The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is narrated by an anonymous storyteller recounting the history of the Machiguenga tribe, whose time is divided between "before" and "after."

When they enter "the time afterwards," the tribe starts walking toward the falling sun. In the time before, they live peacefully and unified in one place. They have good weather, sufficient food, and no enemies. Instead of death they leave and "return." When they return, they enter the spirits of the best men in the tribe. Leaving and returning makes men stronger, not weaker.

Because the Machiguengas don't use personal names, the storyteller uses the word Tasurinchi to describe adult male members of the tribe. Individuals are also called Tasurinchi but designated by a character trait.

In their legends, the Machiguengas, or "the men of earth," begin walking when the sun started to fall, and they keep walking so the sun won't fall any farther. The time "after" begins when the sun starts its war with Kashiri, the moon. Cold and darkness make the men confused and lost. Winds blow, rain falls, rivers change direction, and "souls lost their serenity" says the storyteller. Men die instead of leaving and returning. The seripigari, a wise man or shaman, advises the tribe to keep walking. "The day you stop walking, you will disappear completely," the seripigari warns.

The Machiguengas continue walking to wake up the sun. The tribe is optimistic. The sun hasn't fallen completely and neither have "the people of the earth." The storyteller reminds his listeners they're still alive, saying "I in the middle. You all around me." The suffering the Machiguengas endure would kill any other group of people.

However, when the tribe stops to rest at night, they're besieged by "bad omens." Many tribe members drown in the rising river and don't come back. Kientibakori, "lord of demons," celebrates the Machiguengas' misfortune with his kamagarinis, or devils. Once a soul dies and doesn't come back, the storyteller thinks the soul "stays lost in some world," becoming either a devil in the world below or a god in the world above. The Machiguengas distrusted rivers in the time before, since drowning led to death. Corpses of tribe members cover the bottom of the Gran Pongo River.

After the tribe tires from walking, they settle in a forest, plant crops, and all seems well. Then a vampire bites a man. He thinks the bite is a warning. Soon the Mashcos, the warring tribe, arrive and attack the settlement. No one knows where the spirits of the men killed in battle went. Whenever enemies attack, the Machiguengas start walking again. When they walk, their wisdom and purity return. They reach the river Cerro, where all tribes meet peacefully, and gather salt. In the time afterward, however, men must go without salt because the Viracochas, or white men, have surrounded the Cerro with traps and kidnapped men "to bleed trees and tote rubber." Men who die from the Viracochas' rifle bullets don't come back.

The storyteller then describes a visit to "Tasurinchi, the one who lives at the bend in the river." This riverbend Tasurinchi says his wife is pregnant. All her children so far have been born dead because of kamagarinis. This time the child's death will be the woman's fault if it dies. Suspicious of the bracelets and necklaces she wears, the Tasurinchi fears his wife is a "she-devil" and wants to kill her. But the storyteller thinks the child will be born alive, for a seripigari said so. The storyteller reports both husband and wife are alive, well, and "walking." The riverbend Tasurinchi tells the storyteller not to travel alone through the forest. Machiguengas always travel in groups, but the storyteller replies he has his parrot for company.

The storyteller then visits another man: Tasurinchi who lives in the forest. The forest Tasurinchi doesn't believe the riverbend Tasurinchi's wife is a she-devil. He says women in the forest give birth to dead babies, toads, and lizards. They all wear necklaces, too. Evil, the forest Tasurinchi explains, comes from Kientibakori and "his little devils." The forest Tasurinchi once lived by the river where fish were plentiful. But in the forest there are only toads and armadillos to eat. The forest people eat armadillo even though the meat is said to be dangerous. The storyteller reluctantly swallows a bite. He says he's fine so far so this part of the legend he cannot really credit.

The storyteller asks the forest Tasurinchi why he moved so far away. The forest Tasurinchi says he's avoiding Viracochas and the Punarunas, a rival tribe that hunt and cut down trees near the river. The men who live on the other side of the Gran Pongo have "given up being men" and adopted white colonizers' clothing and speech. These men tried to convince the forest Tasurinchi to work with them building a road, claiming the Viracochas are now generous and give food and weapons. The men say they're happy. The forest Tasurinchi believes them and goes to the camp. But it's a trap: he's "surrounded by devils." The Viracocha speaking to him sneezes three times, and his expression "showed the filth of his soul," says the forest Tasurinchi. He runs away fearing death. He gathers his tribe and tells them to run for the forest. The women with him agree they were lucky to escape with their souls.

The forest Tasurinchi is building a house and getting to know his surroundings. He thinks the Machiguengas are lucky: because they're always moving, they can survive anywhere. He asks the storyteller to tell the riverbend Tasurinchi "the man who goes achoo! [is] the devil." Perhaps sneezing is something foreign to their warm culture, and threatening.

Then the forest Tasurinchi tells a story of his own. The story takes place when "White Fathers," or white men, move to the Gran Pongo. One White Father visits the Machiguengas and he gets along well with the tribe. But after returning from a trip the White Father's soul changes—he's become a kamagarini. No one notices until he begins to sneeze, and the Machiguengas catch his illness. They should have started walking the first time the White Father sneezed, but now it's too late. The Machiguengas have since abandoned the part of the forest where the people got sick.

The storyteller moves on to visit another "Tasurinchi, the blind one who lives by the river Cashiriari." As the storyteller walks, he grows weak and ill. He brews tea from tree leaves and rests. Then strange men appear and debate whether he's a devil. Deciding not to kill him, they leave him a plantain leaf. When the storyteller relates the event, the blind Tasurinchi says, "Your soul divided itself into many souls." Evil got inside the storyteller's soul somehow. He should have covered his head with dye to keep the souls from leaving. Souls enter and exit through the head, like devils enter and exit through the roof of a house.

The storyteller reports the blind Tasurinchi is managing his blindness and farming. The blind Tasurinchi's youngest son died after a viper bite, but the blind Tasurinchi was able to see his son one last time. He and his wife asked a seripigari to show them what world their son was in. The seripigari guided them to "the river of pure souls" where they found their son, now a grown man, who promised to visit them once more on earth. When the son came to visit as promised, he recounted his mystical journey to "the world of the sun, Inkite."

Two younger sisters of the blind Tasurinchi's wife also died. One sister, captured and raped by the rival Punarunas, killed herself in shame. The family hung her body from a tree to keep her from the vultures. The other sister fell to the bottom of the ravine. She was already in "strange trances" most of the time, and the blind Tasurinchi thought she'd die young.

The blind Tasurinchi listens to the storyteller's tales several times so he'll remember them. The stories make the blind Tasurinchi feel "as though what happened before happens again, many times." Tasurinchi wakes his young daughter, who's falling asleep, so she'll learn about Kientibakori's evil deeds. The storyteller and the tribe have learned a lot about Kientibakori, who hates Machiguengas and "breathed out all the badness there is."

Between "the time of abundance" and the painful time "of the tree-bleeding," Kientibakori almost destroyed the entire tribe. Disguised as a man, a kamagarini convinced the Machiguengas to follow Kashiri, the moon, instead of the sun. They walked, hunted, and built houses by night, becoming so used to darkness they couldn't stand being outside in daylight. They'd become "men of darkness." Though outwardly they seemed happy, the Machiguengas had lost wisdom. Then strange things began to happen. One man woke covered in fish scales and had to live in the pond. Another grew wings and flew. Another grew a snout and tusks, and his sons hunted him for food. While more men turned into animals, the surviving Machiguengas wondered what was happening. Then the Mashcos raided them. Finally the Machiguengas visited a seripigari with their dilemma. The seripigari listened, then fasted, and chanted for months. He flew into the sky and returned as a saankarite, or god, scolding the people for betraying the sun and following the moon. He accused them of "[upsetting] the order of the world" and confusing the souls of the dead tribe members. With the Machiguengas' souls gone, the kamagarini entered their empty bodies and turned them into animals. The tribe members looked for the devil to kill him, but he was long gone. They repented and started walking during the daytime again.

The storyteller explains the worst devil is the kasibarenini who preys on the sick. Because of him, sick people can never be left alone. The storyteller recalls visiting a Tasurinchi "who's living by the River Camisea," cast out from his camp. Former family members curse him and think he's a kasibarenini devil in disguise. His family members thought he was about to die and his spirit would drag them down with him. Having lost the power of speech, Tasurinchi couldn't reassure his family he would never kill them. Meanwhile a little devil, disguised as a boy, entered Tasurinchi unexpectedly and made him burn down Shivankoreni's huts. The Camisea Tasurinchi has since gotten rid of the devil, but the storyteller understands why his family still doesn't trust him. This Tasurinchi is wearing a shirt and trousers, revealing he has spent time with the white men, but he remains a lonely, moody outcast who worries he'll never rejoin the Machiguengas. He hopes the storyteller's presence now means "the beginning of a change."

Analysis

The Storyteller alternates the main story of Saúl and the Peruvian narrator with the tales of an anonymous storyteller from the Machiguenga tribe speaking to tribe members eager to hear his tales. The "storyteller" chapters in this pattern immerse readers in Machiguenga mythology and thought as they become part of the listening audience. Moreover the continual retelling keeps the stories alive and in fact becomes a ritual in itself. Such retellings are common religious practices.

The nomadic Machiguengas are also called "the men who walk." Every man in the tribe is called Tasurinchi and further identified by a certain trait, usually by his physical location. Where men live at the moment—by the river or in the forest, for instance— becomes an important part of their character, showing their unity with nature. Tasurinchi is also the name for the god of good in Machiguenga legend. The storyteller-narrated chapters flow from legend to legend with little explanation or connection. As the storyteller journeys through the Amazon, he collects individual stories of Machiguenga families and weaves in older legends, making past and present collide. The Machiguengas don't distinguish between the past and the present in their language. "Before" and "now" are the same, and legends from long ago take place in the current time. It's very much an alternative universe in its organization and how it views time and the world.

The first story explains why the Machiguengas walk. It uses the trope of the Golden Age, common in ancient myths. It is a time of peace, contentment, and ease, before death and discord enter the world. After a tragic event, everything changed, and humankind has suffered ever since. The storyteller's tales refer frequently to "before" and "after." These time markers usually recall different events the storyteller is discussing but also may mean "before" and "after" the decisive event ending the Golden Age.

The tale of why the Machiguengas walk is also a version of an origin story, explaining why the sun rises and sets. Ancient cultures invented these to explain natural phenomena. They believed supernatural beings or forces controlled the world, creating nature through acts of both good and evil.

Misfortunes are often the result of an unwise choice. The Machiguengas lose wisdom when they lose their way, both physically when on the trail and mentally when forgetting their purpose. The loss of wisdom is connected to the quest for it, and throughout the book the storyteller will wonder what wisdom actually is. For them it is almost always connected to a sense of purpose and responsibility. The Machiguengas believe they have a grave responsibility affecting the entire universe: to keep the sun in its place by walking. The march is a "celebration" of their continued survival despite all odds. The storyteller abruptly switches to the present tense, saying "we haven't lost our way yet," and the tribe takes pride in continuing to walk.

Crossing a river is a signal of transition and survival to the Machiguengas. Rivers mean journeys and danger: it's easy to drown. The vast Gran Pongo of Amazonia is especially central to Machiguengas mythology. It's the river where they started, the storyteller says, and where they'll end.

The Machiguenga sense of responsibility comes through in the storyteller's account. Whenever the tribe suffers, they wonder what they've done wrong, for misfortune can be traced to a loss of wisdom. If the Machiguengas don't respect their customs, the world's order falls out of place. When the tribe briefly stops walking, they're punished with a vampire bite and an enemy attack.

The story of the Cerro waterhole takes a different turn. The Machiguengas have a way to sustain themselves and can interact respectfully with other tribes. But it's too good to be true. Whenever tribe members think they're settled, something happens to urge them onward. This time the Viracochas enter, and colonialism begins. The intrusion of powerful white settlers is the end of another Golden Age. The repetition of "After" emphasizes this event is the worst yet. The tribes were forced to bleed trees to make rubber, a vital commodity since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.

The storyteller often calls the era of the rubber boom the "tree-bleeding" time. The word bleeding can refer not only to "bleeding" trees for liquid, but to the physical "bleeding" and suffering of enslaved rubber laborers. The colonists and overseers tortured and murdered many indigenous rubber workers, forcing them to meet production quotas. Both the trees and the people bled in a literal sense. The deaths in the story show the horror of imperialism and its great human cost. The colonized Machiguengas observe the inequality of their luck compared to the white men's, saying "The spirits protect them, and us they abandon."

The name Viracocha comes from the god of the Inca tribe. The vast and powerful 15th-century Inca Empire enslaved indigenous tribes around them before white settlers came to the Americas. Here the word Viracocha represents any powerful colonialist force that alters Machiguenga history.

The story of Tasurinchi shows how the Machiguengas apply their mythology to daily life. Kamagarinis cause the inexplicable sufferings of existence, including stillborn babies. Another Machiguenga belief defines souls as separate from bodies, with their own characteristics and forms. The riverbend Tasurinchi worries his wife has "a different sort of soul."

As well as difference, the Machiguengas fear impurity. The taboo on armadillo meat is the result of the armadillo's "impure mother." Any strange or unusual individual threatens the community ethos. The storyteller, for instance, is a source of concern for the tribe because he travels alone. As a loner who does things his own way, the storyteller occupies an unusual place in the community.

The next story, the story of the Viracocha who sneezes, shows the results of interaction with white settlers. When Viracochas enter with guns, the tribes have to decide how to respond. Several Machiguengas adopt the habits of the dominant culture, causing their fellow tribe members to feel the acculturated Machiguengas have "given up being men" or surrendered their identity and purpose. Meanwhile the acculturated Machiguengas try to convince the others life among white people isn't so bad. "Have they done us any harm?" they ask, remembering how much worse the tree-bleeding time was. Some Machiguengas are attracted to unfamiliar worldly goods. Though they don't use guns, they recognize them as a Western object and status symbol. The storyteller says the acculturated Machiguengas "seem happy, perhaps." The use of perhaps means he knows there's more to the story, and more complexity, as in Saul's own life.

The forest Tasurinchi's reaction to the sneeze shows the Machiguengas believe supernatural forces control every action of the body. The sneeze also indicates the white people are bringing illness to the camp. The acculturated Machiguengas have adopted Western attitudes toward illness too, believing sickness is physical and can be cured by medicine. The forest Tasurinchi thinks the sickness is spiritual and has invaded his soul. He sees no separation between the soul and the body.

The White Father's story continues to explore the effects of colonialism and highlights a key attribute of the Machiguengas' survival: they survive because they're always on guard. The real danger of the White Father arises once the Machiguengas get used to him. The consequences reveal their belief that spiritual evil manifests through physical illness. The story also provides a metaphor for colonialism as sickness: an invasion that has been something devastating and incurable that costs lives. By contrast, the storyteller is saved by another tribe in his own sudden sickness.

The blind Tasurinchi teaches the storyteller the importance of disguise and physical transformation. "The body is merely the soul's cushma," or covering, as the blind Tasurinchi says. Appearance can cover or disguise someone's real identity. The motifs of disguise and trickery are common in folklore. A villain may put on a disguise to trick a hero, or a hero may do the same to trick a villain. Furthermore, the blind Tasurinchi's story investigates the case of someone else whose soul has escaped through the top of his head. His son's journey down the river gives the reader a glimpse into the Machiguenga universe. One current takes Machiguengas to the world above, the other to the world below. Rivers continue to represent transformation, turning points, and possible danger. The story shows how close the Machiguengas feel to death, a part of daily life. After several family members die, the blind Tasurinchi jokes there's more food to go around. But as long as the Machiguengas repeat stories, the people in the stories are never completely lost, for they continue to live and be nourished somewhere in place and in time.

Stories serve as remembrances of the past and also insurance against the future. The blind Tasurinchi wakes his daughter and warns her, "Don't waste these stories." He wants her to know how to defeat future enemies. The storyteller is the tribe's prime communicator, providing essential tips for living.

The story of Kientibakori's deception relates another folklore trope: deception by an evil god. Kientibakori appeals to the Machiguengas' fear when he convinces them to walk in darkness. The effect on the Machiguengas parallels the effect of acculturation and Westernization. Seduced into a new life, the Machiguengas no longer remember how to live their old one and soon can't bear the sun. They realize their internal transformation into devils when they change outwardly into animals. Physical transformations indicate the complexity of someone's inner state. When people turn into animals, for instance, they lose their powers of speech. Because they can't communicate, their community loyalty erodes. The saankarite, or god, intervenes to tell them they've fallen for a trap. Like Machiguengas enticed by the offers of wealthy Western settlers, they've changed their way of life and upset the world's order. They've abandoned the past as well. Importantly, their dead ancestors don't know where to find them.

The chapter closes with a cautionary tale about the consequences of losing community. The man who burned down his village lost the trust of his people. In solitude he also lost his selfhood; he's viewed as "no longer a man." Though he's wearing Western clothing and can access Western privileges, he longs to walk with the Machiguengas again. The storyteller hopes the man will have another opportunity to transform into someone new. The stories in Chapter 3 challenge the Machiguengas to be mindful of their history and purpose. The storyteller issues a direct challenge to his listeners: "Are we walking? Are we listening?"

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