The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Context


Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion

The Storyteller is a novel, but unlike most fiction it includes much discussion of ethics in anthropology and ethnology, branches of the social sciences. The book also employs the motif of religion, using Judaism, Christianity, and indigenous belief systems as examples.

When main character Saúl Zuratas develops an interest in the indigenous Machiguenga tribe of the Amazon, he studies anthropology. Anthropologists examine the culture and development of human beings, including their biological and social characteristics. They might study the evolution, genetics, language, politics, religion, or nutrition of different groups of people. It's a wide field broken into several subspecialties.

Cultural anthropology, or the study of different cultures, is one specialty. The Storyteller includes ethnology, a specific branch of cultural anthropology that examines the growth and change of individual ethnic groups. While anthropologists focus on a range of ethnic groups, ethnologists study one group in depth, often spending time with a remote ethnic group like the Machiguengas of Peru and observing the group's evolving traditions.

The Storyteller examines how both social scientists and religious leaders interact with Amazon tribes. The Schneils, an American couple in The Storyteller, are linguists who live for many years with the Machiguengas. The Schneils' organization is religiously affiliated, its members serving as both linguists and missionaries. When the narrator researches the Machiguengas, he finds several texts written by Protestant and Catholic observers.

Religion affects the novel in other ways. Main character Saúl Zuratas comes from a displaced European Jewish family in Peru. He and the narrator discuss how both Jews and Machiguengas have long been nomadic cultures. The Jews were exiled from their homeland of Israel by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and again by the Romans in 70 CE. Jewish families settled in other parts of the globe in the process known as diaspora. Similarly the Machiguengas, known among themselves as "men who walk," move from place to place in the Amazon jungle. The novel's storyteller also compares the Judeo-Christian figure of Jesus to a storyteller in the Machiguenga tribe: someone who brings together a migratory people by telling stories about their long history.

Oral Storytelling Conventions

Three extensive chapters of The Storyteller are narrated by a Machiguenga storyteller who retells myths and folktales to an audience of tribal families. Some myths are based on actual Machiguenga myths, and others are invented by Vargas Llosa. The storyteller follows several oral storytelling conventions of prehistoric cultures, including those of South American Indians.

Many ancient cultures had community storytellers. The griot of West Africa, jyrau of Kazakhstan, bakhshi in central Asia, and bards of ancient Celtic culture were revered figures. The novel's narrator refers to the Bahian troubadours in Brazil and the seanchaí of Ireland. The Machiguenga storyteller in the novel is called the hablador, meaning "speaker" in Spanish. Said to communicate with the spirit world, storytellers often doubled as healers and spiritual leaders. Ancient storytellers in Latin America believed stories awoke listeners' souls and imparted wisdom.

Storytellers passed on both myths and folktales. In offering non-scientific explanations of beliefs or natural phenomena, myths often involve gods and supernatural beings. Myths can serve as inspiration because they tell of a community's heroic or magical beginnings. Folktales, however, have a broader range as stories passed along from one listener to another and may function as cautionary tales with a moral at the end. Folktales often migrate from culture to culture, particularly within a large geographic area like South America. Because myths and folktales change with the teller and the audience, one small community may have two or more versions of the same myth.

South American Indians have storytelling traditions of their own, the diversity in South America having led to a mixture of Indian, African, and Spanish storytelling conventions. One type of story common to the region is the explanatory story or origin myth. These myths use tribal beliefs in the divine to explain why things are the way they are. For example, the novel's storyteller uses the Machiguenga ritual of walking to explain why the sun rises and sets since the people are in a sense holding it in the sky.

Indigenous South American tribes also believe supernatural powers pervade the universe. Objects in nature may be supernatural or divine beings in another form and may reward or punish humans on the basis of their behavior. To keep themselves safe the tribes work to maintain harmony with nature.

The myths and folktales in The Storyteller employ several common tropes of the genre around the world:

  • Origin myths explaining how people, animals, and natural phenomena came to be
  • Animals becoming humans or humans becoming animals
  • A character defeating or being defeated by a trickster
  • In South American folklore twin brothers, or close male relations, representing the sun and moon
  • Characters becoming involved in sexual adventures or marrying to produce offspring
  • A "Golden Age" existing before evil entered the world

Machiguenga Traditions and Names

In Chapter 6 the narrator visits the Machiguengas, some newly settled in villages, and learns more about their traditions. The novel draws on real scholarship and field studies about the Machiguengas.

Native to southeastern Peru, the Machiguengas are part of the Arawakan language-speaking tribes. With a population of about 8,000 people, the Machiguengas are hunter-gatherers whose primary crop is the root vegetable cassava, also called manioc. The tribe believes nature is sacred, and all elements of the natural world work in harmony. Shamans are authorities in the tribe, using local herbs to heal illnesses.

The Machiguengas are isolated both from the outside world and from one another, remaining in small groups, typically between 7 and 25 people. Separation from the larger tribe makes sharing scarce resources easier. Unlike many other tribes, the Machiguenga have no chiefs or authorities, their primary political and social unit being the family. The tribe is nonviolent and avoids conflict. The narrator mentions this pacifism as a reason the Machiguengas are often defeated by more aggressive enemy tribes.

The Machiguengas don't use personal names or proper nouns. Members of the same group are referred to by relational words, such as mother, sister, brother, and son. When speaking to Machiguenga tribe members, the novel's storyteller calls each man "Tasurinchi," identifying him further by location, occupation, or physical characteristics. Because locations are temporary, identities are also temporary.

Missionaries and anthropologists working with the Machiguengas have found it difficult for their purposes to get the tribe in one place, since they are scattered. Some have helped the Machiguengas form larger settlements of 100 people or more, enabling them to set up schools, medical treatment, economic trade, and language learning. The Storyteller describes two Machiguenga communities run by a foreign religious linguistic organization. However, many Machiguengas remain committed to their old way of life outside larger groupings.

Indigenous Groups in Peru: Westernization, Controversy, and Activism

The novel presents two sides of the debate about "Westernizing" indigenous groups. Since the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Americas, people of European ancestry have made up much of the population in Latin American countries as they have developed into modern countries. The debate has been strong and controversial in Peru for years, as the society is very diverse.

In the 1920s the Indigenismo movement, advocating for native groups' rights, took off in much of Latin America. With the goal of expanding social and political roles of indigenous Latin Americans in their countries, the movement called for "renovation and revolution" against the dominant European-oriented cultures and what was seen as their exploitation of indigenous people. Aprista, a Peruvian indigenous rights group, suggested Latin America be named Indo-America. The movement was especially strong in urban centers like Peru's capital, Lima, where much of The Storyteller takes place. A professor in The Storyteller recalls "the fanatical Indigenista movement" and its popularity with Lima university students.

Scholars, artists, and the wider population became increasingly fascinated by native art and culture. Peruvian writers searched for tribal folklore and legends, including them in the literary history of Peru. "The figure of the Indian" was a popular artistic subject. Vargas Llosa opens The Storyteller with the narrator on a trip to Italy visiting an exhibit of photographs taken in the Amazon jungle. The narrator considers whether Western artists can portray indigenous people honestly and respectfully without voyeurism or sentimentality.

The novel goes on to examine both the Indigenismo movement's legacy and the legacy of missionary intervention in the Amazon. The narrator spends time with two staff members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a real organization based in the United States (called "the Institute" in the book). A religious organization as well as an academic one, the Institute was founded by missionaries to translate the Bible into the languages of indigenous tribes around the world. Equipped with planes to reach remote locations, Institute members were among the first Westerners to visit the Machiguenga tribe. However Latin American countries haven't always welcomed the Institute's work. In 1981 the Institute was banned from Ecuador where Institute members worked with Amazon Indians. The government claimed the Institute threatened the cultural development and preservation of the tribes.

Peruvian Locations and Terms in the Novel

  • Inca Empire: The Incas were South American Indians whose ruling empire in Peru lasted from about 1400–1532, when the empire was the largest in the world, extending from Ecuador to Chile. In expanding their empire, the Incas conquered several indigenous tribes and built lasting architecture. In 1532 the Incas were overtaken by Spanish colonists in the Americas.
  • University of San Marcos: The Main National University of San Marcos of Lima is a public university in Peru's capital city. The oldest of any South American university, and predating anything in North America, it was founded in 1551 and is frequently ranked as the top university in Peru. Vargas Llosa attended the University of San Marcos, as do the narrator and Saúl in The Storyteller.
  • Amazon Jungle: The Amazon region spans parts of eight Latin American countries including Peru. With more than one billion acres of forest, the region covers nearly 40 percent of the South American continent.
  • The Amazon Rubber Boom: The movement began in the early 1900s when European investors mined trees in the Amazon forests for rubber, enslaving indigenous tribes for forced labor and eroding the forest. South American Indians knew how to extract a tree liquid used in rubber making, and industrialists who needed rubber for factories and transportation wanted to make money from the raw material. Slavery and killing were commonplace, with up to 90 percent of the indigenous population disappearing in some areas. The storyteller in the novel refers to the rubber boom, or "tree-bleeding," as the worst time in Machiguenga history.

Literary Allusions

Like Vargas Llosa, the novel's Peruvian narrator is a writer who works in media. He travels to Florence, Italy, a city with a rich literary history including poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) and political writer and dramatist Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). The narrator's friend Saúl Zuratas admires Czech writer Franz Kafka and is moved by Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis (1915).

The Metamorphosis tells the fantastic story of Gregor Samsa, a young man who wakes up one morning transformed into a giant bug. Gregor struggles to adjust to his new form, not knowing how or why the transformation happened. His family rejects him as a monster. The Storyteller's Saúl, disfigured by a large purple birthmark on his face, feels similarly trapped in his body and is called a "monster" by people in Peru. Saúl empathizes with Gregor's dilemma and even names his pet parrot Gregor Samsa. The novel's storyteller, who often tells stories about magical human-to-animal transformations, relates a dream in which he becomes a bug called "Gregor-Tasurinchi." Vargas Llosa translates Kafka's macabre tale into a story set in the Amazon, with the same themes of alienation and loneliness. The story is often read also for the theme of European Jews as outsiders.

The novel's narrator is more inspired by the work of Dante, particularly his Divine Comedy (1472) in which the poet describes an afterlife journey through hell and eventually through heaven. He creates his own cosmogony, or theory of the universe, around the nine circles of hell and the heavenly spheres. Heaven becomes more divine as Dante ascends, and hell becomes more evil as he descends. When the narrator learns more about Machiguenga myth, he's struck by how the Machiguenga view of the universe resembles Dante's. The Machiguengas imagine two worlds above the Earth, where the higher realm is the more divine. They also imagine two worlds below Earth, where the lower realm is the more evil. In both mythologies people go to different levels of heaven or hell according to their behavior on earth. The comparison shows how different world cultures can touch on universal themes like reward and punishment in the afterlife.

The narrator also references Machiavelli, the Florentine political philosopher. His best-known work, The Prince (1532), is a guide for getting and keeping political power, and takes a cynical view of leadership. Machiavelli saw how leaders would prioritize progress and development, and how power and might would always win. The Storyteller tackles similar topics of civic responsibility from a different angle. The narrator and Saúl debate about industrial development's effects on indigenous people and the Peruvian government's responsibility to its indigenous residents. The narrator takes a more practical Machiavellian stance, arguing the Amazon tribes' assimilation is inevitable.

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