Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Storyteller is an intriguing, often disturbing exploration of the Machiguengas, a real, indigenous, nomadic tribe in the Peruvian Amazon, and of the encroachment of modern life and values into their environment and culture. Mario Vargas Llosa frames this exploration as a quest for information about both the tribe and a Jewish student from Lima who may have been absorbed into it.
The narrator resembles Vargas Llosa himself. Like the author, he is a Peruvian novelist who vacations in Florence, Italy, and who once hosted a Peruvian television magazine. Although the narrator is never explicitly identified as Vargas Llosa, such identification is neither denied nor contradicted. Within the fictional world, many factual particulars of the novel suggest that it is written in the author’s own voice.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, on vacation in Florence and immersed in a reading of the works of Dante, wanders into a photographic exhibit on the Machiguengas, an indigenous people of eastern Peru. The tribe has long fascinated him and once played a central role in an ongoing debate he had with a friend at the university, Saúl Zuratas. In one of the photos, the narrator sees a native storyteller who strongly resembles Saúl. This prompts an account by the narrator of the two students’ friendship.
Saúl was an intense young Jewish man with an enormous purplish birthmark that covered half his face and earned him the nickname La Mascarita, or Mask-face. He was deeply concerned about the survival of indigenous peoples in Peru and had strong criticism for those who sought to evangelize, assimilate, or “culturally advance” such peoples under the guise of scientific, anthropological, and linguistic research. Saúl turned down a lucrative scholarship to study in France, choosing instead to remain with his aging father and continue his studies in Peru.
The narrator and Saúl shared discussions on many issues, including the Machiguengan people. The narrator found Saúl’s views too strident. The narrator went to study in Europe; although he...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
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The Storyteller (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Mario Vargas Llosa’s ninth novel, The Storyteller, centers on the mystery of Satil Zuratas, a hideously birthmarked Peruvian Jew who becomes fascinated with a little-known Indian tribe of the upper Amazon. As in many of Vargas Llosa’s novels, a detective story becomes a complex inquiry into a number of wider issues. The ethics and implications of developing the Amazon region are scrutinized, and cultural values and the importance of their articulation through storytelling and novel writing are explored.
As the novel begins, the unnamed narrator, who, like Mario Vargas Llosa, is a well-known Peruvian writer, relates how he has come to Europe to get away from Peru for a while “to read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings for a couple of months in absolute solitude.” In a small gallery in Florence, a display of photographs of the Peruvian jungle catches his eye, and when he looks closely, he recognizes scenes of the Machiguenga tribe which he visited only three years earlier. The narrator is especially fascinated by one photograph that shows a group sitting in a circle: “All the faces were turned, like radii of a circumference, toward the central point: the silhouette of a man at the heart of that circle of Machiguengas drawn to him as to a magnet, standing there speaking and gesticulating. A storyteller.”
The novel is structured as a dialogue between these two voices: that of the civilized urban writer and that of the primitive Indian storyteller. The civilized voice opens and closes the book, introducing and concluding the story, but the major central chapters alternate between the two points of view. The Europeanized narrator discusses his relationship with Saúl Zuratas and the Machiguenga Indians during three different periods in his life: as a university student in Lima in the mid- 1950’s (chapter 2), as a tourist in the Amazon in 1958 (chapter 4), and as a television documentary maker in 1981 (chapter 6). In dramatic contrast, the third, fifth, and seventh chapters describe Machiguenga society from an insider’s perspective, in a narrative torrent of interwoven myths, rites, beliefs, fears, and survival strategies. The Machiguenga chapters are also chronological, since the decimation of the tribe during the rubber boom is recounted in chapter 3, the continuing effort to subsume the Indians into white man’s society detailed in chapter 5, and the identity and role of the present storyteller revealed in chapter 7. The two sets of stories are played off against each other on many complex levels, as the assumptions and values of each way of life are examined.
The reasons for the narrator’s extreme interest in the Machiguengas begin to unfold as he recounts his friendship, in the mid-1950’s, with a university classmate, Saúl Zuratas, the red-haired son of a Jewish shopkeeper. Satil has a conspicuous birthmark, “the color of wine dregs,” covering “the entire right side of his face” and occasioning the nickname Mascarita, or Mask Face. Unfailingly cheerful and kind, even when insulted by rude remarks about his monstrous birthmark, he becomes interested in ethnology and makes several trips to the jungle. The narrator is struck by how much Satil knows about the most primitive Indian tribes and how deeply emotionally involved he is with the culture and language of the Machiguengas. His only other passion is for the writings of Franz Kafka, and he continues to reread “The Metamorphosis” while becoming increasingly obsessed with “the plight of Amazon ian cultures and the death throes of the forests that sheltered them.” The narrator argues with him about how progress is necessary, maintaining that “if the price to be paid for development and industrialization for the sixteen million Peruvians meant that those few thousand naked Indians would have to cut their hair, wash off their tatoos, and become mestizos well, there was...
(The entire section is 1642 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Vargas Llosa initiates The Storyteller with the presence of an author-narrator who, while strolling the streets of Florence, sees an exhibit of photographs depicting Peruvian Indians. He notices that one of the photographs shows what he believes to be a Machiguenga storyteller surrounded by his listeners. This encounter prompts him to recall a journey to the upper Marañón River in the Peruvian jungle and his keen interest in the Machiguenga Indians. At the same time, the photographs unleash memories of his Jewish friend Saúl Zurata at San Marcos University, who was well versed in the ways of the Machiguenga.
In the second chapter, the story leaps to the past; the reader becomes acquainted with Zurata, who, from the beginning, appears to be a specially marked individual. He bears an enormous wine-colored birthmark that covers the entire right side of his face and that earns him the nickname Mascarita (Little Mask). Although he is apparently not bothered by unkind comments on his external appearance, and although he seems open and uncomplicated, the reader suspects that he secretly harbors feelings of alienation. One comes to this conclusion when the narrator points out Zurata’s singular affinity for Franz Kafka’s writings, especially Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), which he knows by heart. This short story by Kafka centers on Gregor Samsa, a character who is so alienated from his world that one morning he...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Alter, Robert. “The Metamorphosis.” The New Republic 202 (January 8, 1990): 41-42. In this review, Alter focuses on the Jewish themes, the light characterizations, and the links to Joseph Conrad. He closely examines Vargas Llosa’s craft in creating the style of the storyteller chapters.
Booker, M. Keith. Vargas Llosa Among the Postmodernists. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. A thorough examination of Vargas Llosa’s works from a postmodern point of view. Includes a chapter entitled “Narrative, Metanarrative, and Utopian Fantasy in The Storyteller.”
(The entire section is 532 words.)