of cultural beliefs and customs. In their manifesto, “Éloge de la créolité” (“In Praise for Creoleness”), Jean Benarbé, Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant argue, “We cannot reach Caribbeaness without . . . the unconditional acceptance of our Creoleness.” This Creole identity (créolité) and, consequently, the Creole space that Solibo and Oiseau de Cham inhabit are “the interactional or transactional aggregate of Caribbean, European, African, Asian, and Levantine cultural elements, united on the same soil by the yoke of history” (891; emphasis in text). Thus, reaching Creoleness is a continual process of embracing the diverse historical and cultural elements that form part of Creole identity, and only then can Caribbeaness take shape through the acceptance of cultural differences amongst the peoples in the Archipelago (894). On the other hand, El hablador presents a dichotomy where the narrator and Saúl Zuratas find themselves between Peruvian culture and the Machiguenga, an indigenous group in the Peruvian Amazon. However, because Peru is a transcultural nation where the Machiguenga form a part of it, both Peruvian and Machiguengan cultures are interconnected and yet in some ways distinct products of Peru’s colonial and post-colonial history. Thus, Solibo Magnifique and El hablador present characters who define themselves differently within this multicultural environment. This allows the narrators—who are storytellers themselves by occupation—to then contemplate how Solibo and Zuratas handle the crossing of cultures and shape their identities, and how the portrayal of these storytellers become a projection of the narrators’ own internal struggles as they attempt to grasp this complicated mix of cultures and cultural crossings. This essay explores the complex cultural identities of these narrators through a discussion of the reasons that compel them to remember and recreate the storytellers. It will then address the way their narratives reveal parallelisms between themselves and the storytellers, ultimately considering the act of writing as a method to shape and reshape the self and others.
1. Narrating Memory
Although Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator in El hablador express a continual interest in marking down Solibo’s words and writing a realistic novel on the Machiguenga, both do not set about accomplishing these tasks to their full extent until their identities within their respective societies become destabilized through loss and the uncertainty that follows it. In Solibo Magnifique, this notion of loss emerges implicitly early on through the narrator’s need to write down stories he hears. He expresses his obsessive determination to document Solibo when he explains, “J’accumulais des notes derrière des notes et des nuits fiévreuses à les remettre au propre, avec la rage prémonitoire d’un en lutte avec le temps: les conteurs étaient rares, j’en avais trouvé un” (45-46) (“I accumulated notes upon notes and spent feverish nights putting them in order, with the premonitory rage of one wrestling with time: storytellers were rare, I had found one” [22-23]). Noting the rarity of storytellers, Oiseau de Cham suggests that these stories forming a part of Martinican tradition, and therefore Martinican identity, are slowly disappearing. The question of time also becomes an important aspect since loss in this novel generates tension between past and present, tradition and change, and consequently between Solibo and Oiseau de Cham. Nevertheless, Solibo’s role as a storyteller becomes crucial to the narrator’s quest to remember past traditions as he mentions that now only folkloric institutes celebrate the spoken word. Cheikh M. Ndiaye notes that Solibo’s social status is analogous to that of a griot or African storyteller and associates him with Negritude, a literary movement begun by francophone intellectuals including the Martinican poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, that called for a return to and an embracing of African roots (114, 117). What fascinates the narrator, then, is the difference engulfing him and Solibo. Whereas Solibo positions himself firmly within the realm of orality, Oiseau de Cham depends heavily on the written word as a way to preserve the present. He discloses, “À force de patience, j’avais fait admettre mes cahiers, mes crayons, mon petit magnétophone à piles qui ne fonctionnait jamais, mon appétance malsaine pour les paroles, toutes les paroles, même les plus inutiles” (43-44) (“With patience, I got them to accept my notebooks, my pencils, my little tape recorder with batteries that never worked, my unhealthy appetite for tales, all tales, even the most trivial ones” ). By calling his appetite for tales “malsaine” (unhealthy), he highlights this ethnographic approach as an unnatural way to retain Solibo’s sayings. His use of anthropological methods—a discipline with roots in Europe—pits him in direct opposition to Solibo, since the latter’s relationship to orality as a way to remember and circulate information evokes African traditions, which also form part of Creole customs.
Ultimately, Solibo remains a mystery to Oiseau de Cham even as he realizes the importance of Solibo’s gift for the spoken word and the need to preserve it. He writes, “Car, si de son vivant il était une égnime, aujourd’hui c’est bien pire: il n’existe . . . que dans une mosaïque de souvenirs, et ses contes, ses devinettes, ses blagues de vie et de mort, se sont dissous dans des consciences trop souvent enivrées” (26) (“For if in his life he was an enigma, today it is much worse: he exists . . . only in a mosaic of memories, and his tales, his riddles, his jokes on life and death have all dissolved in minds too often sodden” [8-9]). The fear of forgetting Solibo—who the narrator at certain times describes as an otherworldly figure—spurs him into producing a “parole” for him, since even these fragmented memories of him are fading already. He claims, “J’aurais voulu pour lui d’une parole à sa mesure: inscrite dans une vie simple et plus haute que toute vie” (27) (“For him, I would have wished words his size: inscribed in a simple life and yet higher than life” ). Oiseau de Cham’s use of the word “parole” is important in understanding the purpose and structure of this text, because it demonstrates the manner in which Oiseau de Cham wishes to present Solibo and his memory. Solibo gains the “Magnifique” (Magnificent) part of his name because of his oral skills. His words become a “parole.” On the other hand, the written is not a “parole,” as Solibo informs Oiseau de Cham: “Oiseau de Cham, tu écris. Bon. Moi, Solibo, je parle. Tu vois la distance? . . . tu veux capturer la parole à l’écriture, je vois le rythme que tu veux donner, comment tu veux serrer les mots pour qu’ils sonnent à la langue . . . On n’écrit jamais la parole, mais des mots, tu aurais dû parler” (52-53) (“Oiseau de Cham, you write. Very nice. I, Solibo, I speak. You see the distance? . . . you want to capture the word in your writing, I see the rhythm you try to put into it, how you want to grab words so they ring in the mouth . . . One writes but words, not the word, you should have spoken” [27-28]). This distinction between “parole,” “mot,” and even “écrit” induces a question then: If, as noted earlier, Oiseau de Cham subscribes to the written word rather than the spoken, how does he ultimately negotiate between these two opposing forms of communication?
To the narrator, Solibo becomes a figure who can provide a perspective outside of his own, challenging his preoccupation with writing and perhaps even forcing him to eventually negotiate between the oral and the written, between his connection to Creole and French forms of memory. Oiseau de Cham claims, “Mystère sur mon devenir si le personnage de Solibo Magnifique n’avait réveillé ma vieille curiosité, me permettant ainsi, à travers lui, de retrouver une logique d’écriture” (44) (“Who knows what would have become of me if Solibo Magnificent’s personality had not awakened my old curiosity, thus allowing me (through him) again to find sense in writing” ). Even so, this acquired sense in writing is undermined through Solibo’s death: not only does Oiseau de Cham lose this tangible connection to the oral past of Martinique, but this death also threatens his position as a “marqueur de paroles.” If his social function is to record stories that shape Martinican culture, then the disappearance of these storytellers suggests that the position of a “marqueur de paroles” will fade along with them. Consequently, his decision to create a written memory of Solibo reveals a desire to hold on to this aspect of a cultural past that is fundamental to Creole identity4.
By contrast in El hablador, the Peruvian narrator begins the novel by attempting to forget his Peruvian identity, only to be forced to revisit it when confronted with memories of his past struggles to understand the Machiguenga and to write about them. He explains, “Vine a Firenze para olvidarme por un tiempo del Perú y de los peruanos y he aquí que el malhadado país me salió al encuentro esta mañana de la manera más inesperada” (13) (“I came to Firenze to forget Peru and the Peruvians for a while, and suddenly my unfortunate country forced itself upon me this morning in the most unexpected way” )5. Although he expresses his need to forget Peru, the narrator does not give any concrete indication of his relationship to this country, exposing a lack of connection to his cultural background. He distances himself even further from Peru by setting up an antithetical relationship between Italy and Peru when he sees through a window display photos depicting the Peruvian jungle and decides to enter the building to study them:
Con un extraño cosquilleo y el presentimiento de estar haciendo una estupidez, arriesgándome por una curiosidad trivial a frustrar de algún modo el proyecto tan bien planeado y ejecutado hasta ahora—leer a Dante y Machiavelli y ver pintura renacentista durante un par de meses, en irreductible soledad—, a provocar una de esas discretas hecatombes que, de tanto en tanto, ponen mi vida de cabeza. (13)
(With a strange shiver and the presentiment that I was doing something foolish, that mere curiosity was going to jeopardize in some way my well-conceived and, up until then, well-executed plan—to read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings for a couple of months in absolute solitude—and precipitate one of those personal upheavals that periodically make chaos of my life. [3-4])
The juxtaposition of the Peruvian jungle and Renaissance Italy brings into focus the question of roots and identity. Not only does the narrator favor a time period in Italy that sought to revive and establish classical Greece and Rome as a foundation for European culture and knowledge, but he also reveals his wish to disassociate himself from what he deems is an unfortunate and unrefined component of Peru. By describing his curiosity as “trivial” (banal), the narrator displays a desire to view those photos of the jungle as inconsequential. At the same time, however, he realizes that they will provoke a primitive part of himself that he has thus far suppressed, since he applies the word “estupidez” (stupidity) to his actions and predicts that they will generate chaos in what he suggests is currently a well-ordered life—at least while in Italy. Additionally, the fact that he wishes to be alone with his well-organized plan of studying Renaissance works reveals perhaps a sense of fragility to his identity, where intrusions that might not even be as significant as the photos of the jungle can further destabilize his sense of self as a Peruvian writer and intellectual.
Ultimately, a photo of a Machiguenga storyteller creates anxiety within the narrator and propels him to write about this indigenous group again, years after his first attempt while studying in Paris, thus revealing his need to understand this world that he cannot seem to penetrate. Of his past endeavors to write about the Machiguenga, the narrator reveals, “había renunciado a escribir mi relato sobre los habladores. Había borroneado cuadernos y pasado muchas horas en la plaza del Trocadero, en la biblioteca y las vitrinas del Museo del Hombre, tratando de entenderlos y adivinarlos, en vano. Inventadas por mí, las voces de los habladores desafinablan” (121-22) (“I’d given up the idea of writing about the habladores. I filled any number of composition books with my scribblings and spent many hours in the Place du Trocadéro, in the library of the Musée de l’Homme and in front of its display cases, trying in vain to understand the storytellers, to intuit what they were like. The voices of the ones that I’d contrived sounded all wrong” ). As with the earlier juxtaposition between Italy and the Amazon, here the author locates himself within the civilized, intellectual world that is France and attempts to faithfully depict the lives of those in the Amazon jungle. Furthermore, he later on explains,
[C]ada vez que despachaba a la basura el manuscrito a medio hacer de aquella huidiza historia, era la dificultad que significaba inventar en español y dentro de esquemas intelectuales lógicos una forma literaria que verosímilmente sugiriese la manera de contar de un hombre primitivo, de mentalidad mágico-religiosa. Todos mis intentos culminaban siempre en un estilo que me parecía tan obviamente fraudulento . . . (176)
([E]ach time I threw the half-finished manuscript of that elusive story into the wastebasket, was the difficulty of inventing, in Spanish and within a logically consistent intellectual framework, a literary form that would suggest, with any reasonable degree of credibility, how a primitive man with a magico-religious mentality would go about telling a story. All my attempts led each time to the impasse of a style that struck me as glaringly false . . . [157-58])
Like Oiseau de Cham in Solibo Magnifique, the narrator in this text attempts to write about an oral tradition through a European framework by essentially imposing the Spanish language on the Machiguenga voice. However, Oiseau de Cham does not reject the cultural tradition he writes about as he takes part in the quotidian life of those he incorporates into his writing. By contrast, the Peruvian narrator reiterates this dichotomy of the intellectual and a supposedly more primitive group, underscoring what appears to be a purposeful distancing between himself and his subject matter.
Considering the near impossibility of depicting the Machiguenga accurately, the inclusion of Saúl Zuratas becomes essential to the narrator’s project due to the former’s multifaceted identity. The narrator conflates the Schneils’ encounter with a storyteller possessing a facial birthmark with the photograph he sees of a Machiguengan storyteller with a similar attribute, and he decides that the storyteller in the photograph is none other than Zuratas. Thus, the narrator undermines the realism of his novel by creating a fictionalized representation of the Machiguenga and the oral tradition. He cannot determine with certainty that it is truly Zuratas. However, without incorporating him into the narrative, the Peruvian narrator would not have an adequate connection to the Machiguenga that could prove constructive to his writing endeavors. Just like Oiseau de Cham cannot attempt to write a “parole” without Solibo, the narrator here needs a character who can negotiate between both Peruvian and Machiguengan spheres for him. Yet, much like Solibo, Zuratas remains an enigma, and the narrator describes this puzzle as:
[L]a transformación del converso6 en hablador. Es . . . lo que ha motivado que, a ver si así me libro de su acoso, la escriba.
[ . . . ] Retroceder en el tiempo, del pantalón y la corbata hasta el taparrabos y el tatuaje, del castellano a la crepitación aglutinante del machiguenga, de la razón a la magia y de la religión monoteísta o el agnisticismo occidental al animismo pagano, es difícil de tragar pero aún posible, con cierto esfuerzo de imaginación. Lo otro, sin embargo, me opone una tiniebla que, mientras más trato de perforar, más me adensa. (265-66)
([T]he transformation of the convert into the storyteller. It is . . . what has impelled me to put it into writing in the hope that if I do so, it will cease to haunt me.
[ . . . ] Going back in time from trousers and tie to a loincloth and tattoos, from Spanish to the agglutinative crackling of Machiguenga, from reason to magic and from a monotheistic religion or Western agnosticism to pagan animism is a feat hard to swallow, though still possible, with a certain effort of imagination. The rest of the story, however, confronts me only with darkness, and the harder I try to see through it, the more impenetrable it becomes. [244-45])
Even though Zuratas becomes a vehicle through which he can frame the Machiguenga narrative, his ideological views of the civilized-native paradigm prevent him from truly understanding this indigenous group, much less Zuratas. By pointing out the progression from merely being sensitive to the plight of the Machiguenga to becoming a storyteller within this tribe, the narrator emphasizes his belief of himself as a civilized and therefore rational man. A conversion of thought is an intellectual pursuit, but embracing the position of a storyteller among the Machiguenga requires a complete transformation of one’s belief system and cultural identity—a move that is unthinkable and thus impossible to the narrator given his predisposed notions of the inferiority of the Machiguenga. Consequently, the “intrusion” of the photographs in the narrator’s life while he is in an Italian city that was at the heart of the revival of the classics merely functions as a reminder of Peru and its potentially disorienting complexities. Rather, the images of the Machiguenga serve to question and challenge the narrator to embrace this “primitive” side of his Peruvian heritage. Yet failing to do so creates a fractured sense of identity, much like with Oiseau de Cham who labors to express the multidimensionality that defines Creole identity.
2. (Re)Imagining the Self and Others
The narrators’ struggles to navigate and depict complex spheres result in narratives that ultimately serve as a reflection of their own identities as they grapple with the uncertainties wrought by Solibo’s death and the memories of Zuratas and the Machiguenga. In Solibo Magnifique, Oiseau de Cham continually emphasizes these cross-cultural tensions by conveying the distance between Solibo and himself. However, he is not the only one to remark on this gap. Ti-Cal, a government employee, also comes to this conclusion during his statement to the chief-sergeant, Bouaffesse: “En fait, il [Solibo] était mieux inscrit que nous tous dans la vie d’ici, il ne poursuivait visiblement aucun mirage, ne se détournait pas de lui-même, mais explorait à fond ce que nous sommes avec un regard de grand touriste, ou d’éternel enfant” (190) (“In fact, he [Solibo] was more inscribed in the life here than any of us, he wasn’t running after some mirage, he didn’t turn away from himself, but profoundly explored what we are with tourist eyes, child’s eyes” ). While Solibo appears alienated from others, he is actually more at ease with his identity in this cultural space. Oiseau de Cham on the other hand embodies this notion of chasing after a mirage when he answers, “Non, pas écrivain: marqueur de paroles, ça change tout . . . l’écrivain est d’un autre monde, il rumine, élabore ou prospect, le marqueur refuse une agonie: celle de l’oraliture, il recueille et transmet” (169-70; emphasis in text) (“No, not writer: word scratcher, it makes a huge difference . . . the writer is from another world, he ruminates, elaborates, or canvasses, the word scratcher refuses the agony of oraliture, he collects and transmits” ). He does not want to synthesize, but rather, he seeks to play the role of a passive observer and offer a representation of Martinique as it is by recording Solibo’s words and presenting it directly to his readers. This becomes problematic due to the impossibility of translating the oral into the written—as Solibo communicates multiple times to Oiseau de Cham—and results in an unsatisfactory substitution.
Solibo Magnifique stresses the notion that marking down words without actually analyzing their ramifications also builds a sense of superficiality, as the act risks losing meaning and purpose. Solibo tells the narrator, “‘Z’Oiseau, tu dis: La tradition, la tradition, la tradition . . . tu mets pleurer par terre sur le pied-bois qui perd ses feuilles, comme si la feuille était la racine! . . . Laisse la tradition, pitite, et surveille la racine . . .’” (63) (“‘Z’Oiseau, you say: Tradition, tradition, tradition . . . you bawl on the floor for the tree that loses its leaves, as if the leaf was the root! . . . Leave tradition alone, son, and watch the root . . .’” ). His words show the narrator’s lack of understanding of what Solibo considers as “l’essentiel” (53) (“the most important thing” ). Solibo challenges Oiseau de Cham to comprehend the essence of orality beyond its manifestantion, pushing him to move past being compelled to record these revered storytellers merely because they are now extremely rare. Benarbé et al. claim that “marqueurs de paroles” gradually took literary autonomy when recording the words of storytellers (bards, minstrels, griots, etc.), which caused “a break, a deep ravine between a written expression pretending to be universalo-modern and traditional Creole orality enclosing a great part of our being. This nonintegration of oral tradition was one of the forms and one of the dimensions of our alienation” (895). Only through grasping the essence of orality can Oiseau de Cham then perhaps produce a piece of work that is not simply an inadequate imitation of Solibo’s word, but instead, a work that stands on its own merits as one that discerns the meaning of créolité.
Interestingly, while Oiseau de Cham does not replicate orality, he appears to apply certain aspects characteristic of Solibo’s style into his own narration. He describes, “ . . . Solibo conservait ce regard qui voit le monde sous d’autres dimensions . . . Il captivait les compagnies au rythme de ses gestes, baillant la parole non plus dans l’assemblage évanoui des veillées traditionnelles, mais dans les refuges des nègres d’antan, des nouveaux nègres-marrons, des nègres perdus, des nègres abandonnés, à mauvais genre et en rupture de ban” (42-43) (“Solibo kept that look which sees the world in other dimensions . . . He would captivate the company with the rhythm of his gestures, no longer spinning the word in the vanishing scene of a traditional wake, but back in the mountain refuge of the blackmen of yesteryear, the new maroons, the lost blackmen, the abandoned ones, the bad apples on the brink of outlawry” ). Solibo’s inclusivity of experiences that constitute numerous layers of Martinican history reflects the multiplicity of voices in Oiseau de Cham’s narrative. He presents a spectrum of identities that become embroiled in the investigation of Solibo’s death, ranging from Congo, who is alienated because he evokes an African past that is more a distant memory than actuality in Martinique, to the Chief Inspector Évariste Pilon, who is French-educated and consequently disconnected from the “witnesses” in the novel. In presenting the characters’ memories of Solibo and their testimonies to Bouaffesse and Pilon, Oiseau de Cham creates not a text that reproduces Solibo’s words as he had originally planned but, rather, a collective memory that is moreover reflected in the use of “we” in the text. Delphine Perret argues that since “we” denotes different groups at certain times, it demonstrates the narrator’s solidarity with each of those groups (833). Likewise with Solibo, Oiseau de Cham notes a moment when one of the witnesses states,
Sans avoir connu ces pays, . . . Solibo Magnifique pouvait en parler, et en parler et en parler . . . Les confidences de ces femmes, leurs façons de goûter la nuit suffisaient au conteur pour décrire chaque terre, chaque peuple, chaque douleur. Même les femmes du Brésil, du Chili, de Colombie comme Conchita Juanez y Rodriguez, s’étonnaient de sa prescience sur l’Autre Amérique.
[ . . . ] Solibo répétait: La misère dessine toujours de la même manière. (176)
(Without having been in these countries, . . . Solibo Magnificent could talk about them and talk and talk . . . The women’s secrets, their ways of tasting the night were enough for the storyteller to describe each land, each people, each pain. Even the women from Brazil, from Chile, from Colombia like Conchita were astonished by his knowledge of the Other America.
[ . . . ] Solibo used to say: Misery draws the same way everywhere. [120-21])
Just as Solibo can understand the women’s pain through his own experiences, the narrator can connect with the other residents of Fort-de-France, because he is equally confounded by Solibo’s sudden death from “une égorgette de la parole” (42) (“snickt by the word” ). Like Solibo, this identification with those he chooses to represent in his work allows Oiseau de Cham to write his “parole.” Perret additionally notes that the fluidity of moving from one group to the next on the part of Oiseau de Cham and his eventual identification with Pilon at the end of the novel establish his own lack of a stable identity (833). Consequently, Oiseau de Cham becomes an active participant in the narrative instead an outside observer tasked with recording and transmitting information.
Moreover, Oiseau de Cham manages to negotiate between the oral and written by incorporating elements of orality in his text, thus creating a space where both can coexist. In the first pages of the text, the narrator sets up a call and response that parallels Solibo’s call, é krii, and its expected response, é kraa (33). Oiseau de Cham presents the following address before the first chapter:
Le Maître de la parole
prend ici le virage du destin
et nous plonge
dans la déveine…
(Pour qui pleurer?
Pour Solibo.) (23)
Here the Master of the Word
swerves onto the sharp curve of destiny
and plunges us
(Tears for whom?
For Solibo.) )
By addressing the readers, asking for whom they should cry, and providing a response to the question, Oiseau de Cham sets up the expectation of a direct reader engagement with the narrator that is analogous to that between a storyteller and his audience. It also lends authority to the narrator as he informs the reader of how they should react to the tale that follows, much like the way Solibo’s words inspire a certain level respect and reaction from his audience. The rhythmic and poetic form here is furthermore a reminder that Oiseau de Cham attempts to add rhythm to his writing in order to mimic the oral. Significant, is that this is not merely applied to the words that Solibo speaks, but to a call and response, a technique directly linked to orality. Consequently, sound and music become important characteristics of the narrative, not only adding rhythm to the text but also a theatrical aspect that captivates the reader. While Oiseau de Cham takes his turn to speak to the crowd after discovering Solibo’s death, he comments that the drummer Sucette fills the silences by creating sounds on the drum skin, an act that reflects the way Solibo’s words were accompanied by Sucette’s drum (79). Along with the use of onomatopoeia such “pin pon pin pon” (110) to indicate the sirens of fire trucks and drawn out words that reveal panic but that are also exaggerated such as when a character cries “Po la poliiice!” (83), Oiseau de Cham adds a performative dimension to the novel. This theatrical aspect transforms written language into a performance, adding a visual and auditory facet that echo Solibo’s gestures as he spoke.
Through a recollection of Solibo’s last words and his advice concerning writing, and spurred on by his death, Oiseau de Cham manages to create a compromise between the oral and the written that is also reflected through the structure of the novel. John F. Moran claims that beginning the text with the police’s incident report and ending the novel with Solibo’s final words symbolizes the divide between orality and literature (225). The clinical document from the police represents a purely written form of communication; whereas, Solibo’s orality conveys a more subjective portrait of life in Martinique, where knowledge is based on perception more so than on tangible facts. Oiseau de Cham’s text is found in-between the police’s incident report and Solibo’s last words, representing his journey from a frame of mind that is solely focused on transmitting information in written form to one that is capable of considering the nuances of orality that cannot be translated onto text. Oiseau de Cham’s inability to convey a complete image of Solibo consequently demonstrates that orality can only survive through a negotiation between two juxtaposing elements: oral and written, French and Creole.
In El hablador, however, the Peruvian narrator is unable to negotiate between the Peruvian and Machiguengan components of his identity the way Oiseau de Cham seems to achieve in some regard. The depiction of Zuratas’ hesitations concerning a full embracing of his Machiguengan identity as a storyteller reveals the Peruvian narrator’s own reluctance to fully explore Machiguengan culture. What ultimately distinguishes the Peruvian narrator from Oiseau de Cham in terms of writing a narrative that reflects a compromise between different groups, traditions, and languages is the former’s irreverent attitude towards Zuratas’ stance on the Machiguenga. He writes of his discussions with Zuratas regarding the government intruding into the tribe: “A veces, para ver hasta dónde podía llevarlo ‘el tema,’ yo lo provocaba . . . No, Mascarita, el país tenía que desarrollarse. ¿No había dicho Marx que el progreso vendría chorreando sangre? . . . Pero yo sentía, cuando lanzaba estas provocaciones, que le dolían como si hubiera hablado mal de don Salomón Zuratas” (31-32) (“Occasionally, to see how far his obsession might lead him, I would provoke him . . . No, Mascarita, the country had to move forward. Hadn’t Marx said that progress would come dripping blood? . . . But I could feel that when I provoked him in this way I was hurting him as much as if I had run down Don Salomón Zuratas” [21-22]). These provocations reveal that the Peruvian narrator views Zuratas as an interesting anomaly and that he does not truly want to understand the cultural repercussions involved in attempting to assimilate the Machiguenga into the dominant, industrialized portion of Peruvian society. Additionally, calling Zuratas “Mascarita” (Little Mask) not only places emphasis on his physical appearance, which alienates him from others, but it also highlights the difficulty the Peruvian narrator has in truly perceiving him.
Due to this distance between the Peruvian narrator and Zuratas, the narrator winds up portraying contradictory aspects of Zuratas as a Machiguenga storyteller due to a lack of understanding of the latter. During one of his visits to a Machiguenga doctor and his family, Zuratas is offered the option to stop his nomadic ways and settle down with a wife. He considers, “Sentí ganas de aceptarla. [ . . . ] Esta que llevo es una buena vida, ya lo sé. Los hombres que andan me reciben con alegría, me dan de comer y me hacen halagos. Pero vivo viajando ¿y cuánto tiempo más podré hacerlo? Las distancias entre las familias son cada vez más grandes. Últimamente pienso mucho, mientras ando, que un día las fuerzas me faltarán” (159-60) (“I felt like accepting it. [ . . . ] It’s a good life I’m living, that I know. The men who walk receive me gladly, give me food, pay me compliments. But my days are spent journeying, and how much longer will I be able to keep that up? Distances between families grow greater and greater. Lately, I often think as I’m walking that one day my strength will give out” ). Zuratas’ apparent ease in discontinuing his role as a storyteller exposes his view that perhaps his position is more an occupation than an essential part of his identity. His thought process does not appear to reflect an awareness of the crucial role he plays as a link between families, especially as he remarks that these families are now settling further and further apart. Such a reality would make storytellers even more important to the survival of the Machiguenga tribe. Even though Zuratas does not realize his critical role, a Machiguenga woman who has been given to him as a wife acknowledges the potentially disastrous consequences of not having storytellers. Before committing suicide to prevent their marriage from taking place, she states, “No quiero que rabien contra mi, diciendo: ‘Por ella nos quedamos sin hablador’. Dirán que le hice mañoserías, que le di bebedizo para que me tomara de mujer. Prefiero irme” (161) (“I don’t want them to rage at me, saying: ‘Because of her we’ve been left without a storyteller.’ They’ll say I tricked him, that I gave him a potion so he’d take me as his wife. I’d rather go.” ). This juxtaposition of a Machiguenga woman realizing the importance of storytellers when Zuratas himself does not seem to highlights his prior identity as a Peruvian Jew. What perplexes the Peruvian narrator is his belief that because Zuratas has become a Machiguenga “hablador,” this means that the latter has been able to fully embrace the Machiguenga culture. He does not question the possibility that Zuratas may not be fully assimilated into Machiguengua culture and so he writes, “Porque hablar como habla un hablador es haber llegado a sentir y vivir lo más íntimo de esa cultura, haber calado en sus entresijos, llegado al tuétano de su historia y su mitología, somatizado sus tabúes, reflejos, apetitos y terrores ancestrales” (266) (“Talking the way a storyteller talks means being able to feel and live in the very heart of that culture, means having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors” ). Yet Zuratas’ belief that he can fluidly shift from the role of a Machiguenga storyteller to an ordinary member of the tribe reveals that, like the Peruvian narrator, he has not yet fully penetrated the essence of this culture.
In addition to this contradictory representation of Zuratas as a “hablador” that reveals an impenetrable quality in the latter, the dual narrative structure of El hablador further evokes the distance between the Peruvian narrator and the Machiguenga and, as a result, between Zuratas and the tribe. Unlike Solibo Magnifique, where the entire narrative embodies elements of orality and literature, the chapters in El hablador are specifically designated either to the Peruvian narrator or to the Machiguenga storyteller. In claiming that the “civilized” Peruvian narrator’s chapters frame those of the “mythic” Machiguenga speaker, José Andrés Rivas proposes that the novel is a metaphor of the Americas (195). He asserts, “La novela está escrita por un narrador ‘civilizado’. Es la perspectiva del hombre culto que contempla desde Europa a la nueva tierra. Es el asombro del conquistador. El del blanco que mira al aborigen (y éste a su propia tierra) . . . El tema es el mundo del mito contempado desde la razón. Y de la separación de sus fronteras” (196) (“The novel is written by a ‘civilized’ narrator. It is the perspective of the cultured man who contemplates the new world from Europe. It is the astonishment of the conqueror. The white man who observes the indigenous (and from his own country) . . . The theme is the mythic world being contemplated through reason. And the separation of their boundaries”). It is because the Peruvian narrator considers the Machiguenga through an outsider’s lens that he fails to depict a realistic Machiguenga storyteller. Zuratas as a storyteller ultimately attempts to change Machiguengan customs, consequently blurring the boundaries the Peruvian narrator labors to conserve between Peruvian and Machiguengan cultures. Early on in the text, the Peruvian narrator shares Zuratas’ views on certain aspects of indigenous tribes that he does not agree with. He writes,
Que a los niños que nacían con defectos físicos, cojos, mancos, ciegos, con más o menos dedos de los debidos o el labio leporino, los mataran las mismas madres echándolos al río o enterrándolos vivos. A quién no le iban a chocar esas costumbres, por supuesto.
[ . . . ] De pronto, se tocó el inmenso lunar.
—Yo no hubiera pasado el examen, compadre. A mí me hubieran liquidado —susuró—. (35-36)
(The babies born with physical defects, lame, maimed, blind, with more or fewer fingers than usual, or a harelip, were killed by their own mothers, who threw them in the river or buried them alive. Anybody would naturally be shocked by such customs.
[ . . . ] Suddenly he touched his enormous birthmark. “I wouldn’t have passed the test, pal. They’d have liquidated me,” he whispered. ).
Alienated because of a large purple birthmark on his face, it becomes particularly important to Zuratas that he gains acceptance in one of the cultures he finds himself in. This is at least how the Peruvian narrator analyzes Zuratas’ psychology, that the attraction of the Machiguenga is their acceptance of his birthmark. Thus, despite the fact that Zuratas has explicitly expressed his belief in non-intervention amongst the tribal groups of the Peruvian Amazon, the Peruvian narrator portrays him attempting to change Machiguenga customs. Through the Machiguenga storyteller, he writes,
Al seriphigari le he preguntado muchas veces: “¿Qué significa tener una cara como la mía?” Ningún saankarite ha sabido dar un explicación, parece. ¿Por qué me soplaría así Tasurinchi? Calma, calma, no se enojen. ¿De qué gritan? Bueno, no fue Tasurinchi. ¿Sería Kientibakori, entonces? ¿No? Bueno, tampoco él. [ . . . ] Algunas cosas no tendran [una causa], entonces. Ocurrirán, nomás. Ustedes no están de acuerdo, ya lo sé. Lo puedo adivinar sólo mirándoles los ojos. (229)
(I’ve asked the seripigari many times: ‘What does it mean, having a face like mine?’ No saankarite has been able to explain it, it seems. Why did Tasurinchi breathe me out this way? Shh, shh, don’t get angry. What are you shouting about? All right, it wasn’t Tasurinchi. Kientibakori, then? No? All right, it wasn’t him either. [ . . . ] So some things may not have one [a cause]. They just happen, that’s all. I know you don’t agree. I can see it just by looking at your eyes ).
The Machiguenga refuse to consider the possibility that Tasurinchi, the god of good, and Kientibakori, the god of evil, could have created Zuratas as already having a facial deformity. Because of their customs, he should have been killed had he been born with the birthmark. Consequently, Zuratas attempts to change Machiguengan culture by presenting himself as an example of someone who was born with a deformity but who is not evil, even though he is aware that he is offending the Machiguenga. If, as Rivas argues, this novel is a metaphor for the conquest of the Americas, then this scene depicts the Peruvian narrator attempting to civilize an indigenous group through Zuratas, therefore establishing his inability to accept the Machiguengan culture as it is. Noting that he is not even in the Peruvian Amazon as he writes this but in Firenze, the Peruvian narrator cannot help but impose his own European-influenced perspective on the Machiguenga narrative and judge the tribe’s customs and beliefs, further reflecting the notion of a metaphorical conquest of the Americas.
Moreover, by incorporating European narratives into the Machiguengan oral tradition, the Peruvian narrator further exposes his incapability to understand the Machiguenga. Throughout the Machiguenga chapters, Zuratas interjects his narrative with the phrase, “Es, al menos, lo que yo he sabido” (48) (That, anyway, is what I have learned ). He distances himself from the tales he shares with the tribe through an emphasis on the fact that he has learnt this material from others and that he is merely conveying it to them. The act of storytelling becomes simply an act of speaking about what others have told him—as the novel’s title may imply. Zuratas does not necessarily have to fully embody the Machiguenga culture and identity in the process, which appears to be the case since he adapts Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and presents it to the Machiguenga. Through this story, he introduces the issue of physical appearances to the tribe by telling them that during a trance, he had been transformed into a bug, Gregor-Tasurinchi. Even though a seripigari—a Machiguengan shaman—advises him, “Lo mejor es que te olvides. No hables más de eso. Lo que se recuerda, vive, y puede volver a pasar” (228) (“You’d best forget it. Don’t talk about it anymore. What’s remembered goes on living and can happen again” ), Zuratas nevertheless reveals that he has not been able to forget and continues to tell this tale. Even though throughout the Machiguenga narrative he expresses a respect for a seripigari’s knowledge, he goes against his advice, suggesting that he has personal reasons for telling Kafka’s tale. By incorporating this tale into the novel, the Peruvian narrator reveals the use of writing as a tool to understand Zuratas’ frame of mind, even as the latter has supposedly assimilated into Machiguengan life and should not in theory impose Western narratives into the tribe’s traditions. That the Peruvian narrator first chooses to present Zuratas the storyteller as solely Machiguengan but then ultimately falls back to a narrative full of allusions to Kafka and Jewish history suggests the impossibility of completely staying within a single cultural frame in a country such as Peru, a place composed of diverse and interwoven customs and beliefs.
Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator both use writing as a strategy to better understand the storytellers, Solibo Magnifique and Saúl Zuratas. In Solibo Magnifique, Solibo becomes a mentor figure who challenges Oiseau de Cham, which results in a narrative that manages to compromise between orality and writing and is a collective memory of the residents of Fort de France, featuring Solibo as Oiseau de Cham originally had planned. In fact, Perret claims, “Chamoiseau devient donc lui aussi Magnifique à travers cette hyperbole narrative, non seulement grâce à sa ‘belle parole’ mais aussi dans le sens étymologique du terme (qui fait de grandes choses)” (829) (“Chamoiseau himself becomes also Magnificent through this narrative hyperbole, not only due to his ‘beautiful word’ but also in the etymological sense of the term (someone who does great things)”). Nevertheless, the narrator evokes the sense of loss at the end of his narrative when he expresses, “il était clair désormais que sa parole, sa vraie parole, toute sa parole, était perdue pour tous—et à jamais” (226) (“it was clear now that his words, his true words, all of his words, were lost for all of us—and forever” ). Even if Oiseau de Cham finally comprehends that to write down the oral is merely a substitution and not a true representation of orality, he nevertheless feels that an essential part of his identity has been lost with the death of Solibo—the one person he knew who embodied orality.
By contrast, the Peruvian narrator never reaches a point where he understands Zuratas due to the latter’s unpopular view of nonintervention in the Amazon. However, his narratives do not merely present his interpretation of the mystery surrounding Zuratas and his belief that nonintervention in these indigenous groups is impossible. Misha Kokotovic asserts that the importance of the hablador’s role in the Machiguenga tribe parallels that of the writer and intellectual in South America (456). Because of modernization and the appearance of visual media, however, writers and intellectuals no longer held their previous social status, and Kokotovic contends that the narrator’s concentration on the role of a “hablador” reveals a need to achieve the kind of social standing the “hablador” has among the Machiguenga (456). He further claims, “Vargas Llosa does not attempt to represent the Machiguenga. Rather, he represents, and responds to, a crisis of his own intellectual authority by inventing the hablador, who serves as a projection of the writer’s desired role and status in late twentieth-century Western society” (456). Granted that Kokotovic refers to the author rather than the Peruvian narrator, the latter nonetheless also needs to invent Zuratas in the role of the storyteller to produce the novel. However, even prior to his decision to write about Zuratas, the Peruvian narrator was consumed with thoughts of the Machiguengan storytellers. Given his fascination with these figures and not necessarily with Machiguengan culture in general, Kokotovic’s claim can also be applied to the Peruvian narrator, whose final words of the novel are, “Pero esta noche iría adonde fuera en vano. Sé que . . . seguiré oyendo, cercano, sin pausas, crepitante, inmemorial, a ese hablador machiguenga” (268) (“But tonight I know wherever I might wander . . . I would still hear, close by, unceasing, crackling, immemorial, that Machiguenga storyteller” ). This haunting voice of the Machiguenga storyteller serves as a reminder of his uncertain identity as a Peruvian writer. Just as Zuratas recounts the Kafka story to his audience as an attempt to overcome his marginalized past due to his birthmark, the Peruvian narrator writes about the Machiguenga because he cannot forget the important role of a “hablador” in the Machiguenga tribe.
In Solibo Magnifique and El hablador, Oiseau de Cham and the Peruvian narrator are ultimately driven to write about Solibo and Zuratas not only as an attempt to remember and represent these storytellers, but also as a way to handle the multifaceted cultural aspects of their identity. In doing so, the narratives present Solibo and Zuratas as reflections of their own struggles with their identities as they navigate these same culturally diverse societies, where what is absorbed into and what is forgotten in an already complex culture is constantly changing. Even as Oiseau de Cham appears to create a text that embodies a Creole identity, both he and the Peruvian narrator are eventually thrown into further uncertainty due to loss—the vanishing of an oral tradition in Martinique, the mystery surrounding Zuratas’ transformation, and the waning status of intellectuals in the Americas.
1. While the title refers to Saúl Zuratas’ role as a storyteller, “hablador” can also be translated directly as “speaker.”
2. The narrator Oiseau de Cham is also known throughout the text as Chamzibié, Ti-Cham, and like the author, Patrick Chamoiseau. In the interest of clarity, the name “Patrick Chamoiseau” will only be used to refer to the author of the novel.
3. All bracketed English translations of Solibo Magnifique with page citations come from Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov’s translation, Solibo Magnificent. Further bibliographic information of this work is listed under Chamoiseau in the Works Cited.
4. Benarbé et al. contend that “orality is our intelligence; it is our reading of this world,” therefore emphasizing its importance in Creole identity, because it stems from the days of slavery and plantations in the Caribbean (895). It is a form of resistance and survival that carries through to its post-colonial history.
5. All bracketed English translations of El hablador with page citations come from Helen R. Lane’s translation, The Storyteller. Further bibliographic information of this work is listed under Vargas Llosa in the Works Cited.
6. The Spanish word “converso” also alludes to the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, when Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity. The Peruvian narrator’s use of this word becomes notable then, as there is an implication that Zuratas’ transformation has veered towards the reverse direction.
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