The Storyteller | Study Guide

Mario Vargos Llosa

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The Storyteller | Symbols

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The Birthmark

Saúl's birthmark represents personal and social identity. It defines many of Saúl's interactions with others. People see him as different—some see him as a monster. The narrator calls Saúl's birthmark "a picturesque horror, an aberration." Socially Saúl is an outsider. But the narrator, as Saúl's good friend, sees him as mystical and magical rather than monstrous. The narrator believes Saúl's marginal status empowered him to adopt a new identity as the Machiguenga storyteller. Saúl's nickname Mascarita or "Mask Face" reveals the birthmark is only a mask or disguise for his true self.

The storyteller, implied to be Saúl, uses his deformity to establish a unique identity within the tribe. The discoveries he shares in Chapter 7 conflict with certain tribal traditions. He compares himself to other marginalized characters in literature, using these stories to challenge the Machiguenga conception of birth defects as impurities. To him the birthmark has helped define his personal search for wisdom. He doesn't know why he has the birthmark, proving he may not know the reasons behind everything that happens in the world. Since the Machiguengas often tell stories to understand natural phenomena, the storyteller shows the tribe a different dimension to stories―the possibility of mystery.

Parrots

Parrots represent the Machiguengas' harmony with nature. "Each man who walks has his animal who follows him," the storyteller learns. These animals look out for humans and protect them in the forest. The Machiguengas feel they have a reciprocal responsibility to protect nature as much as they can.

In the isolated Machiguenga life, animals provide dialogue and community. In Chapter 5 a Machiguenga man who's lost his family finds a home in the company of fireflies. Similarly the storyteller finds traveling companionship in the company of parrots. The parrot he selects to be his companion was born with a broken leg. The two assist each other in their vulnerability. The parrot's imperfection, like the storyteller's birthmark, is part of nature, part of who he was made to be.

Moreover, the author likely chose parrots over other birds because they can imitate sounds. Parrots, in a way, become storytellers themselves, repeating what they hear. Thus they represent the continuity of stories.

Physical Transformations

Physical transformations are common in Machiguenga legend. They symbolize the constant change in the world and the adaptation required to survive.

The Machiguengas believe the state of the soul affects a person's outer form. An angry man turns into a comet. A whole group of Machiguengas turns into animals when their souls are under attack. When the storyteller describes his feelings of alienation, he imagines himself transformed into a bug, as in the Kafka story.

Disguise can also be a survival tool. In one story a boy disguises himself as an annatto bush to trick his evil mother. A wise man encourages the storyteller to deceive evil spirits by putting red dye on his head. The dead get a new life through physical transformation. Their souls can come back in the bodies of living Machiguengas. The dead souls on the riverbank transform into "secret stars."

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