The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1 takes place at the chronological end of the novel in 1985. With Chapter 8 it serves as a "frame" for the chapters in between.

The narrator, a Peruvian man, is traveling in Florence, Italy, where he plans to read Italian literature in solitude. Noticing an art gallery's window display of photographs taken in Peru's jungles, he enters the gallery. The exhibit, "Natives of the Amazon Forest," is the work of photographer Gabriele Malfatti, who spent two weeks capturing "the daily life of a tribe ... virtually isolated from civilization." The tribe had only recently begun to gather in large groups. The tribe's "Hispanicized" name is the Machiguengas.

The narrator examines photos of Machiguengas hunting, gathering food, making headdresses and painting their bodies. The photos reveal the Machiguengas' "isolation, their archaic ways, their helplessness." As the narrator continues looking at photos, he starts feeling anxious. He recognizes two Machiguenga villages, Nueva Luz and Nuevo Mundo, which he himself visited three years before and recalls the "feeling of impending catastrophe" he experienced on the visit. The narrator flew into Nuevo Mundo with a group called the Institute of Linguistics. He spoke to several Machiguengas with the help of Institute staff member Mr. Schneil. In the photographs he recognizes Machiguenga men and women he spoke to and a small feral-looking boy he met.

The narrator finally sees the one photograph he has been hoping to see: a circle of Machiguenga men and women sitting with their legs crossed and their attention focused on a man in the center of the circle. The narrator wonders how the photographer could possibly have captured this moment. Asking for more information about Malfatti, the narrator learns the photographer is dead. Malfatti was a fashion photographer who always wanted to explore a "more personal" project. Looking at the final photograph one last time, the narrator feels sure it shows "a storyteller."

Analysis

One of the novel's most pervasive motifs is walking. The novel begins with a man walking or wandering far away from home. Walking often indicates searching for truth, and the narrator is at a crossroads in life where he anticipates major change.

On his travels he visits the home of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), best known for his Divine Comedy, an epic poem about a journey and a transformation, whose protagonist travels through the underworld and on to Purgatory and Paradise. In a city celebrating both the Renaissance and contemporary tourism, the narrator comes across an exhibit supposedly showcasing the opposite of Western culture and of progress: the hunting and gathering society of the Amazon Indians.

From the beginning the narrator is aware of his status as observer and sensitive to the prospect of indigenous people's lives becoming art—a form of entertainment—for curious Western viewers. He continually reminds readers access to these tribes is rare and privileged. The tribes don't like to be observed and rarely let outsiders in. Even the narrator, who has seen tribal life in person, knows the full story doesn't belong to him. He can only retell what he's seen and heard.

The English translation of The Storyteller includes several phrases spoken by the girl at the gallery that remain in Italian. The narrator interprets some phrases for the reader in English—such as the word "morto" indicating the artist Gabriele Malfatti's death. But most of these phrases put the translation's reader at a distance from the work, the same way the narrator's distanced from the Amazonian exhibit. He can observe another culture, but he doesn't completely understand the nuances of its communication.

Both the narrator and photographer are storytellers themselves, wanting to present their stories in certain ways. The photographer, Gabriele Malfatti, doesn't want to manipulate viewers' emotions or make the photographs seem overly artistic. Instead he shows the truth as he observes it and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. The narrator relies on his memory, but knows it is imperfect. The images recalled from his trips to the Amazon jungle become a story he retells to himself. His "feeling of impending catastrophe" lets readers know he's prepared for great change on his own life journey. He'll learn something that will challenge all he thinks he knows about progress, community, narrative, and wisdom.

For instance, the book will question how "fragile" and "helpless" the tribe really is. In the vast expanse of nature, the tribe looks small and unprotected. How have they survived at all? The narrator is seeing the exhibit in the 1980s, near the end of the industrialized 20th century. How has the tribe survived for so long? What sustains them?

As Vargas Llosa describes tribal life, he and the narrator contend with the legacy of colonialism. The villages the narrator visited in the Amazon are called Nueva Luz, meaning New Light, and Nuevo Mundo, meaning New World. The names represent novelty, transformation, and clarity, implying the new is an improvement on the old. The name New World is a phrase sometimes used to describe the European conquest of the Americas. With new villages comes the loss of old ways and old stories. The death of photographer Gabriele Malfatti means part of his story is forever lost. The narrator never learns how Malfatti got so close to the tribe. And as the narrator will reveal later, the transition to village life means the tribe must have given up some old traditions.

Two people in the photographs introduce readers to the character they'll encounter in the next chapter. The first is the storyteller. The physical positioning of the storyteller in the center of a crowded circle suggests his important role in tribal culture. There's a sacred and unknown aura around him. The narrator doesn't give much away yet, so readers aren't sure why he's so surprised. The second person is a little boy with a serious facial deformity. The narrator sees the boy as a strange, otherworldly creature and compares him to a wild beast. He's struck by the boy's presence and seems to find him significant, as he will reappear much later in the novel as part of the motif of deformity.

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