The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is narrated from the perspective of the Peruvian narrator.

The narrator begins by describing his college classmate and friend Saúl Zuratas. With a dark purple birthmark covering the right side of his face and wild, stiff red hair, Saúl is unattractive to most people but is one of the kindest people the narrator's ever known. The two men meet at the University of San Marcos in Lima in the 1950s. Friendly and outgoing, he tells the narrator his nickname is Mascarita, or "Mask Face," a nickname his classmates quickly adopt.

Saúl moved to Lima from Talara, Peru. His father, Don Salomón, a grocer, became a devout Jew when he and Saúl moved to bigger-city Lima, but Saúl has no interest in the religion. Soon after meeting Saúl, the narrator goes to the Zuratases' home for lunch. Saúl and Don Salomón live alone with a maid and a parrot "with a Kafkaesque name" who repeats Saúl's nickname Mascarita. The parrot is named Gregor Samsa after the main character in Jewish Czech writer Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis.

The narrator is impressed by Saúl's kindness to his aging father. When Don Salomón is sleeping, Saúl reveals more about his mother, who died of cancer soon after the family moved to Lima. As a Christian she never felt accepted in Lima's Jewish community. Saúl, who was close to his mother, calls the local Jewish community "a bunch of bourgeois" who judged his mother for her lack of education. Devastated by his wife's death Don Salomón insisted Saúl study law at the University of San Marcos rather than help out in the grocery La Estrella (for the Jewish Star). Saúl knows Don Salomón "wants the family to make its mark in the world."

Over the course of his friendship with the narrator, Saúl learns what he really wants to do in life. By 1956, when Saúl and the narrator are third-year students, Peru is recovering from a military dictatorship and re-entering political democracy. Saúl has started to study ethnology and made several trips to the jungle, fascinated by Peru's indigenous people.

Two or three years after the narrator and Saúl meet, an incident makes the narrator realize the depth of Saúl's enthusiasm for indigenous culture. The two students are playing billiards in a bar when a drunk man mocks Saúl's birthmark. Saúl replies with a good-humored joke, but the drunk man continues to harass him and calls him a monster. After the narrator loses his temper and attacks the drunk man, the two students are kicked out of the bar. The next day Saúl sends the narrator a gift: a small diamond-shaped bone with "two parallel mazes" engraved in a geometric design. With the gift Saúl sends a letter explaining the design is a symbol: the two mazes "represent the order that reigns in the world." Someone overcome by anger may disrupt the world's order, but Saúl encourages the narrator to avoid temper tantrums and keep the world from reverting to its "original chaos."

Saúl's letter mentions several mythical characters, including "Tasurinchi, the god of good, and Kientibakori, the god of evil." The narrator asks Saúl to tell him more about the myths, and Saúl spends an afternoon explaining the mythology of a tribe located in Peru's jungle. The designs the tribe carves are a "coded writing" with formulas designed to protect their people from evil. Coming from "Morenanchiite, the lord of thunder," the code was passed down to "a wise man" who told Saúl the philosophy by which the tribe lives. Serenity helps them survive. They believe in controlling "emotional upheaval," for man's spirit can affect nature.

Astonished by how much Saúl knows about the tribe and how important the tribe is to him, the narrator realizes Saúl's interest in the tribe is emotional and personal, "an act of love rather than intellectual curiosity." Saúl remains enrolled in the university's Faculty of Law but stops going to class. Instead he reads anthropology books constantly.

Saúl tells the narrator his interest began when he visited a relative in the rural region of Quillabamba in Peru. Saúl met native Indian residents, most of whom "were pretty well Westernized," and with whom he canoed down rivers. He praises the jungle's "sacred aura" and returns to the Quillabamba jungle every chance he gets. On one trip he meets Fidel Pereira, a man of mixed white and tribal heritage who holds a leadership position in the Machiguenga tribe. Fidel runs a coffee plantation where Machiguengas work. Saúl believes Fidel uses the Machiguengas for free labor but is proud and protective of the Machiguenga culture.

Saúl is fascinated with the Machiguengas. The narrator describes Saúl's experience as a cultural and religious "conversion." Obsessed with the destruction of the Amazon forests and its impact on indigenous cultures, Saúl is impressed by the Machiguengas' resilience after being pushed out of their homes for centuries.

The narrator wonders why Saúl focuses on this injustice instead of "injustices closer to home" like the plight of larger indigenous tribes or class inequality in general in their country. Sometimes the narrator asks Saúl whether he really believes Peru should stop agricultural development. Should the nation put its economic progress on hold to protect a few tribes, whom the narrator calls "human oddities"? The narrator thinks the Indians will have to adapt to the dominant culture eventually. Saúl doesn't get angry, though the narrator can tell he's hurt. But he keeps arguing his point. One day at a bar in Lima, Saúl mentions white people, or "Viracochas," are fishing with explosives in Amazon rivers. The narrator protests that the Indians fish with poison, which isn't much better. Saúl answers that the Indians fish only at certain times of year, whereas white people fish all year round, and settlers continually clear the woods of trees and destroy animals.

The narrator asks Saúl if he thinks "polygamy, animism, head shrinking, and witch doctoring" are "superior" practices to Western life. Not superior, Saúl says. In fact he says many of the tribes' practices are shocking, including slavery and genital mutilation. The worst practice of all, from Saúl and the narrator's points of view, is the Arawak tribes' "perfectionism." The tribes kill babies born with physical defects. Saúl adds if he had been born in the tribe, he'd have been killed. This is the first time Saúl has addressed his physical deformity seriously, the narrator reflects. Saúl maintains that Westerners should respect the tribes' practices. Just because Westerners don't understand tribal customs, Saúl says, they shouldn't kill off the people or their lifestyle. Attempts to "civilize" the tribes will only result in exploiting them further, making them what Saúl calls "zombies and caricatures of men."

The narrator notices a small Andean boy working at the bar. His clothes and dirty nails reveal his poverty. He's "a child with the face of an old man." The narrator wonders if the boy would have been better off staying in his village.

Saúl explains the tribe's cruel rituals are balanced by their admirable view of nature. Many of their customs have evolved as ways to preserve and respect the natural world. The narrator is still wondering why Saúl has mentioned his birthmark. Because the birthmark makes Saúl's face "a picturesque horror," does Saúl feel he, as an outcast, has something in common with the tribes? But when the narrator suggests this idea, Saúl laughs. He says his father Don Salomón believes Saúl identifies with the tribes as a Jew and member of a persecuted minority.

In 1956 Saúl earns his bachelor's degree by defending a thesis on the Machiguenga tribe. A proud Don Salomón takes Saúl and the narrator to lunch after graduation and reveals Saúl has won a competitive fellowship to the University of Bordeaux in France to study ethnology. Saúl turned down the scholarship, saying he needed to stay with his father. But Saúl has other reasons for not taking the scholarship. Ethnology professor Matos Mar mentions Saúl has "ethical doubts" about ethnological fieldwork as immoral violence to indigenous cultures and has compared ethnology with the colonialism of "the rubber trappers, the timber cutters, the army recruiters." History professor Porras Barrenechea wonders whether Saúl is "reviving the fanatical Indigenista movement to save Indian cultures."

Looking back after many years, the narrator wonders what Saúl's real intentions were. Did Saúl really want to keep the Peruvian forests untouched? After 1956 Saúl and the narrator didn't see much of each other. The narrator speculates Saúl made a private choice, isolating himself like "the saint, the visionary, or the madman." The narrator did notice Saúl becoming more withdrawn but doesn't think he ever told anyone what he intended to do.

Analysis

Saúl resembles a character from folklore: someone so unusual as to seem to come from another world. The narrator describes him in affectionate superlatives. Saúl's not just ugly, he's "the ugliest lad in the world." He's not just good, he's the most "uncomplicated" and "well-intentioned" person the narrator's ever met. The narrator reveres Saúl enough to call him an "archangel." This name invokes the book's motif of religion as do the folk stories throughout the book in referring to gods in higher realms.

Like some folktale characters Saúl has a distinctive physical attribute. His nickname, Mascarita or "Mask Face," shows his acceptance and possibly ease with his identity. The Spanish suffix ita, meaning "little one," indicates the nickname "Mascarita" or "Little Mask Face" is an endearment with a sense of familiarity. The talking parrot who repeats Saúl's nickname will recur as a symbol in Chapter 7. Saúl's parrot's name is Gregor Samsa, the name of the character who turns into a bug in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, with whom Saúl identifies because both are alienated. Body paint and physical markings are important signifiers to the Amazon tribe discussed in The Storyteller. Markings can symbolize status or character traits. In Lima the birthmark can set Saúl apart for mockery and disdain, revealing his courage in the face of adversity. It also makes him an outsider.

Moreover as a Peruvian Jew, Saúl is already in a minority. His family is a family of outsiders. Don Salomón is an immigrant from somewhere in Europe (but not Spain) with a heavy accent. Saúl's mother was an outsider as a Creole—someone of European descent born into Spanish America. In cosmopolitan Lima Saúl's working-class family has faced class discrimination as well. The rejection of Saúl's mother shows Saúl the hierarchy or caste system of insular communities. He uses the word bourgeois to describe the upper middle class and what he sees as their snobbery. Don Salomón wants his son to enter this class—his image of success being upward class mobility, a familiar image in the urban 20th century. Education and better-paid jobs represent progress, and bright, curious Saúl is capable of this kind of success.

As Saúl and the narrator's student lives enter new territory, so does their country. Manuel Odría, a general and military dictator, ruled over Peru for six years before allowing a free election. In 1956 the liberated country was unstable and overwhelmed by the "uncertainties and novelties" of democracy. But they're optimistic about progress. Yet while the rest of the country is focused on the future, Saúl can't stop thinking about the past. This focus on past injustices confuses the narrator, aware of the harm done to Peru's indigenous people but unsure what to do about it.

And he brings up one of the novel's recurring questions: from where does Saúl's fascination with the tribe come? As Saúl's interest moves beyond academic study to spiritual obsession, the narrator senses his drive comes from a place neither of them understands. Like the ancient past, the source of Saúl's fascination is shrouded in mystery. The narrator suspects the interest "sprung from the darkest depths of [Saúl's] personality." This mystery contrasts with the purpose of the men's academic studies: to learn as much as possible by gathering information and using logic. Saúl can't logically explain his absorption in tribal culture. But the narrator sees how isolated Saúl might feel in the city, where people feel free to react with disgust and outright cruelty to him and by possible extension, to others. The drunk man in the bar imagines a different kind of folktale creature: a monster or an animal, and in his ignorance, feels free to voice that judgment.

The letter to the narrator shows Saúl has found a life philosophy he can summon in times of trouble. Any extreme emotion, especially anger, disrupts the harmonious straight lines holding up the world. But the narrator can tell Saúl has absorbed more than just a philosophy from the Machiguengas. He has become part of their circle somehow. The object's inscription has been passed down from a god and made its way through tribe members to Saúl. By joining the tribe's chain of narrative, Saúl has become linked to the oral storytelling tradition and helps their story survive.

Earnest about understanding tribal symbolism, Saúl also understands Western attitudes toward these symbols. He says the narrator might be right if he thinks the symbols are just "whirlpools in a river." Saúl knows the narrator, like others raised in Western cultures, has preconceived notions about phrases like "magic formulas," "evil spells," and "witch doctor." To the Western listener these terms might seem eerie, exotic, and nothing to be taken seriously. What the narrator thinks of as a "witch doctor" is someone the tribe calls a "wise man," Saúl says, a title inspiring respect. And Saúl wants to live his life according to the tribe's principles. To Saúl, everyone has a responsibility to their fellow humans and to the world at large. Every individual action has crucial meaning. This sense of responsibility, to the narrator, is a new one, deeper than what his view of the world has been before.

The narrator's own idea of the world falls within a strictly Western and academic paradigm. He studied Sartre and Faulkner in school and is used to approaching decisions intellectually. Surprised when Saúl becomes absorbed in an "act of love," the narrator thinks Saúl is following his heart and not his head. Saúl does try to approach his ventures to the Amazon with a clear head, however. He strives for a complex, nuanced understanding of the tribes—what helps them, what hurts them. Although he understands how Fidel Pereira exploits the Machiguengas, he determines Fidel's on the side of the tribe, and his presence does more good than harm.

Still, what draws Saúl back to the Amazon is "something undefinable," a force beyond him. The force has a quality associated with the divine, or something beyond human understanding. Saúl and the narrator are drawn to the melancholy, long-suffering aura of the Amazon tribes, the "sad, repetitive, incomprehensible song" Saúl sings being one example of the tribe's strange appeal. The narrator uses the word conversion to describe Saúl's developing interest. He's familiar with the word's frequent use in a religious context. When people convert to a faith, they follow its rituals and practices and believe its principles. Saúl converted to the Machiguenga belief system, and the transformation was complete. The narrator speaks of conversion as being trapped, "falling into the snares of grace," implying Saúl being who he was, his background and his nature, had no choice.

As the two students learn more about the Machiguengas, they must contend with the injustices of colonialism. Their debates represent Vargas Llosa's own attempt to deal with the legacy of colonialism, the rubber and other economically exploitative booms, and the Indigenismo movement. The Amazon rubber boom was a movement of European colonists in the early 1900s who stripped the forest's trees for rubber, using the labor of indigenous tribes. The Indigenismo movement was a 1920s push in Latin America to respect and restore indigenous authority in the region. What is Peru's responsibility now? The students consider questions of sociology, anthropology, politics, and ethics.

Willing to debate the pros and cons of Western intervention, the narrator argues the only real way to leave the tribes alone is to cease industrial development, thus harming the economic and social growth of the entire country. A majority would suffer to preserve a minority. The narrator thinks of Karl Marx's ideas about progress and industrialization: the cost is always human lives. The narrator doesn't imagine industrial development in Peru will stop soon, and the tribes realistically will have no choice but to acculturate, or change their behavior to fit into the dominant culture. Saúl argues a point the narrator finds hard to refute. Industrial growth does irreversible damage to the environment. Indigenous people fish with as little impact on the environment as possible. Western developers blow up entire species in the river. Saúl is in awe of the tribe's practices not because of their novelty, but because the practices make perfect sense to him.

The narrator emphasizes Saúl's clinical detachment and focus on concrete problems. Saúl thinks like an anthropologist and a philosopher, attempting to keep emotion out of his argument. He claims he can see the tribes' failings clearly. As the debate turns to questions of specific human lives, issues like "infant mortality, the status of women, polygamy or monogamy" come to the forefront. Compared with Western cultures, indigenous tribes have a higher infant mortality rate. Women are frequently subordinate to men. Saúl realizes many people see developed cultures, with advanced medical care and gender equality, as "superior" to indigenous cultures. But he thinks the "inferior/superior" duality is the wrong way to frame the debate. Neither culture is inferior or superior, but different. The discussion becomes personal for Saúl when he considers the tribe's treatment of babies born with birth defects. Though Saúl is mocked in Lima, from what he says he surely wouldn't have survived his infancy in the Machiguenga tribe. Neither Western or indigenous cultures come out looking ideal. Both practice slavery and commit other acts of cruelty.

But Saúl sees how the Machiguengas accept those who experience physical deformity later in life. To him this acceptance is a sign of a fundamental morality, even if it's a morality he doesn't understand completely. The tribe follows their beliefs with great conviction. Though Saúl disagrees with some practices, he can't deny them the right to continue. He wants the tribes to keep their full humanity and sense of identity. Otherwise they'll be "zombies and caricatures of men." Once they give up their way of life, tribe members will become living dead people, shadows of who they once were. This idea will be expressed in later chapters as part of a tribal legend: a soul can depart a body, leaving the body empty. As someone who's been denied his full humanity, often by strangers, Saúl has a unique perspective on the tribe's plight in the modern world.

In the end, Saúl believes, what gives Western culture a false sense of superiority is not superior moral practices but military might and material goods. He cites "cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas" as prized goods in the developed world. Dominant cultures conquer by sheer force and scale, using technology, machines, and factories. These cultures can provide an easier life—with buildings, transportation, and mass production, no one hunts for food or shelter. But is it a better life?

The Andean boy's silent presence makes the narrator consider whether assimilation into Western culture will in fact give children a better future. Is the young boy now a "caricature" of the self he could have been if he'd stayed in the Andes? With his own prejudices, the narrator pictures tribe members "eating each other's lice and speaking incomprehensible dialects." Saúl's ideas, however, are challenging his negative preconceptions of indigenous people.

But his motivations still remain a mystery. He rejects any clear parallel between the tribe's marginalized status and his own difficulties. Saúl doesn't feel he's victimized but concedes he is "taking advantage" of the Machiguengas in a way. With access to the academic and economic resources of the dominant Western culture, he has options the Machiguengas don't, although he rejects any attempt the narrator makes to pity the tribe as "poor savages." The narrator for his part wonders if Saúl's rejection of Western culture is an act of "martyrdom" or a willing surrender of his life in the service of a greater cause. Saúl, however, doesn't see his choice as a sacrifice. He's choosing the different and perhaps truer life he wants to live.

Though he respects the taboos and rituals of Machiguenga culture, Saúl doesn't hold many of the values of Western culture in high esteem. He displays a playful irreverence for the kosher Jewish avoidance of eating shellfish and even enjoys the idea of "committing a sin." Nor does he revere academic honors the way the narrator, Don Salomón, and the professors do. Saúl's talent and intelligence easily earn him a coveted scholarship, but he doesn't see it as a prize. Instead he argues academic study of the Machiguengas continues the exploitation of the tribe. The two professors also disagree about the ethics of studying indigenous groups. Matos Mar, the ethnologist, examines the behavior of groups—their artifacts, their homes, their religious beliefs. Porras Barrenechea, the historian, studies humans themselves—their lives and stories. Porras says, however, that "prying into customs" of the Amazon tribes can be seen as an invasion.

El Dorado and the Seven Cities of Cibola, the myths the professors are discussing, were cities rumored to have gold and wealth. Spanish conquistadores thought they'd found these mythical places in the Americas and rushed to mine the land. But the explorers never found gold. This mention leads to Saúl's "ethical doubts" about anthropology and ethnology. Are fieldworkers using indigenous tribes for resources the way ancient conquistadores used the land? It's a serious question.

According to Saúl, the anthropologists' destruction isn't physical but intellectual and spiritual. Saúl gives the analogy of a worm consuming a fruit from the inside out. When social scientists interact with and influence the tribes, Saúl argues, their goal is to get the tribes to adapt to Western culture. In the process tribe members lose their beliefs and sense of identity. Porras Barrenechea doesn't take Saúl's reservations seriously, thinking students' interest in indigenous groups comes and goes—it's topical and trendy, but students won't stay interested. Porras also mentions the "Black Legend," a term used for the criticism of 16th-century Spanish colonizers. This reference to the Black Legend, often considered anti-Spain propaganda, indicates Porras views Saúl as a contrarian, someone who's interested, despite what he says, only in opposing the people in power and causing major change.

Saúl's motivations are inexplicable to everyone but himself. Even the narrator isn't sure whether his friend is a saint, a visionary, or a madman. Saúl's increasing isolation is similar to the withdrawal of a hermit or monk, the implication being Saúl is similar to a religious acolyte or spiritual leader who follows a calling. The narrator can't understand what Saúl has become so he invents a new version of his friend for his narrative. Since he cannot really know an "answer" to what Saúl has done, the narrator's sections of the novel become his own story to explain the unknown of the book: what happened to his friend and why, and what may we know of the Machiguenga through his stories? How reliable a storyteller is he? And how reliable is the author of the book?

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