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By Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen Lane
Picador Copyright © 2015 Mario Vargas Llosa
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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. I had visited Dante's restored house, the little Church of San Martino del Véscovo, and the lane where, so legend has it, he first saw Beatrice, when, in the little Via Santa Margherita, a window display stopped me short: bows, arrows, a carved oar, a pot with a geometric design, a mannequin bundled into a wild cotton cushma. But it was three or four photographs that suddenly brought back to me the flavor of the Peruvian jungle. The wide rivers, the enormous trees, the fragile canoes, the frail huts raised up on pilings, and the knots of men and women, naked to the waist and daubed with paint, looking at me unblinkingly from the glossy prints.
Naturally, I went in. 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. But, naturally, I went in.
The gallery was minute. A single low-ceilinged room in which, to make room for all the photographs, two panels had been added, every inch of them covered with pictures. A thin girl in glasses, sitting behind a small table, looked up at me. Could I visit the "Natives of the Amazon Forest" exhibition?
"Certo. Avanti, avanti."
There were no artifacts inside the gallery, only photos, fifty at least, most of them fairly large. There were no captions, but someone, perhaps the photographer himself, one Gabriele Malfatti, had written a few pages indicating that the photos had been taken during a two-week journey in the Amazon region of the departments of Cusco and Madre de Dios in eastern Peru. The artist's intention had been to describe, "without demagoguery or aestheticism," the daily life of a tribe which, until a few years ago, had lived virtually isolated from civilization, scattered about in units of one or two families. Only in our day had they begun to group together in those places documented by the exhibition, but many of them still remained in the forest. The name of the tribe was Hispanicized without spelling errors: the Machiguengas.
The photos were a quite faithful reflection of Malfatti's intention. There were the Machiguengas, aiming a harpoon from the bank of a river, or, half concealed in the undergrowth, drawing a bow in pursuit of capybaras or peccaries; there they were, gathering cassava in the tiny plots scattered around their brand-new villages, perhaps the first in their long history, clearing the forest with machetes, weaving palm leaves to roof their huts. A group of women sat lacing mats and baskets; another was making headdresses, hooking brightly colored parrot and macaw feathers into wooden circlets. There they were, decorating their faces and bodies in intricate designs with dye from the annatto tree, lighting fires, drying hides and skins, fermenting cassava for masato beer in canoe-shaped receptacles. The photos eloquently showed how few of them there were in the immensity of sky, water, and vegetation that surrounded them, how fragile and frugal their life was; their isolation, their archaic ways, their helplessness. It was true: neither demagoguery nor aestheticism.
What I am about to say is not an invention after the fact, nor yet a false memory. I am quite sure I moved from one photograph to the next with an emotion that at a certain moment turned to anxiety. What's happening to you? What might you come across in these pictures that would justify such anxiety?
From the very first photos I had recognized the clearings where Nueva Luz and Nuevo Mundo had been built — I had been in both less than three years before — and an overall view of the second of these had immediately brought back to my mind the feeling of impending catastrophe with which I lived through the acrobatic landing that morning as the Cessna belonging to the Institute of Linguistics avoided Machiguenga children. I even seemed to recognize some of the faces of the men and women with whom I had spoken, with Mr. Schneil's help. This became certainty when, in another photograph, I saw, with the same little bloated belly and the same bright eyes my memory had preserved, the boy whose mouth and nose had been eaten away by uta ulcers. He revealed to the camera, with the same innocence and unselfconsciousness with which he had shown it to us, that hole with teeth, palate, and tonsils which gave him the appearance of some mysterious wild beast.
The photograph I was hoping to see from the moment I entered the gallery was among the last. From the very first glance it was evident that the gathering of men and women, sitting in a circle in the Amazonian way — similar to the Oriental: legs crossed tailor-fashion, back held very straight — and bathed in the light of dusk fading to dark, was hypnotically attentive. They were absolutely still. All the faces were turned, like radii of a circumference, toward the central point: the silhouette of a man at the heart of that circle of Machiguengas drawn to him as to a magnet, standing there speaking and gesticulating. I felt a cold shiver down my spine. I thought: "How did that Malfatti get them to allow him to ... How did he manage to ...?" I stooped, brought my face up very close to the photograph. I kept looking at it, smelling it, piercing it with my eyes and imagination, until I noticed that the girl in charge of the gallery had risen from her table and was coming toward me in alarm.
Making an effort to contain my excitement, I asked if the photographs were for sale. No, she didn't think so. They belonged to Rizzoli, the publishers. Apparently they were going to appear in a book. I asked her to put me in touch with the photographer. No, that wouldn't be possible, unfortunately: "Il signore Gabriele Malfatti è morto."
Dead? Yes. Of a fever. A virus he'd caught in the jungle, forse. Poor man! He was a fashion photographer: he'd worked for Vogue and Uomo, that sort of magazine, photographing models, furniture, jewelry, clothes. He'd spent his life dreaming of doing something different, more personal, such as taking this trip to the Amazon. And when at last he was able to do so, and they were just about to publish a book with his work, he died! And now, le dispiaceva, but it was l'ora di pranzo and she had to close.
I thanked her. Before leaving to confront once again the wonders and the hordes of tourists of Firenze, I managed to cast one last glance at the photograph. Yes. No doubt whatsoever about it. A storyteller.
Saúl Zuratas had a dark birthmark, the color of wine dregs, that covered the entire right side of his face, and unruly red hair as stiff as the bristles of a scrub brush. The birthmark spared neither his ears nor his lips nor his nose, also puffy and misshapen from swollen veins. He was the ugliest lad in the world; but he was also a likable and exceptionally good person. I have never met anyone who, from the very outset, seemed as open, as uncomplicated, as altruistic, and as well-intentioned as Saúl; anyone who showed such simplicity and heart, no matter what the circumstances. I met him when we took our university entrance examinations, and we were quite good friends — insofar as it is possible to be friends with an archangel — especially during the first two years that we were classmates in the Faculty of Letters. The day I met him he informed me, doubled over with laughter and pointing to his birthmark: "They call me Mascarita — Mask Face. Bet you can't guess why, pal."
That was the nickname we always knew him by at San Marcos.
He came from Talara and was on familiar terms with everybody. Slang words and popular catch phrases appeared in every sentence he uttered, making it seem as though he were clowning even in his most personal conversations. His problem, he said, was that his father had made too much money with his general store back home; so much that one fine day he'd decided to move to Lima. And since they'd come to the capital his father had taken up Judaism. He wasn't very religious back in the Piura port town as far as Saúl could remember. He'd occasionally seen him reading the Bible, that, yes, but he'd never bothered to drill it into Mascarita that he belonged to a race and a religion that were different from those of the other boys of the town. But here in Lima, what a change! A real drag! Ridiculous! Chicken pox in old age, that's what it was! Or rather, the religion of Abraham and Moses. Pucha! We Catholics were the lucky ones. The Catholic religion was a breeze, a measly half-hour Mass every Sunday and Communion every first Friday of the month that was over in no time. But he, on the other hand, had to sit out his Saturdays in the synagogue, hours and hours, swallowing his yawns and pretending to be interested in the rabbi's sermon — not understanding one word — so as not to disappoint his father, who after all was a very old and very good man. If Mascarita had told him that he'd long since given up believing in God, and that, to put it in a nutshell, he couldn't care less about belonging to the Chosen People, he'd have given poor Don Salomón a heart attack.
I met Don Salomón one Sunday shortly after meeting Saúl. Saúl had invited me to lunch. They lived in Breña, behind the Colegio La Salle, in a depressing side street off the Avenida Arica. The house was long and narrow, full of old furniture, and there was a talking parrot with a Kafkaesque name and surname who endlessly repeated Saúl's nickname: "Mascarita! Mascarita!" Father and son lived alone with a maid who had come from Talara with them and not only did the cooking but helped Don Salomón out in the grocery store he'd opened in Lima. "The one that's got a six-pointed star on the metal grill, pal. It's called La Estrella, for the Star of David. Can you beat that?"
I was impressed by the affection and kindness with which Mascarita treated his father, a stooped, unshaven old man who suffered from bunions and dragged about in big clumsy shoes that looked like Roman buskins. He spoke Spanish with a strong Russian or Polish accent, even though, as he told me, he had been in Peru for more than twenty years. He had a sharp-witted, likable way about him: "When I was a child I wanted to be a trapeze artist in a circus, but life made a grocer of me in the end. Imagine my disappointment." Was Saúl his only child? Yes, he was.
And Mascarita's mother? She had died two years after the family moved to Lima. How sad; judging from this photo, your mother must have been very young, Saúl. Yes, she was. On the one hand, of course, Mascarita had grieved over her death. But, on the other, maybe it was better for her, having a different life. His poor old lady had been very unhappy in Lima. He made signs at me to come closer and lowered his voice (an unnecessary precaution, as we had left Don Salomón fast asleep in a rocking chair in the dining room and were talking in Saúl's room) to tell me:
"My mother was a Creole from Talara; the old man took up with her soon after coming to this country as a refugee. Apparently, they just lived together until I was born. They got married only then. Can you imagine what it is for a Jew to marry a Christian, what we call a goy? No, you can't."
Back in Talara it hadn't mattered because the only two Jewish families there more or less blended in with the local population. But, on settling in Lima, Saúl's mother faced numerous problems. She missed home — everything from the nice warm weather and the cloudless sky and bright sun all year round to her family and friends. Moreover, the Jewish community of Lima never accepted her, even though to please Don Salomón she had gone through the ritual of the lustral bath and received instruction from the rabbi in order to fulfill all the rites necessary for conversion. In fact — and Saúl winked a shrewd eye at me — the community didn't accept her not so much because she was a goy as because she was a little Creole from Talara, a simple woman with no education, who could barely read. Because the Jews of Lima had all turned into a bunch of bourgeois, pal.
He told me all this without a vestige of rancor or dramatization, with a quiet acceptance of something that, apparently, could not have been otherwise. "My old lady and I were as close as fingernail and flesh. She, too, was as bored as an oyster in the synagogue, and without Don Salomón's catching on, we used to play Yan-Ken-Po on the sly to make those religious Sabbaths go by more quickly. At a distance: she would sit in the front row of the gallery, and I'd be downstairs, with the men. We'd move our hands at the same time and sometimes we'd fall into fits of laughter that horrified the holier-than-thous." She'd been carried off by galloping cancer, in just a few weeks. And since her death Don Salomón's world had come tumbling down on top of him.
"That little old man you saw there, taking his nap, was hale and hearty, full of energy and love of life a couple of years ago. The old lady's death left him a wreck."
Saúl had entered San Marcos University as a law student to please Don Salomón. As far as Saúl was concerned, he would rather have started giving his father a hand at La Estrella, which was often a headache to Don Salomón and took more out of him than was right at his age. But his father was categorical. Saúl would not set foot behind that counter. Saúl would never wait on a customer. Saúl would not be a shopkeeper like him.
"But why, papa? Are you afraid this face of mine will scare the customers away?" He recounted this to me amid peals of laughter. "The truth is that now that he's saved up a few shekels, Don Salomón wants the family to make its mark in the world. He can already see a Zuratas — me — in the diplomatic corps or the Chamber of Deputies. Can you imagine!"
Making the family name illustrious through the exercise of a liberal profession was something that didn't attract Saúl much either. What interested him in life? He himself didn't know yet, doubtless. He was finding out gradually during the months and years of our friendship, the fifties, in the Peru that, as Mascarita, myself, and our generation were reaching adulthood, was moving from the spurious peace of General Odría's dictatorship to the uncertainties and novelties of the return to democratic rule in 1956, when Saúl and I were third-year students at San Marcos.
By then he had discovered, without the slightest doubt, what it was that interested him in life. Not in a sudden flash, or with the same conviction as later; nonetheless, the extraordinary machinery had already been set in motion and little by little was pushing him one day here, another there, outlining the maze he eventually would enter, never to leave it again. In 1956 he was studying ethnology as well as law and had made several trips into the jungle. Did he already feel that spellbound fascination for the peoples of the jungle and for unsullied nature, for minute primitive cultures scattered throughout the wooded slopes of the ceja de montaña and the plains of the Amazon below? Was that ardent fellow feeling, sprung from the darkest depths of his personality, already burning within him for those compatriots of ours who from time immemorial had lived there, harassed and grievously harmed, between the wide, slow rivers, dressed in loincloths and marked with tattoos, worshipping the spirits of trees, snakes, clouds, and lightning? Yes, all that had already begun. And I became aware of it just after the incident in the billiard parlor two or three years after our first meeting.
Excerpted from The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa, Helen Lane. Copyright © 2015 Mario Vargas Llosa. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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