The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 5 | Summary



This chapter is told again from the perspective of the Machiguenga storyteller.

The storyteller begins with a tale of a Machiguenga man, Tasurinchi, who lives by the river Mishahua. The storyteller is amazed the Mishahua Tasurinchi is still alive after kidnapping a woman from the Yaminahua tribe. When the storyteller visits the family, the Yaminahua woman is learning to speak. The Mishahua Tasurinchi says he traded goods for the woman; he didn't steal her. Since a devil disguised as a wasp stung his penis, the Mishahua Tasurinchi has felt strangely compelled to do certain things. He thinks a god or devil is giving him orders. After the sting his penis grew into a massive weapon until a seripigari brought it back down to normal size, but the impulse to do strange things has remained. The other women who live with the Mishahua Tasurinchi hate and abuse the Yaminahua woman. The storyteller and the Mishahua Tasurinchi fear she'll kill the other women because she is strong, and the Yaminahua are a fighting people. The storyteller worries that the Yaminahuas will take revenge, but the Mishahua Tasurinchi says he offered them a shotgun and they left satisfied.

Unsure the new bride will make the Mishahua Tasurinchi happy, the storyteller recalls the story of Kashiri, the moon, coming to earth and marrying a Machiguenga. This story happened "before," the storyteller says. Kashiri was a young man living in Inkite or "the sky above," the highest Machiguenga world. He was bored and traveled down the river to the earth, still dark, where he began walking. Kashiri met a Machiguenga girl and taught her to harvest cassava and plantain, beginning the growth of food on the planet and the time "after." Kashiri and the Machiguenga girl married and had a good life. But another girl in their village was a devil in disguise. When Kashiri's wife had given birth to the child who would become the sun, the devil was jealous and wanted the child for herself. So she flung filth at Kashiri and stained him permanently. Ashamed, Kashiri was forced to return to the sky. His light is still dimmed from the stains, but his son continues to shine. "His mother was a Machiguenga, after all," the storyteller says of the sun.

The seripigari of Segakiato has a different version in which Kashiri went to earth and threw dirt at the Machiguenga girl so she'd have a son. Kientibakori and his devils danced in a nearby forest. The girl died while she was pregnant. Furious Machiguengas surrounded Kashiri and forced him to eat the girl's corpse. Kashiri sadly opened the girl's stomach and lifted out the baby, who was alive. He ate the bottom half of the girl's body before the Machiguengas let him go. He returned to the sky, and his stains represent "the pieces he didn't eat." His son became the sun, but this time he burned the Machiguengas in revenge for their treatment of his father. The frightened Machiguengas pleaded with a seripigari to make peace with the sun. The seripigari convinced the sun to walk with them.

On his way to meet the Mishahua Tasurinchi, the storyteller gets lost and falls into a gully while crossing the river. His parrot companion disappears. When a storm starts raging, the storyteller thinks he'll die. He's saved by grabbing a floating tree trunk, though he worries when he discovers the trunk is really an alligator. As the storyteller drifts down the river, a bird perches on his shoulder and tells him to fly. The storyteller doesn't know how to fly. But when a stork lands on the alligator's back, the storyteller laughs and wakes the dangerous alligator. The stork carries him safely into the air. Suddenly the storyteller is flying. He reaches the Menkoripatsa, or land of the clouds. When he tires, he uses the stork to bring him to earth. "This is my world. This is my home," he reflects, glad to be back on earth. He opens his eyes and sees a seripigari waiting with his parrot. The seripigari tells the storyteller he survived because he didn't lose his temper. "Anger is a disorder of the world," the storyteller concludes. The seripigari reminds him anger came from Kachiborérine or comets in the sky.

The storyteller then tells the origin story of Kachiborérine, the first comet. Kachiborérine begins life as a Machiguenga man. While searching for a wife for his son, Kachiborérine is captured by the rival Chonchoites. They rip out his insides, but his skin escapes. A medicine-induced trance shows Kachiborérine his wife plans to kill him and has remarried in his absence. He sends her a message to prepare him a healing brew instead. But when he arrives home and drinks the liquid, it pours out of his empty body. He knows he's "a man without guts or heart." Kachiborérine finally gives way to anger and turns into a devil. He runs through the forest, searching for his wife to kill her. He rips out plants and trees. Finally he sets a bamboo cane on fire, shoves the flaming cane through his body, and finds a new home in the sky as a comet. He returns to earth to change Machiguenga corpses into "secret stars."

The storyteller continues to talk with the seripigari as night falls. The seripigari reveals he can talk with the fireflies surrounding his camp, telling the surprised storyteller, "You have to know how to listen." After spending a long time alone the seripigari realized the fireflies were there to keep him company. He sang to them for many nights until they finally whispered back. The seripigari tells the fireflies the story of the Machiguengas, while the fireflies tell him their sad story.

The storyteller narrates the tale of the fireflies' misfortune. They once lived on earth with males and females together happily. Meanwhile Kashiri, the moon, married to a Machiguenga woman, grew jealous of his child, the sun, and created cosmic upheaval with storms and floods. The god Tasurinchi sent Kashiri back to his home in the sky, letting Kashiri take company so he wouldn't be lonely. Kashiri took the female fireflies because "they reminded him of the light he'd lost, perhaps." Whenever fireflies see a shooting star, they hope it's their wife who's escaped. The storyteller thinks Kashiri's return to the sky may be "how after began." When the sun goes down each night, he's looking for his father the moon. The Machiguenga continue walking to maintain order in the world.

Departing on a new journey, the storyteller reflects on all he's learned during his travels. He thinks about "taboos and dangers." Listeners often wonder if he's frightened traveling alone. He does walk with company if someone's going his way and is wary of meeting a devil on the road. He's also learned to clean the blood off animals he kills, so he doesn't make himself impure with their blood. But the storyteller is never bored. The seripigari taught him to listen to the earth. Now objects and animals speak to him, and each has a story.

The storyteller begins to tell the story of Pachakamue, the first man to speak. His sister Pareni is the first woman. Pachakamue calls Pareni's children "little monkeys" and they suddenly turn into monkeys. He turns another of her daughters into a tapir. Pareni and her husband Yagontoro are worried Pachakamue is "upsetting the order of the world" with his words. They try to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. Surviving the fall, Pachakamue tries to climb upward by turning himself into an ant, then by creating a reed to climb. When he fails, he grows angry and runs off, threatening to "wreak havoc." Yagontoro catches and kills him. But because Yagontoro doesn't cut off Pachakamue's tongue, it can still do damage. On his way home Yagontoro, to his horror, turns into an animal. Even in death Pachakamue continues "transforming things so they would be like his words." He turns Pareni's new husband into a bee and her next husband into a hummingbird. Pareni and her daughter walk through the forest and find the Cerro de Sal, a rock outcropping where the Machiguengas once collected salt they needed.

The storyteller next describes a visit to the herb doctor, who lives in "country swarming with Viracochas." He sees the Viracochas have built settlements in the area, but he can't find the herb doctor. Worried he'll meet a Viracocha, the storyteller hides and watches the Viracochas dig up earth and shoot animals with guns. He sleeps in a shelter at night. When the storyteller wakes up, he's greeted by one of the herb doctor's sons, who has been following him. The son leads the storyteller to the herb doctor. Discussing the Viracochas, the herb doctor says, "They always get to where we are in the end." He adds the Machiguengas always leave when someone else arrives, and walking may be the tribe's destiny. The herb doctor thinks warring tribes and white men help the Machiguengas fulfill their obligation.

The herb doctor tells the story of "the tree-bleeding," about which he's heard many stories. It was a time of fear and confusion, when Machiguengas didn't trust one another. Even fathers and sons thought family members would give them up to the Viracochas. The herb doctor recalls how Viracochas hunted members of Amazon tribes, dragging the captives to bleed trees with their hands. Eventually the tribe members grew weak, and the Viracochas ran out of labor. To get more workers they bribed captives with food, clothing, and guns if they'd hunt others down. As a result "everyone hunted everyone." Tribe members were killed daily, and the survivors lamented, "The world has fallen into chaos." The herb doctor thinks a similar event could happen again. Three of his sons have died, and he doesn't know where their souls are. After each death, the family moved. After the third move the herb doctor has decided to stay, believing his dead sons will protect him.

The storyteller stays with the herb doctor for a long time, helping the doctor work and listening to his stories. The storyteller has never felt such an urge to stay in one place. The herb doctor recommends the storyteller give up his job, settle down, and raise a family, offering his own land and his daughter as a wife. After careful consideration the storyteller accepts the offer, fearing he won't always have the strength to continue walking. The storyteller finds a location for his hut and plans to stay, but then the woman meant to be his wife kills herself, afraid the tribe will blame her when they're left with no wandering storyteller. The herb doctor says the death is a sign the storyteller needs to keep walking to fulfill his destiny. The next morning he continues on his way.


The stories in this chapter deal with magical transformations. Many prehistoric myths involve the transformation of animals to humans or vice versa. Similarly animals will sometimes speak or act like humans. The myth-tellers believed animals had a close relationship to the human species.

The first story of the Mishahua Tasurinchi who stole the Yaminahua woman involves grotesque, exaggerated physical transformations. An unknown evil leads to each transformation. The story also introduces the idea of outcasts and belonging, which will recur with more emphasis in Chapter 7. An outcast at first, the Yaminahua woman learns the language and starts to blend in. Once she has a child and helps continue the tribe's existence, she'll be fully accepted.

The Machiguengas are wary of other groups. They regard the White Fathers especially with mixed fascination, awe, and fear. The shotgun is both a threat and a prize—they're all curious about it. The White Fathers are powerful and remote, like the gods of Machiguenga myth.

The storyteller's musings about unhappy marriages lead to the second story, an origin myth about how the moon got its stains. This story exemplifies myths as teaching and learning tools. Listeners are warned not to follow Kashiri's example, or the same fate will befall them. Kashiri's descent to earth follows a common trope in myths: gods mingling with and occasionally falling in love with humans. Kashiri's role also parallels the role of Western colonizers who interfere in Machiguenga life. The god teaches the Machiguengas how to plant, harvest, and eat. His arrival marks the time "after." The Machiguengas have settled, and all seems well. But trouble begins. Devils are almost always in disguise in Machiguenga myths, and their intrusion has catastrophic results, unless they can be defeated.

The seripigari learned the story differently, and the two versions are presented to show how myths continuously change and how more than one version of the "truth" is needed. With oral storytelling, each narrator might pass on a somewhat different version. The seripigari's tale is darker. Humans, not devils, are the villains. The sun's motive isn't to give warmth and light but to seek vengeance. This version resembles a common South American Indian myth personifying the sun and the moon as opponents.

As the storyteller continues his journey, he stars in his own myth about the story of his flight. His reaction to the storm reveals the larger Machiguenga worldview. Fearing the storm as the wrath of "the lord of thunder," he worries he'll descend to "the lowest world" if he dies by drowning. The Machiguengas believe a person's manner of death or conduct in life influences where they end up in the afterlife. Dante, the Florentine poet who inspires the book's narrator, presents a similar vision in his Divine Comedy in which souls go to heaven or hell according to the lives they've lived.

This is a personal story, allowing the storyteller to interact with his Machiguenga audience. When the stork lands on the alligator's tail, listeners laugh. The storyteller can then bring his audience into the scene. He considers himself a receptacle for the tribe, not an independently wise person like a seripigari. All he has are "the things I'm told and the things I tell," he claims. His voice is the Machiguenga community voice. His adventure involves near-death moments and narrow escapes, like the journey of a hero in tales across cultures. Although his magical metamorphosis makes his flight possible, the story has a real-life instructional type of moral. It becomes a fable, or a folktale with a lesson attached: the storyteller was saved because he didn't get angry.

The moral leads to a cautionary tale about the dangers of anger. The story of Kachiborérine the Comet also serves as an origin story explaining why comets light up the sky. Kachiborérine's transformation shows how Machiguengas view the body's relation to the soul. When his bodily organs leave him, Kachiborérine becomes empty skin. Similarly Machiguengas believe they're empty vessels without a soul. The book's stories of physical transformation highlight distinctions between the outside and the inside. Someone's outer form can hide their inner state completely. The tale combines physical comedy with the tragedy of Kachiborérine realizing he's fundamentally changed and must become a different life form.

The cosmos, like the rest of nature, is never far removed from Machiguenga life. Corpses can transform into "secret stars," and in the seripigari's tale of the fireflies the audience learns how men can cure their loneliness by communicating with nature. South American storytellers from many different tribes, including the Peruvian Machiguengas, believe human souls have an extraordinary ability to hear beyond the ears' capacity. The seripigari finds he possesses this ability. His story is ultimately about belonging. "A man needs his family, if he's going to walk," the seripigari decides as he makes the fireflies his new kinfolk. Also separated from their families, the fireflies share his sense of loss. The fireflies' tragedy recalls the separation of indigenous families during the Amazon rubber boom and the separation of people from their loved ones after death. It's a tale to help the people cope with death and grief. Like the Machiguengas, the fireflies continue telling the story of their misfortune to keep the past alive. The story of why the sun goes down each night—to look for his father, the moon—taps into a similar longing for family.

As the storyteller learns to listen to the earth, his own role becomes clearer. For him wisdom involves constantly learning and remembering. To do his job well he needs to listen as much as he talks. And he's no one without a listening audience. He reveals he's still learning Machiguenga customs, which indicates he may be a former outsider or newcomer to the tribe. His relationship to the earth is transforming. He's not surrounded only by objects in nature but also by sentient beings with voices and stories. The Machiguengas see humans as part of nature, but not the most important part. The storyteller's reverence for the jungle recalls Saúl's Chapter 4 discussion of what God means to the tribe.

The story of Pachakamue is a version of a creation story, explaining how the earth and its animals came to exist. It also demonstrates the power of words and language to speak worlds into existence. The myth explains why the natural world is still vulnerable to sudden change and danger: Pachakamue's tongue can still speak.

The storyteller's visit to the herb doctor introduces another source of danger. When the storyteller imagines the Viracochas are "searching for gold," he knows colonizers often seek wealth and prosperity when they enter new lands. Spanish explorers hoped to find valuable goods in the Americas. Mythical places like El Dorado were believed to be full of gold. The herb doctor knows the inevitability of colonialism. Both white colonizers and rival tribes, he claims, "always get to where we are in the end." But the herb doctor sees these intrusions as blessings in disguise. To flee these threats the Machiguengas are forced to walk, fulfilling their purpose. The herb doctor's conviction reveals how the tribe's common sense of vision and mission sustains them. When the storyteller says the herb doctor speaks with "the voice of a hablador," he means the voice of the community or tribe, as his tales demonstrate, given voice by the teller for them all.

The story of the tree-bleeding is also a story of transformation. The tribe transforms from free people to slave laborers and from family members to enemies. The Viracochas become cunning folktale villains turning fathers and sons against one another. The text mimics their speech in short, punctuated commands. In reality the Viracochas were European immigrants drawn to South America by commercial possibilities in rubber. The collection of rubber from as many trees as possible required tribes to split into remote areas, threatening tribal unity, leading to terrible effects.

The herb doctor mentions the Machiguengas who turned hunters "were happy, perhaps." The word perhaps signals doubt. They had material goods, but the contentment wasn't real. The only way to prevent such devastation from recurring, the tribe believes, is to keep retelling the story. The importance of memory leads into the herb doctor's story of family loss.

Here the herb doctor has to find peace and resolution in not knowing. He feels there's an explanation for why his sons died but doesn't know yet know it. One of the most significant purposes of stories is to make sense of the unknown, and the herb doctor's story struggles to make sense of death. The story also leads the storyteller to contemplate his own eventual death. Can he make a transformation into a family man and give up his wandering profession? He nearly does. But the tribe fears the consequences of losing their storyteller. The storyteller, knowing how important destiny and obligation are to him and the tribe, continues the job he's meant to do. The chapter's final story is one with a moral. Sometimes transformation is neither desirable nor acceptable. Sometimes someone is who they are, and "it is dangerous to disobey fate," the herb doctor reminds the storyteller.

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