Here in the Heartland, I awakened this morning to the news on KIOS-FM, Omaha’s NPR station. The headline: Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature.
In the words of the Swedish Academy (an institution that does not shy away from sending a political message), Vargas Llosa has enlightened us with “his cartography of the structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat.”
If so, I must read more of his work.
As it is, the only one of his novels that I have read made a powerful impression on me and the way I think about the entire enterprise of law. (Big thoughts for early in the morning!)
In The Storyteller—El Hablador in the original Spanish—the action of the named characters occurs against the backdrop of an Amazonian tribe, the Machiguenga.
Vargas Llosa describes the Machiguenga:
“Not one Machiguenga village existed… They lived in tiny units of ten people or so at most, scattered over an enormous region….
In their culture was a “ ‘curious personage who doesn’t seem to be either a medicine man or a priest.’… ‘A talker, perhaps. Or, better yet, a speaker.’… ‘Yes…that’s the closest. Hablador: a speaker.’ ”
The precise role of the hablador isn’t entirely clear, but it appears to be not religious, not political, not spiritual. He isn’t a leader in the conventional sense, and he doesn’t seem to exercise any particular power. He does simply “what his name implied: to speak.”
The hablador travels from one small band of Machiguenga to the next, and he “ ‘not only brings current news but also speaks of the past. He is probably also the memory of the community, fulfilling a function similar to that of the jongleurs and troubadours of the Middle Ages.’”
Llosa Vargas’s narrator is profoundly affected by learning of the Machiguenga’s hablador:
“ ‘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…’”
Why does this image so move him?
Because the habladores are “ ‘tangible proof that storytelling can be something more than mere entertainment…Something primordial, something that the very existence of a people may depend on.’”
It was reading Vargas Llosa’s words close to a decade ago that started me thinking about the stories that are our “living sap.”
Law, I believe, is one of those stories. In the U.S., given our founding and the way the Constitution defines us as a people, law is in fact one of the most important.
Which makes those of us who are lawyers habladores.
It is both an exhilarating and a humbling thought.
Note: The Storyteller quotations are from the Picador; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, English translation, 1989, by Helen Lane, pp. 82-94.