The Storyteller

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The Storyteller

by Mario Vargas Llosa


A novel set in Peru and Florence, Italy, from circa 1953 to 1985; published in Spanish (as El habladoñ in 1987, in English in 1989.


A Peruvian writer composes a novel about a friend from the past who abandons his modern-day life and his study of ethnology to become a storyteller in an Amazonian tribe.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

The Storyteller is the tenth published novel by Peru’s best-known living author, Mario Vargas Llosa (1936-). Though his fiction contains political and social commentary, for Vargas Llosa the novel is first and foremost a work of art. Vargas Llosa’s career can be divided into three periods according to major changes in his political outlook. In the 1960s he was a Marxist who enthusiastically supported the Cuban revolution. In the 1970s, after witnessing the authoritarianism of Castro’s government as well as the authoritarian tendencies of the left in Peru, Vargas Llosa became disillusioned with the Latin American left in general. Accordingly, he entered a neo-liberal phase during which he sought to strengthen artistic, political, and economic freedoms by actively supporting democracy and free market economics. The Storyteller was written during this phase and exemplifies his rejection of Utopian notions of all stripes. After his failed bid for the Peruvian presidency in 1990, Vargas Llosa entered a third phase marked by a seeming pessimism on his part about the effectiveness of political action in the face of human frailty.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Peru and the world of the Machiguengas

Peru is a nation divided into three very different regions: the desert coast where the crowded city of Lima overflows with nearly a third of the national population; the high Andes in which the descendants of the Incas farm their terraced hill side plots and the Amazon river has its source; and the montaña, or Amazon rainforest, that covers the eastern half of Peru. It is this mysterious jungle that is the focus of The Storyteller.

Home to indigenous tribes, the jungle is divided into two regions: the ceja de la montaña (eyebrow of the jungle) formed by the eastern slopes of the Andes, and the lower montaña or jungle proper. The sheer slopes of the ceja form a formidable geographic barrier between the lower montaña and the rest of Peru. In addition, torrential rains, dense vegetation, and an abundance of disease-bearing insects make the montaña resistant to exploration and colonization. Thus throughout Peru’s history, the montaña has been the nation’s great frontier, believed to hold untold riches in a variety of forms. As a source of gold, oil, lumber, rubber, cocaine, farmland, and new converts to Christianity, the jungle has attracted much attention in the centuries since Spanish conquest, yet due to its impenetrability it has remained largely untouched by “civilization.” Indeed, the contrast between the jungle and the rest of Peru is so stark that one might conceive of them as two distinct worlds sharing a national territory.

Within the jungle live the Machiguengas, one of the 65 distinct ethnic groups known to inhabit the Peruvian rainforest. In 1982 they numbered about 10,000 among the estimated 300,000 denizens of the jungle, which contains only about 10 percent of Peru’s population, even though it covers more than half the national territory. The Machiguengas live along the banks of the river tributaries that thread through the jungle and form the principal routes of transportation. Traditionally, they reside in simple bamboo huts, dress in cotton tunics (kushmas) dyed with tree bark, and subsist on slash-and-burn agriculture, bow-and-arrow hunting, and fishing. Their staple crop is manioc, a starchy root vegetable from which they brew masato, manioc beer. They live in small groups of one to three families, forming a fixed settlement for a time and relocating every few years to find better hunting grounds or richer farmland. The Machiguengas do not regard any region as their exclusive territory. An egalitarian people without hierarchy or formal leadership, they do not engage in communal activities.

Machiguenga worldview

To understand the culture, one must become familiar with its world-view. In Machiguenga belief, the universe consists of five different levels or realms arranged in a vertical hierarchy, much like the Christian conception of the three realms of heaven, earth, and hell. As in the Christian worldview, conditions are better at the top and worse at the bottom. The Machiguengas inhabit the middle realm, known as Kipatsi. The realm directly above Kipatsi is Menkonpatsi, and is perceived from Kipatsi as the sky. Here dwell the sáangaríte, perfect beings who occasionally come down to Kipatsi and can protect humans from demons. The spirits of exceptionally enlightened Machiguenga shamans, known as senpigan, come here after death. The next realm up is Inkite, visible from Kipatsi as the stars. These upper realms enjoy continual daylight from their own sun, Kyenti, which is permanently fixed in the sky. They are happy places where the land is fertile, the people are beautiful, and the masato is plentiful. Below Kipatsi is twilit Kamabina, where live the spirits of most Machiguenga dead who look up to Kipatsi as their sky. This realm has no sun of its own, but must rely on what little light filters down from Poñatsiñ, the sun of Kipatsi. At the very bottom lies Gamaironi, realm of monsters and demons. Gamaironi has its own sun, which is excessively hot, rendering this realm scorched and stark. The spirits of exceptionally wicked Machiguengas come here after death. In the lower realms, life is hard; the land is rocky, there are no fish, and there is no masato.

It is important to note that these realms are not conceived as being distinct from one another, but are contiguous parts of a single physical universe. The Machiguengas, like many other tribal peoples, do not share the modern conception of two distinct categories of “natural” and “supernatural.” Gods, demons, and other strange and powerful beings are just as natural as the plants and animals of the jungle, or as the Machiguengas themselves. Likewise, plants, animals, and human beings have properties and powers many of us would consider supernatural.

The Machiguengas have two creator gods:Tasorinchi and Kyentíbákori (Tasurinchi and Kientibakori in the novel). Whatever Tasorinchi creates is perfect, while Kyentibákori can produce only imperfection. In this way, the Machiguengas account for the existence of good and evil in the universe. As recounted in The Storyteller, the Machiguengas were created by Tasorinchi, and thus were once perfect beings. This changed when a Machiguenga man asked Tasorinchi to give his people such things as hunger, sickness, and death. Offended by this lack of appreciation for perfection, Tasorinchi granted the man’s wish, then retired to Inkite, taking all his perfect creations with him. The good things remaining in Kipatsi are but shadows of what Tasorinchi took away, while the bad things (stinging insects, poisonous fruits, demons, and so on) are the work of Kyentibákori, who dwells in Gamaironi.

The dichotomy between perfection and imperfection is central to the Machiguenga worldview. All things are judged according to where they fall on a continuum between these two extremes, with the Machiguengas and their world, Kipatsi, lying precisely in the middle. Machiguengas are sometimes good and sometimes bad, and both sáangaríte and demons visit Kipatsi. Significantly, perfection and imperfection are not moral qualities; what matters is not so much what one does, but how perfect one is. Perfection and imperfection are, furthermore, contagious. If one associates with the perfect sáangaríte one becomes more perfect oneself, while contact with demons is degrading.

Linked to the perfection-imperfection distinction is the notion of purity. The Machiguengas regard the human body and its functions as impure, and regard the female human body and its functions as particularly impure. Menstrual blood is feared by Machiguenga men as a dangerous and polluting substance and menstruating Machiguenga women are sequestered in special “bleeding houses” so that others might not come into contact with the blood or even have to look upon the bleeding women. Demons and other imperfect beings are attracted to such impurity, while the perfect sáangaríte, who subsist on fragrances and reproduce asexually, avoid it. Because women are so impure, they attract demons and repel the sáangaríte, thus becoming through contagion ever less perfect and never more perfect. Women are therefore considered inherently inferior to men in Machiguenga society.

According to the anthropological literature, the Machiguengas lack the concept of individuality. Certainly individuality is less important to the Machiguengas than to modern Western society. The human body, the Machiguengas believe, merely houses temporarily the true inner


There was a man who used to get drunk all the time, and went off to drink by himself, leaving his wife home alone; He said he did not want his wife to have children because he wanted her to work only for him. One night, when the woman was alone, Narani[a demonic night bird] appeared in human form and called to her. She was afraid he would kill her, but then she told him to come and give her a child. Narani entered and spent the night until her husband returned. Then Narani assumed his bird shape and flew out… .

(Yokari in Johnson, pp. 8-10)

This typical Machiguenga folktale ends badly for everyone. The selfish husband drives his wife into the arms of a demon who impregnates her, breaking her in the process. Before she dies, her husband slits her belly open, exposing thousands of demon babies. Afterwards, the husband is beset by angered demons who fatally pollute him with their contagious imperfection and he dies a miserable death. The “moral” of this story, scholar Allen Johnson suggests, is that strong emotions are fatal and must be avoided. In a study of Machiguenga folktales, Johnson determined that the single most popular subject for such tales is the dangerous nature of strong emotions. Living as they do, in small isolated groups without a formal legal or political system for resolving conflicts, the Machiguengas are especially threatened by strong emotional outbursts that could lead to aggression. Accordingly, great emphasis is placed upon controlling one’s emotions and maintaining calm and courteous relations with others. Machiguenga folktales, Johnson observes, reflect this preoccupation by focusing on conflicts between the strong desires of individuals, which lead to physical hostility and tragedy.

being, or iseire, of a person, and can host different spirits at different times and even metamorphose into animal forms. Thus identity for the Machiguengas is fluid rather than fixed this perhaps accounts for why they have personal names but traditionally do not use them in conversation, rather referring to a person by way of the relationship in which he or she currently stands to the speaker. In The Storyteller Vargas Llosa conveys this lack of concern for individuality by having all Machiguengas refer to one another as “Tasurinchi,” distinguishing individuals with such epithets as “Tasurinchi, the blind one,” or “Tasurinchi, the one who lives at the bend in the river …” (Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller, pp. 57, 45). Machiguengas, in fact, do not call each other “Tasurinchi”; this is Vargas Llosa’s invention, one of many in a novel by an author whose main concern was not anthropological accuracy, but artistic creation inspired by anthropology. Vargas Llosa uses Machiguenga lore throughout the novel; he writes of Tasorinchi and Kyentibákori, of seripigari and sáangaríte, of Inkite and Gamaironi. He is often faithful to the Machiguenga tradition, but not always. Like any good storyteller, Vargas Llosa bends tradition to his purpose, thus creating something new.

The novel is not, nor does it pretend to be an accurate portrayal of the Machiguengas… The Storyteller … does not purport to document the complex historical, political, or anthropological reality of the Peruvian Indians.

(Vargas Llosa in Kristal, p. 158)

From “discovery” to independence

Despite the vast disparity that separates the world of the Machiguengas from modern Peru, the two are not distinct—one world impinges upon the other. The Machiguengas were first contacted by Spanish Catholic missionaries centuries ago. Yet up until the latter half of the twentieth century, the Machiguenga way of life remained essentially unaltered from its prehistoric form. The Storyteller begins in the mid-twentieth century, but it is important to understand the forces in preceding centuries that transformed Peru, and the conditions that protected the Machiguengas and other Amazonian tribes from this transformation.

In 1528, when Spanish explorers first came to the region now known as Peru, the land was already controlled by the powerful Inca empire. The Incas were a Quechua people from Cusco, a region in southern central Peru. Although they had neither writing nor the wheel, beginning in the thirteenth century the Incas expanded their control to eventually cover a vast area extending from southern Colombia to northern Chile, and from the Pacific coast in the west to the jungle’s edge in the east. In the sixteenth century, a small party of Spanish adventurers led by Francisco Pizarro made short work of conquering the In-can empire. The Incas were divided by civil war at the time and, terrified by the Spaniards’ muskets and bizarre appearance, they offered little initial resistance. Later they did resist, but by then they had been weakened by diseases caught from the Spaniards against which they had no immunity. Millions of Incas died in the years following the Spanish invasion, while those who survived the epidemics were enslaved by the Spaniards and forced to work in the silver mines under horrific conditions.

Because of the jungle’s relative impenetrability, the Machiguengas and other Amazonian tribes (who are distinct from the Quechua peoples) never came under Incan control. For the same reason, the Spanish invasion did not have much impact on the people of the montaña. The few Spanish missionaries who did penetrate the jungle made contact with various tribes, including the Machiguengas, but did not remain for long.

Although Spaniards and others of European descent began to intermarry with indigenous people shortly after initial contact, a racist hierarchy favored those of the “purest” European descent while relegating indigenous people to the lowest status as gente sin razón, “people without reason.” Native Americans were widely considered barbaric savages to be civilized, or at least controlled, by the more advanced Europeans. In the twentieth century the legacy of European domination was still apparent in Peru’s ruling class—for the most part composed of blanquitos, people of exclusively European heritage—and in the fact that many Peruvians still spoke of an “Indian problem,” that is, how to fit the Indians, who according to the 1940 census formed at least 46 percent of the nation’s population, into modern Peruvian society.

When worlds collide

Like the rest of South America, Peru achieved independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century. To most of the population, however, independence brought little change. Power continued to be concentrated in the hands of a criollo (Spanish-descended) urban elite, and thus Spain, in a sense, continued to dominate. After independence, the new nations began to dispute boundaries of the former Spanish territories, and the montaña in particular became a contested area among Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil. In order to strengthen claims to this largely uncharted region, the Peruvian government reestablished missions among the native tribes and colonized some portions of the ceja de montaña in the midnineteenth century.

Another factor that increased incursions into the jungle in the middle of the nineteenth century was the discovery there of cinchona trees, the bark of which contains quinine—a substance with the ability to mitigate malarial fever. Outsiders came into the jungle to collect cinchona bark, which was then sold as an export. Later in the century, many more entrepreneurs invaded the jungle during the “rubber boom.” With the popularity of the bicycle and later the automobile came an increased demand for rubber with which to make tires, so Peruvians and foreigners alike took to the jungle to collect the sap of rubber trees. The allure of great profits, combined with the remoteness of the jungle from the rule of law, resulted in often nefarious business practices and the capture and enslavement of natives who were forced to tap the rubber trees. In The Storyteller Machiguenga characters recount again and again the terrible times of kidnap and enslavement during the “tree-bleeding,” and in fact tales about the horrors of this era (1880s-1920) figure prominently in Machiguenga oral tradition.

Between 1878 and 1883 Peru fought Chile in the War of the Pacific. Seeing her profitable guano islands (source of bat-droppings used as fertilizer) and southern coast threatened by Chilean invasion, Peru looked to the jungle as a more secure and relatively untapped national resource. In addition to rubber and quinine, it was hoped the jungle would yield a navigable waterway to the Atlantic coast. Perhaps even more significantly for the Machiguengas, the jungle was envisioned as a virtually limitless source of arable land. Such a resource, it was believed, would provide valuable cash crops for export and would be the solution to latifundia, the monopolization of large tracts of land by a small group of wealthy landowners that is characteristic of Latin America. Such high hopes fueled many a jungle development program in the century to follow, yet the harvest has been scant. Clearing large sections of jungle to be used as permanent farmland irreparably damages segments of the rainforest and does not significantly enrich the Peruvian people. The soil of the rainforest is actually quite poor and not suitable for permanent agriculture; the plant life that flourishes there does so only through an intricate balance that has developed over millions of years of evolution. The farming practices of the Machiguengas, who use a plot for a short time, then let it lie fallow for many years, are much more in keeping with the requirements of the jungle environment.

In addition to changes wrought through governmental and economic activity, another, perhaps more important, influence on the Machiguengas has been a new breed of Christian (largely Protestant) missionaries who in this century have encouraged the Machiguengas to relocate into large permanent communities and to engage in communal agriculture to produce cash crops.

Democracy, dictatorship, and jungle development

The Storyteller begins in the 1950s, when, according to the novel, Peru “was moving from the spurious peace of General Odria’s dictatorship to the uncertainties and novelties of the return to democratic rule in 1956” (The Storyteller, p. 12). Peruvian politics throughout the twentieth century was a tug of war between democracy and dictatorship in which free market advocates like Manuel A. Odria, backed by the nation’s wealthy elites, alternated with reform-minded leftists who sought to rectify Peru’s extreme economic inequities. Both sides resorted to authoritarian tactics to achieve their ends, and both sides turned to the jungle for solutions to the nation’s woes.

In 1963 Peruvians elected as president Fernando Belaúnde Terry, founder of the moderate Popular Action party. In order to quell uprisings of landless Andean peasants, Belaúnde undertook some ambitious projects including colonization of the montaña with Quechua farmers and, to facilitate jungle agriculture, the construction of a highway running north and south along the entire length of the jungle’s fringe. These expensive programs did not significantly improve the plight of the Andean peasants, but they did worsen the situation of the jungle Indians. As previously noted, large-scale agriculture does irreparable harm to the jungle ecosystem. The jungle highway has more often been used as a landing strip for the airplanes of drug traffickers than as a transport route for market crops. Through these failed projects, Belaúnde squandered vast sums of money and greatly increased Peru’s foreign debt.

Belaúnde was removed from office by military coup and replaced by General Juan Velasco, a genuine populist. Velasco insisted that his would be a “revolutionary” government that would benefit the poor. Like Belaúnde, Velasco sought to help the landless poor with an ambitious program to colonize the rainforest. Velasco planned to convert some 1,200,000 acres of jungle into farmland for peasant settlers. At the same time, in an effort to soften the impact of such settlement on the native Amazonian tribes, the Velasco government instituted the Law of Native Communities and Agricultural Promotion for the Jungle Region—affirming the rights of tribal Indians to enough land to continue their traditional methods of hunting and agriculture. This law established comunidades nativas, rainforest communities with a prescribed form of political organization foreign to the traditional Machiguenga way of life. Each community is represented by a popularly elected presidente. The Machiguengas, however, do not seem to place much stock in this leader since they traditionally conceive of leadership as something that cannot be bestowed or taken away, but is inherent in the individual or built up over a lifetime. Given this view, if community members disagree with a decision of their presidente, they simply choose not to go along with it, and if necessary will leave the community.

In 1975 Velasco succumbed to a bloodless coup effected by more moderate-minded military officers. General Morales Bermúdez succeeded Velasco and passed a new law in 1978 that undid many of the provisions of Velasco’s law concerning the comunidades nativas. The new law barred indigenous peoples from having full title to any lands the government defines as suitable for forestry or agricultural exploitation, and the government reserves the right to award these lands, if currently used by indigenous peoples, to businesses who might “require” them. As one might expect, agribusinesses as well as logging and mining companies have been the beneficiaries of this law, which has awarded them large tracts of jungle.

In 1980 Belaúnde took office for a second term and continued the policy of giving more and more jungle land to large privately owned companies. In the following decade, Peru experienced a gold boom that has proven anything but lucrative for those living on the land where gold was found. The government sold mineral concessions, mostly to foreign companies, for lands occupied by tribal peoples. Even though the tribal peoples held title to these lands, mining companies were allowed to excavate them in order to extract gold dust, leaving only piles of gravel in their wake. In addition, the Peruvian government has been busy granting oil concessions in the jungle despite the fact that drilling for oil entails pollution of the environment, detonation of explosives that frightens away wildlife, and the building of roads through indigenous lands. Indigenous rights groups complain that the Peruvian government and the companies it sponsors act as though the jungle were uninhabited. The chemicals used by such companies to deforest the land contaminate it, poisoning the wildlife and polluting the rivers. Widespread deforestation leads to erosion of the soil, which leads to waterways clogged with silt and deadly flooding during the rainy season. As the most lucrative species of trees are eliminated from the jungle, the plants and animals that depend on them are threatened with extinction, and indigenous hunters are deprived of fish and game. In addition, massive destruction of the Amazon rainforest could result in climatic changes due to acceleration of the greenhouse effect, the increase of solar radiation in the atmosphere because of more gases like carbon monoxide. Meanwhile, tribal peoples struggle to maintain a viable existence as their world continues to disintegrate.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

A Peruvian writer vacationing in Florence, Italy, in the year 1985 happens upon a photography exhibition entitled “Natives of the Amazon Forest.” The writer, who is also the narrator of much of this novel and is never named, enters and discovers that the natives are none other than the Machiguengas, a tribal people in whom the writer has a special interest. The writer recognizes many of the faces in the photographs, and is particularly struck by one picture of a man addressing a rapt audience. “Yes,” he marvels, “No doubt whatsoever about it. A storyteller” (The Storyteller, p. 7). Thus the novel begins. It will also end in Florence in 1985, after all the implications of this photography exhibit for the Peruvian writer have been made clear. In between, the novel consists of six chapters, three in the Peruvian writer’s voice, and three in the voice of a Machiguenga storyteller. The two voices alternate, the Peruvian writer providing a fairly linear account of his life from college days to the present (1985), while the storyteller weaves a tapestry of Machiguenga myth, legend, and stories of daily life.

In the “Peruvian writer” chapters, the novel takes us back to the Peru of the 1950s and introduces us to Saúl Zuratas, a friend from the Peruvian writer’s college days. Saúl is “the ugliest lad in the world; but he was also a likable and exceptionally good person” (The Storyteller, p. 8). He has bright red hair, a giant purple birthmark that covers half his face, for which he is known as Mascanta (Mask Face), and a parrot named Gregor Samsa. His mother is Christian; his father, Jewish; and Saúl is an atheist by conviction. At the university he studies law to please his father and ethnology to please himself. The stares and taunts of ill-mannered people do not raise his ire, but one day the Peruvian writer becomes enraged when the Saúl is the butt of rude remarks at a local bar.

Afterwards Saúl sends the Peruvian writer a present, a small bone with an elaborate design engraved on it. In an accompanying note, Saúl explains that the design represents the universal order, which is distorted by anger. It is a Machiguenga artifact, and the Peruvian writer is fascinated by it and by Saul’s recounting of Machiguenga myths and beliefs, in which serenity is held as the supreme good while violent emotion is the force that can destroy the world. Obviously Saúl himself is fascinated with the Machiguengas; his interest, perceives the Peruvian writer, is “something more than ‘ethnological’” (The Storyteller, p. 16). Saúl visits the Machiguengas in the rainforest at every opportunity, and gradually comes to feel more at home in their world than the outside world. Like his biblical namesake who became a Christian on the road to Damascus, “Saúl experienced a conversion. In a cultural sense and perhaps in a religious one also” (The Storyteller, p. 19).

Upon graduation Saúl receives a prestigious fellowship to continue his studies in France. He turns it down, however. His professors say it is because he has begun to have ethical misgivings about ethnology; Saúl says it is his duty to stay with his elderly father who has no one else in the world.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian writer has been developing a Machiguenga obsession of his own. On a trip to the Amazon jungle in 1958 he encounters the Schneils, a married couple with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a missionary group doing fieldwork among the Machiguengas. From them the Peruvian writer learns of the Machiguengas’ nomadic existence, their practice of wandering in small family units over a vast region, and of their fatalistic outlook. Suicide is common, and tribal members resign themselves to death at the first sign of illness.

From the Schneils the Peruvian writer hears for the first time of the Machiguenga hablador—the word is Spanish for “speaker,” and is the closest translation of the Machiguenga word that the Schneils can offer. The hablador is a mysterious figure of whom the Machiguengas will say little. The Schneils conjecture that the hablador is a messenger and news-bringer facilitating communication between the widely separated members of the Machiguenga community. He may also fulfill the role of tribal historian, keeping alive the old stories—a function similar to that of the medieval troubadour. The Peruvian writer is fascinated with the idea of the hablador, an individual who was “the living sap that circulated and made the Machiguengas into a society” (The Storyteller, p. 93). As a writer, the Peruvian finds the notion that storytelling can serve such an essential function in human life extraordinarily moving.

The Peruvian writer meets with Saúl one last time before leaving for Spain to continue his studies. In this final conversation, Saúl claims to know nothing of Machiguenga habladores and then proceeds to criticize the Summer Institute, asserting that the Machiguengas must be respected, and that “the only way to respect them is not to go near them” (The Storyteller, pp. 98-99). From Spain, the Peruvian writer sends letters to Saúl, but Saúl never writes back. Over the years, the Peruvian writer’s obsession with the hablador figure grows. He reads whatever he can find, which isn’t much. He attempts a book on Machiguenga storytellers, but to no avail. In 1963 the Peruvian writer runs into one of his former professors from Lima who relates a startling piece of news: Saúl has moved to Israel with his father and joined a kibbutz.

The narration leapfrogs forward to 1981. The Peruvian writer is now producing a program called “Tower of Babel” for Peruvian television. The program is a hodgepodge of segments having to do with “culture,” anything the Peruvian writer and his team find interesting, and the Peruvian writer uses the opportunity to produce a segment on the Machiguengas. When the television team travels to the jungle, the Peruvian writer reconnects with the Schneils, who have lived among the Machiguengas all these years.

Things have changed considerably during this time. About half of the wandering Machiguengas have, at the behest of the Institute and other groups who believe it is for the Machiguengas’ own good, settled down in large communities. The Peruvian writer is disturbed by his conversations with Machiguenga tribal leaders who endlessly quote the Bible and seem to have become the zombies that Saúl accused the Institute of wanting to make them. He is also disappointed by the refusal of all Machiguengas to speak of the hablador, although he does see this as an indication of the hidden depths of Machiguenga culture still untouched by the missionaries. He brings up the subject of habladores with the Schneils, and Edwin Schneil tells of two habladores he has seen during his time with the Machiguengas. The first was an old man, the second a young man, an “albino,” with bright red hair and a purple birthmark covering half his face.

The Peruvian writer is certain the storyteller must be Saúl and believes he now understands the reason behind the taboo against speaking of the hablador. The Machiguengas were hiding Saúl, protecting him from discovery, probably because he had asked them to do so. The Peruvian writer asks a friend with ties to the Peruvian Jewish community to find out what he can about a certain Zuratas family. Had they really gone to Israel? No, he finds out. The father died in Peru and as for the son, no one but the Peruvian writer knows what became of him.

In the parallel “storyteller” chapters, the storyteller addresses us, his audience, directly. The writing style conveys a mythic sense of reality in which time is divided into a “before” and “afterwards.” The principle myth (invented by Vargas Llosa) of the Machiguengas tells of the event that forever divided time in two: the falling of the sun. When the sun fell, the Machiguengas began walking—this was the only way to keep the sun in the sky and to stay alive. For this reason, the Machiguengas must continue to walk, never settling in one place for too long. When bad things happen, it is an indication that it is time to move on, and thus for the Machiguengas a nomadic life is required.

The storyteller relays many things. He tells the tale of Tasurinchi and Kientibakori, the two creator gods. Besides recounting myths and legends, he speaks of his own experiences walking amongst the Machiguengas with no steady companion but his parrot. He describes trips to senp-igaris, holy men who visit other worlds under the influence of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca. He recalls the time of the “tree-bleeding.” He relates how he became a storyteller. Throughout, the storyteller does not presume; he constantly qualifies his story with the words “perhaps,” and “at least that is what I have learned” (The Storyteller, p. 38). The storyteller is clearly Saúl, an outsider to Machiguenga culture; and in a sense, all storytellers are outsiders, the ones who find their world remarkable because they never quite feel a part of it. Yet paradoxically storytellers are also the ultimate insiders, the ones who go everywhere and get into everybody’s business, the ones who create the world by naming it.

The storyteller speaks about the plight of those in Machiguenga society who are rejected because of innate flaws. He speaks about the Machiguenga babies who are drowned by their mothers in the river because they are born “imperfect,” physically deformed in some way—an actual Machiguenga custom. He chides the Machiguengas for the infanticide they commit on account of an imperfection as small as a birthmark, asking, “Do you think I’m a devil? Is that what my face means?” “No, no, no,” the Machiguengas reply, “… You’re Tasurinchi, the storyteller” (The Storyteller, p. 212). The storyteller relates what a seripigari once told him: “Being born with a face like yours isn’t the worst evil; it’s not knowing one’s obligation” (The Storyteller, p. 214). Saúl implies that such is the plight of modern humanity. We do not know what it is we are supposed to be doing, unlike the Machiguengas, who must walk.

The hablador tells the story of a group of outsiders, people forced to move constantly from one place to another, like the Machiguengas. He tells them the story of the tribe to which he used to belong, the Jews, though he does not call them by name. That tribe “lived very far from here, in a place that had been its own and no longer was, belonging now to others”; eventually a child was born among them who claimed: “I am the breath of Tasurinchi, I am the son of Tasurinchi, I am Tasurinchi. I am all three things at once” (The Storyteller, p. 215). The tribe immediately recognized this child as a hablador. He told them to abandon their beliefs and follow him, but the tribe decided not to, saying, “Aren’t we what we believe, the stripes we paint on ourselves, the way we set our traps?” (The Storyteller, p. 216). They decided to stay who they were: “What would keep them together if they became the same as everybody else? Nothing, nobody” (The Storyteller, p. 216). Like the Jews, the Machiguengas live in a land that was theirs and is now claimed by others. Like the Jews, the Machiguengas’ identity as a people is threatened by those who would have them abandon their ways and beliefs.

Toward the end of the novel, the storyteller offers his audience a new story, the story of “Gre-gor-Tasurinchi, who was changed into a buzz-buzz bug” (The Storyteller, p. 220). By now we can be certain that the storyteller is Saúl. His story is a retelling of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in which a character named Gregor Samsa is transformed, in a degenerate variation on the classic mythological theme, into a giant cockroach. The Metamorphosis resonates with The Storyteller in many ways, but Saúl offers one possible moral to this tale: “We’d best be what we are” (The Storyteller, p. 220). When we lose our humanity, we can become something monstrous. Perhaps modern “civilized” human beings have lost their humanity and have become something monstrous when compared to people like the Machiguengas who “have a deep and subtle knowledge of things that we’ve forgotten. The relationship between man and Nature, for instance… . Man and God, as well” (The Storyteller, p.100).

Back in Florence, it is 1985 and the Peruvian writer once more ponders the picture in the photography exhibition. The storyteller is distant and obscure. The right side of his face, the side on which Saúl had his birthmark, is darkened, but it could just be a shadow. There is no way the Peruvian writer will ever know for sure, yet he decides at this moment that the storyteller in the photograph is Saúl. It seems to fit, like the last piece in a puzzle, and indeed with this decision The Storyteller feels complete. The novel has set up contrasting voices, and they are linked. On one hand, there is the Machiguenga storyteller; on the other, there is the Peruvian writer, a modern-day novelist of the Western world. In fact, there is a third presence too, albeit in the background, the creator of The Storyteller in its entirety, the novelist Vargas Llosa.

The Peruvian writer speculates on what might have led Saúl to pursue such an extraordinary life. Perhaps because he was Jewish, the Peruvian writer conjectures, Saúl felt a special affinity with the wandering tribe. Perhaps his birthmark, which made Saúl “a marginal among marginals,” allowed him to understand this marginalized people in a way most Westerners could not, and made him belong more in their world than in his own (The Storyteller, p. 243).

The ethics of missionization

“Those apostolic linguists of yours are the worst of all. They work their way into the tribes to destroy them from within, just like chiggers. Into their spirit, their beliefs, their subconscious, the roots of their way of being” (The Storyteller, p. 95). In The Storyteller, Saúl rails eloquently against all those who would try to change the Machiguengas, but he reserves his fiercest criticism for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), a Protestant missionary group whose purpose is to translate the New Testament into every language in the world in order to facilitate conversion to Christianity. Established in the United States in 1934, the Summer Institute of Linguistics is funded by churches in the United States and England as well as the governments of nations that host SIL projects. Currently SIL has about 2,000 members in more than 50 countries working to interpret 6,500 languages in order to gain converts. Translation of the Christian scripture into the Machiguenga language is one of few projects completed to date.

SIL is a controversial organization, just as missionary work in general is a controversial undertaking. Missionary groups and those who support them contend that missionaries, in addition to their religious endeavors, provide valuable services to the world’s marginal peoples. Missionaries often set up schools, health care centers, worker cooperatives that facilitate participation in the greater economy, and transportation routes to remote areas. SIL in particular has as its first priority community development, and pursues this goal through such means as helping indigenous people gain legal title to their lands.

On the other hand, some contend that missionaries actually weaken or even destroy the communities they are supposed to serve. Missionaries often work to assimilate tribal peoples into the greater national culture and economy, which entails promoting the sort of individualism necessary for survival in a modern capitalist society, but foreign to many tribal peoples who must cooperate extensively to survive. With such individualism comes hierarchy based upon one’s ability to earn cash, and this can be devastating to an egalitarian culture such as that of the Machiguengas. For SIL, such assimilation is an explicit goal. Both SIL and Catholic missionaries have worked among the Machiguengas since 1947 with marked results. The traditional Machiguenga pattern of living in small semipermanent communities scattered over a wide area has been abandoned by many upon the urging of the missionary groups. By gathering this dispersed people into larger permanent settlements, missionaries are able to reach a greater number of Machiguengas, who, the missionaries argue, are better off for living in communities where they can collectively produce cash crops and benefit from missionary-provided services. In the mid-1970s SIL established a Machiguenga cooperative for production and marketing of crops and livestock and for collective purchasing of various supplies. The co-op was not very lucrative for the Machiguengas, and some argue that the gathering of Machiguengas into large communities as well as the redirection of much of their time and energy into the production of goods for sale has seriously worsened the Machiguenga quality of life. The traditional Machiguenga lifestyle provides each member with a more than adequate diet in exchange for only 1.5 to 3.3 hours of work per day. In contrast, the typical Machiguenga household in the SIL co-op contributed 183 hours of work in 1980 for an annual income of $6. Also, the permanently settled communities must spend more time in subsistence food production; since an area’s resources are more quickly depleted by the larger population, the inhabitants must travel farther and farther afield to find and grow food.

Saúl rants about the SIL at a café: “Learn the aboriginal languages! What a swindle! What for? To make the Amazonian Indians good Westerners, good modern men, good capitalists, good Christians of the Reformed Church? Not even that. Just to wipe their culture, their gods, their institutions off the map and corrupt even their dreams” (The Storyteller, pp. 96-97). It has also been argued that missionaries undermine a people’s confidence in themselves and destroy their culture by encouraging them to renounce their traditional beliefs and practices in favor of Christianity. Though it was forced on them in the past, today’s indigenous peoples are free to choose whether they will accept this religion. But perhaps, as Saúl avers, “our culture is too strong, too aggressive” for many to resist, and Christianity is hard to reject when it is accompanied by airplanes, and modern medicine (The Storyteller, p. 99).

In the novel the Schneils are perplexed by the Machiguenga storyteller, failing to understand the importance of this figure (invented by Vargas Llosa) because, after all, he is not “religious,” according to their notions. Yet each story that the storyteller tells, whether mythological or anecdotal, is infused with the Machiguenga world-view, with its morality, aesthetics, and yes, religion—a religion in which “God is air, water, food, a vital necessity, something without which life wouldn’t be possible” (The Storyteller, p. 101). The invention of the storyteller helps raise a question that reflects a real-life dilemma related to the missionary phenomenon: by replacing the stories of indigenous peoples with stories of Christianity, are missionaries depriving already marginalized groups of their identities as peoples at a time when these groups are most under threat?

Literary context

Vargas Llosa wrote The Storyteller during his neo-liberal period, a time in which the writer came to reject the socialism he had embraced in the 1960s in favor of free-market capitalism. In The Storyteller, the Peruvian writer first embraces then rejects socialist indigenismothe position that the traditional social systems of Peru’s indigenous peoples are closely akin to socialism and that instituting socialism on a national level will allow indigenous peoples “at one and the same time, [to] be able to adopt modern ways and to preserve their essential traditions and customs” (The Storyteller, p. 78). Socialist indigenismo is presented as a naive, Utopian non-solution to the plight of Peru’s indigenous peoples in The Storyteller.

In 1958 Vargas Llosa journeyed to the Amazon rainforest where he met Wayne Snell and Betty Elkins-Snell, a couple who lived among and studied the Machiguengas, and who obviously provided his inspiration for the novel’s Schneils. Like Saúl and the Peruvian writer, Vargas Llosa became fascinated by the Machiguengas and their tragic approach to life. He read the anthropological and linguistic studies of the Machiguengas, but used them selectively for The Storyteller, at times adhering to and at times deviating from documented Machiguenga myths and characteristics. The people are not, as the novel suggests, perpetually on the move, and “the figure of a storyteller who walks through the jungle … to share stories and gossip does not exist” (Kristal, p. 165). On the other hand, the fatalistic worldview does, as do other elements, such as the poem “Sadness is looking at me” from an anthropological transcription of a real Machiguenga song (Kristal, p. 164).

Turning to literary precedents, Vargas Llosa’s novel most closely evokes “The Ethnographer” by Jorge Luis Borges, a short story in which a student abandons the pursuit of anthropology after being accepted into a North American Indian tribe.


Acclaimed science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, an apt reviewer for a novel that has to do with the meeting of two worlds, pronounced The Storyteller to be Vargas Llosa’s “most engaging and accessible book, for the urgency of its subject purifies and illuminates the writing” (Le Guin, p. 1). Dean Flower, on the other hand, wrote that The Storyteller “is not Vargas Llosa’s most approachable fiction, partly because it’s a story he refused to falsify by turning into a well-made story” (Flower, p. 314). Both critics seem to agree (and this is a recurring theme in the novel’s reviews) that in The Storyteller, a commitment to the subject matter, to the story, transcends writing technique. Whether or not this improves or detracts from one’s opinion of the novel depends upon what one thinks of Vargas Llosa’s writing technique overall. Though the author’s innovative style—documenting a single conversation in a two-volume novel, interspersing many different points of view in one novel—is widely admired, a few reviewers have found it distracting, feeling it takes away from the development of the characters and from the story. The most consistent factor in reviews of The Storyteller, however, is praise for Vargas Llosa’s uncompromising struggle to portray another world and another experience with integrity and humanity.

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Baksh, Michael George. “Cultural Ecology and Change of the Machiguenga Indians of the Peruvian Amazon.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1984.

Elkin, Judith Aiken. Jews of the Latin American Republics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Fins, Stephanie. “Missionization and the Machiguenga.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 7, no. 3 (fall 1983): 24-27.

Flower, Dean. “Story Problems.” The Hudson Review 43, no. 2 (summer 1990): 311-18.

Hudson, Rex A., ed. Peru: A Country Study. Library of Congress, Federal Research Division. 1993.

Johnson, Allen. “The Political Unconscious: Stories and Politics in Two South American Cultures.” In Political Psychology: Cultural and Cross Cultural Perspectives. Ed. S. Renshon and J. Duckitt. MacMillan: In press. Photocopy.

Kristal, Efrain. Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mano Vargas Llosa. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Feeling the Hot Breath of Civilization.” The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, 1, 49-50.

Llosa, Mario Vargas. The Storyteller. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Rosengren, Dan. In the Eyes of the Beholder: Leadership and the Social Construction of Power and Dominance Among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon. Etnologiska Studier #39. Göteborg: Göteborgs Etnografiska Museum, 1987.

Sponsel, Leslie E., ed. Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press, 1995.

Werlich, David P. Peru: A Short History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

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