The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 4 | Summary



This chapter returns to the Peruvian narrator's point of view in his own life.

In 1958, two years after Saúl's graduation in Chapter 2, the narrator's friend Rosita Corpancho arranges for him to join an expedition as an anthropologist. The expedition to the Alto Marañón region is led by the Institute of Linguistics, a controversial international organization working in the Amazon jungles. The Institute, once on the verge of being expelled, has since left Peru. The Institute's opponents call it "a tentacle of American imperialism" intending to colonize Amazon Indians. Other opponents claim the Institute is made up of Protestant Christian missionaries who pretend to be linguists but really want to convert indigenous groups. However, the Institute's supporters say its linguists are studying Amazon languages and dialects and will facilitate communication with remote tribes.

This first expedition is memorable 27 years later. The narrator travels in a hydroplane over the Amazon forests that resemble "a newly created world, untouched by man." The native tribes remind him of humankind at "the dawn of human history," and the narrator can't stop thinking about Saúl. Professor Matos Mar, also on the expedition, says Saúl disapproves of the Institute's work and refused to come.

As the narrator learns more about the tribes, he understands Saúl's fascination and believes Saúl's goal of preserving tribal ways of life will be impossible. Western influences are changing the tribes, and tribal life is often cruel. As an example, the narrator recalls the story of Jum, the cacique, or head, of the Aguaruna tribe. Jum was captured and tortured by a local group of white and mestizo trading supervisors. While taking courses to become a bilingual teacher, Jum learned through his contact with "civilization" the trading supervisors were taking advantage of his people by setting exorbitantly high prices for the goods. When Jum tried to set up a cooperative and stop trading with the supervisors, the Viracochas bullied and tortured him into submission.

The narrator wonders what Saúl would say about Jum's case. Shouldn't the tribes be able to trade independently and prosper? Or should they be stuck in poverty? Matos Mar imagines Saúl's rebuttal: the white colonizers are destroying the Indians, not modernizing them. The narrator thinks Saúl would want the Viracochas to treat the Indians better. Matos Mar and the narrator discuss how the tribes' plight relates to larger socioeconomic issues in Peru, believing a socialist government would let tribal and modern cultures coexist peacefully. Looking back, the narrator can't believe he was naïve enough to think modern socialism would solve the problem, for industrialization, he thinks, kills "magico-religious cultures" no matter what.

The narrator's "most haunting memory" of his trip is a story he heard from two American linguists working at the Institute, Mr. and Mrs. Schneil. The Machiguengas are split into two groups because of "a geographical accident." One group lives above the Pongo de Mainique. Experienced with white settlers, this group has become acculturated. This is the group Saúl met in his travels. The other group lives in the forest below the river gorge and maintains little contact with outsiders. Within the second group a smaller subgroup, known as the Kogapakori, consists of aggressive men who attack outsiders.

For the most part the Machiguengas are peaceful and thus easy victims of rubber traders and rival tribes. The Schneils have worked for two and a half years to earn the Machiguengas' trust. The anthropologists think the tribe is "virtually falling apart" after all its misfortunes.

The narrator says few people have studied the Machiguengas. Although part of the Arawak family of tribes, their origin is mysterious. As nomads, they don't live in communities or villages.

Despite all the obstacles, the Schneils have learned about Machiguenga life and mythology. The Machiguengas believe in a creator god named Tasurinchi. The tribe doesn't use personal names. Names change on the basis of events in a person's life. Machiguengas have no words for quantities above four. They have a high rate of suicide, which the narrator attributes to a reduced survival instinct. A slight cold can kill them. Their seripigaris, "witch doctors or medicine men," heal the soul but not the body. Timid and distrustful of strangers, they refer to the time of the rubber boom as "the tree-bleeding." Although the Schneils found it difficult to make contact with the Machiguengas at first, the couple slowly spent more time with the tribe, gathering a working knowledge of the language for themselves and their children.

Like other linguists in the Institute, the Schneils are Christian evangelists. The Institute was founded as a way to translate the Bible into tribal languages. The Schneils seem modest in their faith and live in huts as the tribes do. The narrator visits other tribes with the Schneils, but none show the "depression or moral disintegration" of the Machiguengas.

On the last night of the expedition the narrator spends time with the Schneils, who show him Machiguenga artifacts and explain their symbolism. Mrs. Schneil says there's another "curious personage" among the Machiguengas: the well-respected "talker" or "speaker." The closest translation is the Spanish hablador. The hablador isn't a leader—the Machiguengas have no community leaders—but Machiguengas listen to him for days. Functioning as a courier between the tribe's disjointed groups, he gives family members news of one another and reports on births and deaths. In fact he serves as the community's collective memory. But the Schneils point out the Machiguenga sense of time differs from Western time. The word now can mean today or yesterday. Machiguengas discuss the recent past using present-tense verbs. Only the future is separate.

The narrator is awed and moved by the idea of a storyteller and of stories being vital to a people's existence. When he returns to Lima in August 1958, before leaving for a fellowship in Madrid, he meets Saúl again. Less enthusiastic about the storyteller than the narrator thought, Saúl is suspicious because the story comes from "gringos," or white people, who Saúl claims don't understand the Machiguengas at all. However, after many years the narrator knows Saúl was actually interested but pretended not to be.

The narrator struggles to remember much of his last conversation with Saúl but does recall Saúl discussing his hatred of the Institute of Linguistics. He thinks the linguists want to kill the Machiguengas' soul and culture through acculturation. Linguists, Saúl claims, are far more powerful than missionaries, priests, and nuns in the Amazon because they have money and strong organization and want to turn the Indians into "good Westerners, good modern men, good capitalists." Saúl adds no one has been able to subjugate the Amazon tribes in 400 years. Inca and Spanish colonizers failed. To Saúl this proves the tribes should be left alone and respected. The narrator calls Saúl "Peru's last Indigenist." Saúl retorts he can defend minority cultures better than most, as a Jew and member of a migrant population. The narrator knows Saúl doesn't practice Judaism but wonders whether Jewish stories of "persecution and ... dispersion" have influenced him. Claiming he's not an Indigenist, Saúl does think the Incas should be fully Westernized, but the Amazon tribes are different. "We've attacked them ferociously," he says, "but they're not beaten." Besides, the Machiguengas have a deep respect for nature and God, a respect Western people have forgotten.

Curious about Saúl's talk about divinity, the narrator asks whether he believes in God. Unsure, Saúl claims modern culture has "made God superfluous." The Machiguengas find God in water, food, and air, and the Institute does real damage by taking away the Machiguengas' genuine spirituality and giving them "an abstract God who's of no use to them." The Institute's linguists become even more excited about their work when they imagine being martyrs. Saúl agrees the missionary deaths are tragic but adds the tribe kills only out of necessity and with as little cruelty as possible.

As the two men leave the cafe, the cafe owner asks Saúl whether his birthmark hurts. Saúl replies he's usually unaware of it. The two men part and promise to write. The narrator never sees Saúl again. He writes letters but Saúl doesn't respond, so his curiosity deepens.

Four years pass. One day the narrator reads a book about the Machiguengas, written by Dominican missionary Fray Vicente de Cenitagoya. The narrator is unimpressed. The author calls them "savages" but praises their honesty and gentleness. The book reveals the Machiguengas as restless people with an unhealthy love for gossip and stories and "possessed by the demon of movement." Missionaries build a permanent settlement for the tribe, including food and a school. But one day the tribe simply gets up and leaves.

The narrator decides to write something about the Machiguenga storytellers and tries to contact Saúl asking for help. He does research about the tribe and attends a talk by Fray Elicerio Maluenda, a missionary. Fray Elicerio describes the tribe's theory of the universe. Machiguengas believe the earth is the center of the universe with two worlds above it and two worlds below. The creator god, Tasurinchi, lives in Inkite, the highest world. The second highest world is "the weightless region of clouds" called Menkoripatsa. The first world below the earth is the "region of the dead" where souls of the deceased live. The lowest region is "a river of black waters" called Gamaironi where the devil Kientibakori lives. Wondering how much of this description is accurate to the tribe, the narrator writes to Saúl again.

A year later when the narrator is living in Paris, he writes to Saúl a third time, having abandoned his writing project. At the end of 1963 the narrator meets Matos Mar who tells him Saúl went to live in Israel. Don Salomón wanted to spend his last years there, and Saúl followed him. Matos Mar thinks Saúl lost interest in the Machiguengas and moved on to something new. The narrator thinks Saúl is too attached to Peru to forget the country and worries for Saúl's safety in Israel.


This chapter examines Western cultural intervention in the Amazon through the eyes of those who support it. Vargas Llosa presents arguments for and against the Institute's work, letting readers make their own decision.

General Velasco, the Peruvian dictator the narrator mentions, was president of Peru from 1968–75. The narrator is retelling the story from the late 1980s and looking back on past events. General Velasco was antagonistic toward United States interests and economic influence in Peru. The narrator implies General Velasco's hostility extended to the Summer Institute for Linguistics. Arguments against Institute intervention invoke fears the North American way of life will overtake Peruvian culture. One clear method of change is language. Porras Barrenechea fears Indians will learn English before they learn Spanish. Colonialism will then become another, extreme, way for English-speaking countries to exert authority over Spanish-speaking countries. Indigenous tribes will also think of themselves differently if they speak a new language, and the stories they tell may change in a different tongue.

At first the narrator idealizes the image of the Amazon tribes as "the elemental, primeval existence of our distant ancestors." When he sees their simple way of life, he feels connected to his own origins. These origins, he thinks, connect all humankind and bring him back to "the dawn of human history." Then he learns what tribal life is actually like in the 20th century. Economic growth and Western intrusion have complicated indigenous ways. Resources are scarce, and the Amazonian white and mestizo settlers are motivated by poverty and fear. When Jum speaks up about the exploitation of his tribe, he's punished. The narrator worries that indigenous people can't speak up for their interests without retaliation. Individual acts of cruelty, like the captive whose pet is in chains, make the narrator worry more. Could Western intervention show indigenous people different methods of conflict resolution that lead to prosperity instead of conflict? Do Westerners have a responsibility to intervene if the tribe's traditions are cruel or unethical? These questions motivate the book, and its author.

The narrator starts to see Saúl's vision of independent tribes as romantic but impossible, maybe even undesirable. But his discussion with Matos Mar shows the reverse consequences of imperialism can be worse. Colonialism can start with good intentions, like the desire to fix "the horrifying condition of the weak and the poor in our country." But good intentions can go wrong. Instead of leading a better life, the tribe could become extinct. Should Jum's tribe, the Aguarunas, return to their old way, or should they be absorbed into Western culture? Which solution would protect the tribe from harm and best meet their needs? Should any try to do so? Young and idealistic, the narrator considers what the most moral action would be. He admires socialism and the ideas of José Carlos Mariátegui, a Peruvian Marxist who believed in keeping indigenous influence in Peru's culture.

However, looking back after several years, the narrator thinks of socialism as rather a magical solution, a myth of its own. There's no easy solution to the problem of colonialism. Western imperialism and development, he realizes, is not going to stop or even slow down in Peru or other countries. No form of government can proceed with industrial development without harming indigenous people. Nor can industrial development stop without harming the larger population. In this type of stand-off, diplomacy may have to settle for "accepting the lesser evil."

As the narrator learns more about the Machiguengas, he becomes more concerned they won't survive. Lacking the unity and cohesion of other tribes, they are especially vulnerable to danger. Their "individualism bordering on anarchy" means they lack safety in numbers, and their peaceful temperaments make them easy to capture. They have to hunt harder for food than most tribes do because they move through dry and challenging land. They refuse to accept medicine or get treatment for physical ailments and often take their own lives. Odds for survival are against them. But this picture of the Machiguengas contrasts with the story of dogged survival and persistence the storyteller told in Chapter 3. There the Machiguengas are alive, well, and walking. They often come close to danger but always escape and get their souls back in the end, according to the myths of their beliefs.

Chapter 4 presents information in a more straightforward way, helping readers put together the confusing details in Chapter 3. The change in Machiguenga names reflects the temporary nature of existence and the constant changes in life. Each physical ailment in Chapter 3 was considered a disease of the soul. In Chapter 4 readers learn the tribe's seripigaris, or shamans, treat the soul and not the body. The book reveals more about the Machiguenga cosmogony, or theory of the origin and development of the universe. Souls transition between different worlds, blurring the distinction between life and afterlife. The Machiguenga image of the afterlife helps explain their accepting attitude toward death.

The narrator observes many ways the Machiguengas tell stories and communicate. The designs on their bodies communicate social status, desires, and plans. The song the Schneils teach the narrator communicates emotion in a plainspoken way. Its melancholy repetition shows how the Machiguengas embrace sorrow as a part of life.

The Schneils, representatives of Western intervention and colonialism, are presented rather sympathetically. They appear knowledgeable and invested in protecting the Machiguengas' best interest. But they have a clear ulterior motive: to convert the tribe to Christianity. Vargas Llosa is objective, letting the reader decide how to feel about them and their work. As images of faith recur, such as the St. Andrew's cross-style mark the Machiguengas draw on their bodies, the narrator contemplates faith and devotion. Different beliefs influence the lives of the Institute missionaries, the Machiguengas, and Saúl. Each person or group believes in something larger than themselves. This belief affects their behavior in ways they might not fully understand. The narrator doesn't have such a strong allegiance to anything. He's both puzzled and awed, looking from the outside.

One topic, however, does compel the narrator so strongly he can't explain the appeal: storytelling. Specifically he's fascinated by the Machiguenga storyteller. The book draws out the mystery of the storyteller's identity. Does the hablador really exist? The narrator sees how the special circumstances of the Machiguengas might make such a figure essential. The Machiguengas have a different hierarchy of authority than most tribes. They lack a homeland or a community gathering place. Family members are often isolated from one another. The storyteller functions as a messenger service and a living archive, keeper of the tribe's memories. He becomes the homeland they lack.

The figure of the storyteller also illuminates how cultures maintain a sense of the past. Many cultures keep their traditions and stories alive through written accounts, photographs, films, songs, and other media. These media aren't just distractions or entertainments, Vargas Llosa argues, but important recording tools. When the narrator thinks of similar figures in other cultures, he sees how storytelling is a universal need, similar to and yet so different from the figure for the Machiguenga.

The storyteller maintains the collective memory of the tribe. Since the tribe passes down its history through oral narration rather than a written format, human memory and retelling become essential to preserve their past. The storyteller's role is similar to the role of the "Giver" in American novelist Lois Lowry's children's novel The Giver (1993). Lowry's book describes a society which chooses one member, the Giver, to carry complex emotional memories for the entire community. By exploring a society with no sense of its own history, where the Giver plays a prominent but burdensome role, Lowry shows how important collective memory can be.

As linguists, the Schneils have a different perspective. They think the Machiguenga language highlights what's important to the culture. The Machiguengas' lack of personal names indicates communal identity is more important than individual identity. The blur of the past and present tense indicates the recent past is always nearby. In the storyteller-narrated chapters of the book, the storyteller frequently uses the word before to describe when an event takes place: either the recent past or the present.

In this chapter as the narrator gets more invested in the Machiguengas, his narrative arc begins to resemble the storyteller's journey. He carries his own memory like the hablador carries the tribe's memory. But the narrator finds his memory "a snare" or trap. He isn't sure whether he can remember the past clearly or whether his view is altered through the lens of his current beliefs. Does he remember the conversations with Saúl, or is he imagining them? The narrator sees how often memory and imagination can be the same. Both are ways in which the mind retells events. When he exercises his memory, the narrator realizes, he's retelling the story of his life. His commitment to know about Saúl is also part of his own commitment to literature and his part in it.

Saúl, meanwhile, advocates for the preservation of the Machiguenga imagination, arguing against cultural erasure, which is even worse than colonizers destroying a tribe's habitat when "at worst they kill [the tribes] physically." When missionaries introduce new ideas about the world, they erase Machiguenga myth and replace it with stories of Christianity, which alter the Machiguengas' sense of purpose and image of the afterlife. To Saúl, soul destruction is worse, and Machiguenga myth backs him up. The myths in the storyteller-narrated chapters often show souls being taken, disturbed, or destroyed from within a person's body, leading to terrible damage.

Do marginalized tribes like the Machiguengas stand a chance? Saúl sees the tribe's resilience over time as a sign the Machiguengas have more power and value than others realize. The tribe was cunning enough to evade both the Incas and the Spanish. The Inca Empire, also called Tahuantinsuyo, lasted from 1400 to 1532 as the largest empire in the Americas. By 1532 the Spanish conquistadores defeated the powerful Incas, turning them into what Saúl calls "sleepwalkers and vassals." By the 20th century Saúl feels it's too late to preserve the Inca tribe, for once Westernization has begun, it can't be reversed. But it's not too late to save what indigenous culture is left, Saúl argues. He believes indigenous cultures have intrinsic value. If Western cultures absorb an untouched tribe, the country and the world will lose something invaluable, primitive as it may seem.

The concept of "God" is up for debate as the novel develops. Religion is a powerful motif, and the narrator is fascinated by how faith in the divine motivates human behavior. The Machiguenga gods are life necessities like food, water, and air. By contrast Judeo-Christian gods are abstract and distant. But these faraway deities motivate the behavior of their followers, just as the prospect of food and water motivates the Machiguengas.

Saúl believes the Christians in the Amazon are inspired by the idea of martyrdom. The killings he mentions happened in 1958. In a high-profile case several American missionaries were murdered in Ecuador by members of an indigenous tribe. As the narrator mentions, the case led to "scandal in the press" and furthered stereotypes of the "backward" and "barbaric" people of the Amazon. Saúl puts the question of morality more globally. The tribe murdered as humanely as possible in self-defense, believing they were under threat. Are these killings any worse than mass executions or nuclear bombs? The narrator never answers this question, but as he furthers his research, he confronts the impossibility of outsiders truly understanding the Machiguengas. He questions the reliability of Fray Vicente's account, for the missionaries have a clear agenda: to convert the Machiguengas to Christianity. The characters of Fray Vicente and the other priests featured in the chapter are based on Spanish missionaries of the Dominican order, who frequently visited the Amazon and interacted with the tribes.

The narrator begins to learn the Machiguengas do have a form of worship: they walk, driven by "a force more powerful" than themselves. The Machiguenga image of the afterlife and its separate kingdoms—two worlds above and two worlds below—recalls Italian poet Dante Alighieri's "cosmogony," or theory of the universe, that features separate, symmetrical circles of heaven, purgatory, and hell. In his Divine Comedy Dante's character, a version of himself, journeys like a pilgrim between worlds. Machiguengas similarly imagine souls traveling between worlds after death.

Then the narrator gets news of Saúl's own pilgrimage. He's headed to Israel. After the Babylonian Exile of 586 BCE and the further Roman exile of 70 ACE the Jewish people migrated throughout the world. The narrator doesn't believe Saúl has any interest in Zionism, a movement supporting a Jewish national state in Israel. Alyah or Aliyah, another movement the narrator mentions, is a Hebrew word meaning "ascent," or returning to the land of Israel. The conflict between Israel and Palestine has led to the same problems troubling Saúl in Peru: occupation, colonialism, violence, and the question of land ownership. When the narrator prays for Saúl, he sends up a prayer to Tasurinchi, the god of the Machiguengas. Though Matos Mar thinks Saúl has lost interest in Amazonian tribes, the narrator knows better.

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