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The Storyteller | Motifs



The frequent references to walking enhance the theme of colonialism's legacy.

The Machiguengas are a nomadic people. Their walking is a sign of cultural diaspora. Without permanent homes or permanent names, the Machiguengas feel their existence is transitory and brief. They're in a constant state of transition and discovery.

But while colonialism threatens to destroy the Machiguengas, walking saves them. They leave a place whenever their lives or traditions are under attack. Walking is associated with wisdom and purpose. The Machiguengas believe if they stop moving, the sun will fall out of the sky. So the Machiguengas walk "to put the world in order." They regain control over their world when it becomes confusing and dangerous. Walking makes them a part of nature: the narrator learns the Machiguengas associate their walking "with the movement of the stars through the firmament." This tradition makes them feel no one can take their culture, identity, or soul.


Religion is seen as a unique, powerful kind of storytelling. The narrator sees Saúl's transformation through the lens of Western religion. Raised Catholic, the narrator is used to the mystical language surrounding faith and believes Saúl experiences a "conversion" to the Machiguenga belief system. He and Saúl identify parallels between the exile of the Jewish community from Israel and the nomadic, scattered Machiguenga way of life. Common beliefs unite both groups. Without a definable "homeland," each group uses religion to create a narrative explaining their communal sense of purpose. Saúl retells the Judeo-Christian story of Jesus to the Machiguengas as a narrative they can relate to, casting Jesus as an outcast and a storyteller.

Religion is not only a form of storytelling but a significant aspect of cultural identity. Jews who arrived in Latin America with early Spanish settlers were forced to become "conversos" or converts to Christianity, the settlers' faith. Similarly missionaries and settlers pressured Machiguengas to convert to Christianity for centuries. Forced conversion facilitates the erasure of a minority culture.

The author also observes what people are willing to do for their faith. The linguists at the Summer Institute for Linguistics center their lives with unshakable certainty around the story of the Christian god. The narrator contemplates how Catholic Dominican missionaries moved to the jungle to convert indigenous tribes to their faith.

Machiguenga beliefs have similarities to organized religion. They have sacred traditions, like taboos on eating certain animals. They have faith in natural elements they need to survive like water and air. Their way of life demands devotion and reverence. A seripigari, or shaman, tells the storyteller to "eat what's permitted and respect the taboos" if he wants a calm, serene life.

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