The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is narrated by the Machiguenga storyteller, who gives details about his life before joining the Machiguengas.

"Good things happen and bad things happen," the storyteller says. He thinks the tribe has lost its wisdom. Few true seripigaris remain, and the tribe worries they aren't moving enough and may grow lazy. The wisest seripigari the storyteller ever knew has just died. Called "Tasurinchi, the one from the Kompiroshiato," this seripigari seemed to know everything about what to eat and how to act. Talking to him was frightening, the storyteller reflects, because "you realized how much you didn't know." The Kompiroshiato seripigari advised the storyteller to "eat what's permitted and respect the taboos" and to go through life calmly without getting impatient. Mistakes, this seripigari believed, always come from confusion.

The storyteller recalls a cautionary tale of a hunter who didn't respect the taboos. By mistake the hunter shot a deer—a sacred, forbidden animal. He worried something terrible would happen to him. When time passed and nothing happened, the hunter told his family the taboo on killing deer was "all humbug." He then began hunting deer on purpose. He brought a deer home to his wife, who cooked it reluctantly and warned the hunter eating deer would curse the family. Deer were believed to be former humans. The hunter said he didn't mind eating human flesh; it was delicious. Meanwhile the devil Kientibakori rejoiced in the forest. One day the hunter followed deer tracks and found a group of deer. He climbed up a tree and hid in wait until the deer drank from the lake. He shot a stag, but the stag didn't die. Confused, the hunter shot several more times. The stag stood still and kept drinking. More deer kept coming, and the hunter couldn't kill any of them. He became frightened and stayed in the tree until nightfall. The deer then moved as a group and butted the tree all night. The hunter held on but eventually fell down, accepting his fate. Now he's a deer wandering the forest. Whenever the storyteller sees a deer he wonders if this one is the hunter, a former human.

The storyteller listened for days to the Kompiroshiato seripigari until the seripigari told him to get back to his own job. The storyteller didn't have the wisdom or experience to become a seripigari, he said. Curious about the tribe, the storyteller asked the seripigari why the Machiguengas paint their bodies with annatto (red dye). The seripigari replied it was because of the moritoni, a small bird the Machiguengas never kill or step on, for the bird, along with the achiote bush that produces annatto dye, are the tribe's protectors. He recalls a story of the moritoni's origin. The moritoni was once the human child of Inaenka, "the evil that destroys flesh" disguised as a woman. Inaenka looked like an ordinary woman except for her limp. All devils limp, the storyteller has heard. A man fishing on the riverbank saw Inaenka and her children in a canoe. A nearby seripigari warned him, but the man waved to Inaenka anyway. Inaenka joined him in his cabin to help eat the fish he'd caught. The man noticed the fish's skin was falling off as if under boiling water. Then as his own skin began boiling and falling off, Inaenka danced with joy.

The seripigari was watching from the window. Inaenka planned to sprinkle boiling water on the seripigari and kill him. The seripigari had two protective white stones around his neck, but Inaenka took them off while he slept. Inaenka's children watched her misdeeds from the canoe. One boy, Potsotiki, saw an achiote bush waving its leaves toward him. When Potsotiki approached, the bush told him they had to destroy Inaenka or she'd kill the Machiguengas. The bush instructed the boy to eat its leaves so his face would change, then tell his mother he knew a place "where what's imperfect becomes perfect." Wishing to heal her limp, Inaenka would follow him there. She followed Potsotiki on a long journey to the point where all the world's rivers in the meet. Monsters beckoned to Inaenka to join them, and she realized Potsotiki had tricked her. She said he'd saved the tribe, but she'd follow him and scorch his skin. Because Potsotiki's soul had to give up its human covering to survive, the soul settled in the moritoni bird. Now when the Machiguengas paint their faces with annatto dye, they're "seeking Potsotiki's protection."

The Kompiroshiato seripigari explained to the storyteller, "There's a reason for everything." There are more small gods than there are drops of water in the river, he said. Kientibakori's devils disrupt the world's order while Tasurinchi's sons preserve it. Even the wise seripigari said there's much he didn't know about the world. The storyteller admits he'd like to be a shaman and control his trances. He recalls one especially bad trance leading to "a story I'd rather not remember." He went to sleep as a human and woke up as an insect. "A Gregor-Tasurinchi," the storyteller says, referring to the main character in Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The storyteller-turned-insect wondered how this happened and how his family would react. But his family pretended not to notice. The world continued as it did before. No one asked where the storyteller was. The storyteller agonized—he needed to ask for help but couldn't speak. He realized his family had sealed him in a hut from which he couldn't escape. He thought they were ashamed and then suspected he'd done something wrong. He hoped his family shut him in for his own protection. A taste of larvae briefly made the storyteller feel his soul was returning to his body. Then a lizard snuck into the hut, bit him, and ate him. The storyteller looked through the lizard's eyes and saw his family returning. When they didn't see the bug, they were relieved. They could return to their lives.

The storyteller asked the Kompiroshiato seripigari what the trance meant. The Kompiroshiato seripigari told him not to worry; it was the work of a devil. But the storyteller can't stop thinking about the trance. He explains to his listeners he wasn't always the way he is now. But he's always had the purple birthmark. He knows the Machiguengas won't believe him, for they think he would have been destroyed at birth.

Even though the Kompiroshiato seripigari said everything has a reason, no wise man can tell the storyteller the reason for his face. The storyteller wonders if some things "just happen" without a reason. He can tell his listeners don't agree and admits "not knowing the cause doesn't mean there isn't one." The stain once mattered to the storyteller, but now he doesn't mind it. Nor do the people in the Amazon. One tribal family told him people's actions matter, not their appearance. An older Machiguenga said "walking, fulfilling their destiny" matters, not "stains on a face."

The storyteller clarifies he wasn't always a storyteller. He began as a listener. At first he traveled "seeking out the men who walk." He gradually got to know how the Machiguengas lived, and eventually they invited him to walk with them. He remembered every story they told him "about this world and the others ... what was before and what was after." He started telling these stories to Machiguenga families who hadn't heard them before. One day as he arrived at a family's hut, they called him "the storyteller." He realized he'd found his destiny.

The storyteller then asks his listeners if birth defects like his face are evil. At the beginning of his travels with the Machiguengas, he heard of women drowning their children in the river because of birth defects. The women explained their god Tasurinchi "only breathed out perfect men and women." Imperfect children were monsters from the devil Kientibakori. The storyteller finds this belief difficult to accept. He points out older people in the tribe with deformities who claim they aren't devils, since they were born pure. Their outside may be monstrous, but their inside isn't. The storyteller now considers his defect fortunate. The Machiguenga know him as the storyteller, not as a monster.

Imagining the souls of the drowned children reminds the storyteller of the Machiguenga creation myth, which involves "the fight between Tasurinchi and Kientibakori." The god Tasurinchi had the idea to create land, forests, rivers, animals, and the Machiguenga tribe. Kientibakori became enraged and declared he could create a better world. But Kientibakori's world was rotten, filled with swamps, deadly animals, poisonous plants, and devils. When the two gods finished, the world was what it is today. The Machiguengas have been walking ever since. The Gran Pongo River, once forbidden, is now visited respectfully by Machiguengas, Punarunas, and Viracochas. The river's loud noise comes from the sad moans of the drowned children's souls. The storyteller wonders if Kientibakori's monsters are tormenting the children.

He recalls a seripigari told him the worst evil was "not knowing one's obligation" or purpose. The storyteller confesses he didn't know his obligation before he became what he is now. The Machiguengas have survived misfortunes, he thinks, because they're fulfilling their obligation to walk. The storyteller says the Machiguengas are his people now. He once "walked with another people" believing they were his people, but once he joined the Machiguengas, he was born for the first time. The storyteller reveals the origins of his first people, the "other people." Cast out of their land by "strong, cunning Viracochas," they continued their peaceful life. Their creator was a spirit called Jehovah-Tasurinchi. One day a child was born who claimed to be Tasurinchi's breath, Tasurinchi's son, and Tasurinchi himself all at once. The child came from Inkite—the world above—to change the people's evil customs and teach them how to walk again. He traveled from place to place telling stories. The storyteller isn't sure whether the child was a good or bad sorcerer, but he was a convincing one. He could create food, heal the crippled, and even return the souls of those who had gone. People were awed and began following the new storyteller's customs.

The seripigaris, or wise men, worried their people would disappear if they changed their ways. "Aren't we what we believe?" they asked. Thus they condemned the new storyteller, certain he was a liar. The Viracochas, or powerful people, were worried because they didn't know whether to believe him. They killed him by nailing him to "two crossed tree trunks." But the new storyteller came back to life, possibly to "go on throwing this world into even worse confusion than before." Since then the people who belong to Jehovah-Tasurinchi have suffered. They're nomads like the Machiguengas, cursed to live on the move. Other tribes blame them for misfortunes. The people constantly worry they'll be killed, but they've never disappeared. They continue "journeying, coming and going, escaping." The storyteller wonders whether others hate the people of Jehovah-Tasurinchi because their traditions are different. "People would like everyone to be the same," the storyteller reflects. The storyteller thinks the Machiguengas, like the tribe of Jehovah-Tasurinchi, survive because they continue walking.

Before the storyteller met the Machiguengas he thought tribes should be willing to change and "adopt ... the magic of strong peoples." Now he knows tribes should stay the way they are. Otherwise their souls will be lost. The storyteller recalls the transformation of Gregor-Tasurinchi. Gregor-Tasurinchi's story is an example of the "repulsive beings" that can invade someone who loses their soul.

The storyteller changes the subject to describe a recent visit to Tasurinchi who lives by the Timpania River. The Timpania Tasurinchi has been working with the White Fathers, who give him seed and farming equipment. He sells them produce. Though the Timpania Tasurinchi is earning a living, he isn't happy. He worries he's overfarming the land. The Timpania Tasurinchi's wife runs out of the hut, saying a hen fell into the river. She tells her husband the earth was shaking. Tasurinchi beats her for lying. But the earth begins to shake just as she described, making "a deep, threatening sound." The sky darkens. A dust storm begins. The family fears the world is ending. The world clearly didn't end, the storyteller says. The stubborn Timpania Tasurinchi refused to admit he'd been wrong. During the night the Timpania Tasurinchi confesses to the storyteller he's afraid the events are bad omens. He spends a day thinking silently, and then he tells his family they need to start walking. The family is sad to leave the settlement where they've built a good life. They don't know where they're going or what will happen. They burn their huts since they can't take anything with them. The Timpania Tasurinchi remembers something important he learned once. Evil occurrences mean "people have stopped paying attention to the earth."

After this visit the storyteller's journey takes an unexpected direction. He steps on a nettle, and his foot swells. He stays in one place for a while to let his sore foot heal. The storyteller makes a trap to catch birds to eat. Soon he's surrounded by birds he doesn't expect: parrots. All are chattering, and he wonders what they're trying to tell him. The parrots are chased off by a yaniri, a type of monkey, who the storyteller believes was a wise man in a past life. He calls to the yaniri to heal his foot, but the yaniri ignores him, and the parrots return. Increasingly frightened, the storyteller screams at the parrots and asks them what they want. Recalling a man who told him animals will reveal their secrets if he listens, the storyteller listens to the parrots' sounds until he understands they've come to keep him company on the journey. He shouldn't have feared them, the parrots claim—parrots never eat Machiguengas. "You've had to get a thorn stuck in you to discover your companions," one parrot says. The parrots tell him they're talkers like him. The storyteller remembers, "Each man who walks has his animal who follows him." His animal must be the parrot. He feels safer and more confident when he travels, for the parrots watch over him.

The storyteller remembers when he began traveling alone. Tribe members thought he was doing something foolish and dangerous. Machiguengas are never alone; they always travel in groups. But the storyteller has never been lonely. The parrots have always been following him.

He gestures to the parrot asleep near him. This parrot, he says, has a different story. The storyteller was once sitting under a nest where a mother parrot had just given birth. The mother parrot seemed excited and agitated. She planned to kill one of her chicks because it was born with a broken leg and couldn't fly. The storyteller learned animals kill newborns "when they're born different." Newborn animals with deformities will have difficult lives and won't live long. The storyteller wonders whether animals also "refuse to accept imperfection." The parrot with the broken leg became the storyteller's traveling companion. He calls the parrot a name he invented: Mascarita.

Analysis

The stories in this chapter tackle larger questions of wisdom, self-determination, identity, purpose, and belonging. Magical physical transformations become more poignant as they tie into the storyteller's personal life before joining the Machiguengas. The details about his former life strongly imply the storyteller is Saúl Zuratas, now a valued member of the community. In the next chapter the narrator will speculate about Saúl's fate and determine, without definitive proof, that Saúl is the storyteller and now is at peace with his own uniqueness.

The storyteller retells two literary stories as Machiguenga myths: Kafka's The Metamorphosis and the Biblical story of Jesus. His retelling proves the enduring power of good stories to cross cultures and genre lines and speak to all audiences.

When the chapter begins, the storyteller says the Machiguengas have been corrupted by staying in one place. The book doesn't specify when the storyteller is speaking, but after the events of Chapter 6, many Machiguengas grouped into settlements and became more Westernized. The storyteller's warning implies the Machiguengas abandoned their sense of purpose and stayed in one place. If tribe members aren't walking, they lose their sense of who they are. And unless they're walking, the sun won't rise. The wise seripigari reveals more about the Machiguengas' cosmic perspective. Their tribal mythology imagines the Machiguengas as the center of a large universe with a role essential to the universe's survival.

With the rapid expansion of industrial development described in Chapters 4 and 6, the Machiguengas face questions about their future. Counseling against "confusion," the seripigari implies confusion can come from too much change too quickly. His story of the hunter who became a deer is a cautionary tale. Because the hunter lacked patience, humility, and respect for his place in the world, he suffered the consequences. Like the Viracochas with their weapons, the hunter thinks his weapons let him dominate others. Meanwhile the deer, once men, resemble the acculturated Machiguengas who adopt Western clothing and lifestyles. These Machiguengas went through a transformation, too: once tribe members, they no longer belong.

The image of a man trapped in an animal's body recurs in the storyteller's tale of Gregor-Tasurinchi. Life forms are fluid in Machiguenga myth. All animals were once "something different from what they are now." Identity and physical form, like location, are temporary to the Machiguengas. Names change as do outward appearances.

A sense of purpose, however, remains constant. Twice in the storyteller's narrated chapters he considers becoming something other than a storyteller. At the end of Chapter 5 he planned to settle down and raise a family. Now he wonders about becoming a seripigari. The seripigari teaches him a lesson about respecting his place in the world and fulfilling his role. As the storyteller reflects on his purpose, he thinks about how his outward appearance influences his life.

The story of the moritoni bird is the first of several stories in this chapter about outcasts, some marked by physical form. The story describes "the evil that burns the face," approaching a description of the storyteller's own deformity, and the telltale deformity of a limp revealing demonic possession. More broadly the story is about disguise and deception within a family. Inaenka's son defeats her by playing to her one insecurity. She is tempted by the thought of physical perfection. But the temptation is too good to be true, and like the hunter she accepts her fate among the monsters. The storyteller considers the messages of the stories. Is he being told to accept his fate? This tale is another origin myth, explaining the moritoni bird's behavior and the custom of painting with annatto dye. But this tale has a broader message: no events are random or unplanned; everything is connected.

Prehistoric myths often functioned as explanations for strange events, imagining them as part of a divine plan. The Machiguenga myths, too, have a pattern, a rhythm of devils disturbing the world and gods setting it right again. The storyteller wonders whether knowing these "causes and consequences" is truly wisdom.

Like the Machiguengas, he copes with events in his life through stories. The tale of Gregor-Tasurinchi is told as a trance or dream. Its form blurs the line between memory and imagination, reinforcing the idea both can be the same. The storyteller believes he transformed into a bug. In his own magical transformation story, he imagines losing his family and people. The tale is a reflection, possibly, of Saúl's feelings of alienation living in the Western world, and he chooses to tell it in terms of the Kafka story, one of the best-known literary embodiments of alienation and otherness, a minority consciousness as expressed by Kafka's feeling alienated within his own family, from his Jewish traditions, and from the Czech language and nation.

Gregor-Tasurinchi's story thus retells Kafka's The Metamorphosis as a Machiguenga myth. Kafka's protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning in the body of an insect.

Gregor-Tasurinchi, like Gregor Samsa, begins the story as a member of a family unit. Gregor-Tasurinchi fears his family will reject him. With no communal identity, who will he become? This alienation is expressed in his inability to communicate. This is the curse of many men who change form throughout the storyteller's tales: they can't tell their families what happened, having lost the power of speech and narrative. In Kafka's tale Gregor's family knows he is inside the insect's shell but reject him anyway. In the storyteller's version Gregor-Tasurinchi observes that the Machiguenga people, going about their activities, don't seem to miss him, and he wonders what value he has to the tribe.

The storyteller's version emphasizes the Machiguenga idea of a body as a mask or covering for the soul. The outer form still matters. Although Gregor-Tasurinchi sees the world differently after his body changes, he's the same within. Similarly the Machiguengas in Chapter 6 may look and act like Westerners, but they're the same loyal tribe members on the inside.

At the end of the story Gregor-Tasurinchi is eaten by a snake. The image of consumption recalls Saúl's comparison of the linguists and missionaries with a worm eating the tribe from the inside out. Consumption leads to disappearance and erasure.

After sharing his trance, the storyteller shares the truth about himself. This time his interactions with the listeners are clear. When he asks, "What are you shouting about?" the tales become a call-and-response. The listeners don't believe the storyteller's birthmark came from the god Tasurinchi or the devil Kientibakori. But they think the birthmark must have a purpose.

The stories in the storyteller-narrated chapters have had a performance element. Now they have a confessional element as well. The storyteller is becoming more vulnerable. He challenges the seripigari's idea everything has a purpose. Machiguenga legends have reasons and explanations for every aspect of nature. But perhaps no story can be told to explain the birthmark. Instead the storyteller explains what tribal acceptance means to him. In Chapter 6 the narrator wondered how storytellers got their jobs. Now the storyteller reveals the process wasn't formal at all. Beginning as a listener, he soon was telling stories. The profession found him—and he found freedom and community in return.

Having earned the trust of the community, the storyteller can advocate for change from within. He addresses the tribal tradition of killing babies with birth defects and uses himself as an example to prove difference is acceptable. Because Machiguenga families don't see him as a monster or a devil—they've given him a new identity, a new self—he suggests they can see babies with birth defects in the same way.

As he imagines the souls of drowned children, he transitions into a story of heroic Machiguenga history and the evils the tribe still fears. The story of Tasurinchi versus Kientibakori is a version of a classic mythology trope: the war between good and evil. Like their god Tasurinchi, the Machiguengas will have to fight to preserve their tribe. The storyteller imagines the children's souls are tortured "not because they're impure but because they're Machiguengas," challenging the idea the Machiguengas are "impure" or in need of change.

The storyteller describes how he was reborn or born again as a Machiguenga, using language similar to that used in the Christian religious tradition. Someone is "born again" once they've converted to a faith. The storyteller uses the word in the same sense. He has become an entirely new self.

His next story, like the tale of Gregor-Tasurinchi, makes a connection between Western and Machiguenga culture. The story of Jehovah-Tasurinchi casts the Judeo-Christian figure of Jesus in the role of a Machiguenga storyteller. Jehovah is a Hebrew name for God, sometimes used in the Jewish religious tradition. The storyteller reveals both his knowledge of Western religion and his personal connection to Jewish tradition— another indication he may be Saúl. Telling the tale as a legend, not a set of beliefs, he debates the efficacy of Jehovah-Tasurinchi's resurrection, saying the world may have been in more confusion afterward. He doesn't know whether Jehovah-Tasurinchi was a good or bad sorcerer. This narrative distance reflects Saúl's own critical distance from the Jewish faith of his fathers.

The Jews, like the Machiguengas, were forced into diaspora, or dispersion from their homeland. The Babylonian Exile (586 BCE) was the first large-scale migration of Jews from their homeland. By 70 CE the Romans were driving them out again. The Jewish people began to move and settle across western and northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. The storyteller is impressed by the survival of the Jews because many more groups with strong warriors and wise leaders have been wiped out. He wonders if the Jews' dispersal is key to their survival. The Machiguengas' constant walking through the Amazon jungle is a different form of dispersal, but it may serve a similar function. Walking surely is a survival mechanism the Machiguengas have been forced to develop. The storyteller believes it may perform a greater function than physical survival, for it gives the tribe purpose. Their constant walking represents their search for truth and wisdom. The storyteller, constantly seeking wisdom, believes part of wisdom is finding one's purpose and fulfilling it against great odds.

The story presents Jehovah-Tasurinchi as a figure representing truth and wisdom to many people. Jehovah-Tasurinchi himself is described as a "serigórompi," or eccentric. Like the Machiguenga storyteller he's different from others around him. The comparison recalls the narrator's sense of Saúl as a mystical or religious figure himself.

Then the storyteller begins a broader indictment of colonialism. "People don't like living with people who are different," he explains. Individual mistreatment of a child born with birth defects, or collective mistreatment of a marginalized ethnic group, could stem from this principle. The storyteller once thought change was essential for survival. The "stronger people" he refers to are the dominant cultures: the Incas, the Spaniards, the missionaries. Now he's seen the moral in many of the folktales. Transformation comes with the risk of losing one's soul. Besides, the Machiguengas have a responsibility to the planet.

In his next story, about the consequences of not respecting the earth, the Timpania Tasurinchi has adopted several traits of the dominant culture. He hunts and farms the land like the White Fathers do. The earth wants him to leave it in peace, but he disobeys. Staying put, they are not walking. Like the hunter who became a deer in Chapter 5, the Timpania Tasurinchi faces punishment for disobedience. He's forgotten his purpose, and the earth shakes in retaliation, declaring "I don't want to be ill-treated." The tale leaves the storyteller in no doubt about the White Fathers' agenda: colonists don't want to improve Machiguenga lives; they want to exploit the planet unthinkingly.

In the final two tales the storyteller focuses on unexpected journeys during which he experiences misfortunes that turn out to be fortunes, not unlike his birthmark. His crippling foot injury leads him to meet his parrot companions, eventually comparing their words to "little lights in the darkness." He's learned to listen to nature, which now guides his way. Even though the Machiguengas warned the storyteller against pursuing such a lonely vocation, he trusted his larger faith in the order of the world.

The tale of the storyteller's own parrot brings the book's larger narrative arc full circle. The parrot is a disfigured outcast like the storyteller and like Saúl. The animal even resembles Saúl's pet parrot Gregor Samsa. The nickname the storyteller gives the parrot, Mascarita, is Saúl's own nickname. Yes, the odds are against the parrot. Its life may be short and painful, but it survives. The storyteller thinks the tribe can find hope in this story. The odds have always been against the Machiguengas, and they too have survived. Now Saúl has found his place in their world, it seems.

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