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A Storyteller Enthralled by the Power of Art

October 8, 2010

At first glance, Mario Vargas Llosa’s novels seem like a one-man miscellany of subjects and styles: There are harrowing narratives based on historical events like Rafael Trujillo’s tyrannical rule over the Dominican Republic (“The Feast of the Goat”) and a 19th-century religious uprising in the backlands of Brazil (“The War of the End of the World”).

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

There are also some delightfully inventive post-modernist confections: an antic, comic portrait of an obsessive writer, who cranks out 10 half-hour soap opera scripts a day (“Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”); a Chinese puzzle box of a detective story that begins with a gruesome murder in 1950s Peru (“Who Killed Palomino Molero?”), and a suspenseful, “Groundhog Day”-like improvisation upon Flaubert’s classic “Madame Bovary” (“The Bad Girl”).

Two related themes, however, thread their way through all of Mr. Vargas Llosa’s novels: a fascination with the human craving for freedom (be it political, social or creative) and the liberation conferred by art and imagination. Indeed, storytelling itself remains a central concern in the author’s work, in both his taste for willfully complicated narratives and his philosophical preoccupation with the ways in which subjectivity acts as a distorting prism for our apprehension of the world.

In “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” we learn that a police officer’s own sentimental proclivities may be warping his assessment of the prime suspects in the killing of a handsome young singer. And in “The Storyteller,” we learn that a saintly, disfigured student has become the official storyteller for a primitive rainforest tribe and the repository of its collective memory — or at least that is the tale he tells.

As for “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,” it features an assortment of characters recounting their memories of a little-known Trotskyist revolutionary — their sometimes clashing, sometimes converging reminiscences creating a glittering collage that reads like a combination of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and an oral history by Studs Terkel. By the end of the novel, the reader sees that there is not one Alejandro Mayta, but many: Mayta the die-hard romantic, equally eager to worship God and Marx; Mayta the professional revolutionary, adept at manipulating younger comrades; and Mayta the damaged idealist, disillusioned by the factionalism and infighting of the left.

Read more at:  A Storyteller Enthralled by the Power of Art

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