The Storyteller is an extended meditation rather than a compelling dramatic narrative. Thus, the novel’s characters are more strongly developed in terms of the ideas they hold and represent than in their human desires and interrelationships. Vargas Llosa seeks to particularize the larger struggle of indigenous peoples against the encroachment of modern, technological influence by focusing on two students, their ill-fated friendship, and their different interactions with a fascinating tribe.
As a stand-in for the author, the character of the narrator pulls the reader into the novel by blurring the separation between the real and fictional worlds. Clearly, the tribe described is a real tribe, and many of the people, places, and incidents evoked in the novel are authentic. The use of a semifictional narrator demands complicity, asking the reader to participate in the ideological discussions and to form an opinion about the Machiguengas.
In the narrator’s chapters, the characters are not fully fleshed out with complex behavioral patterns based on personal, emotional responses to external situations. Saúl is kept at a distance; his father, Don Salomón, is referred to but not seen; and the Schneils are barely developed beyond expository purposes. Likewise, the university professors, the television crew, the missionaries, Machiguengan leaders, and many other minor characters seem only to exist to help elucidate the novel’s central question.
In contrast, the characters in the storyteller chapters, though united by the common name of Tasurinchi, are of flesh and blood, with human desires and functions and clear links to land and nature. The storyteller himself conveys his fears and vulnerability, and in the stories he tells he creates a Machiguengan world that is vibrant with life and its own natural logic.
Thus, in his use of character, Vargas Llosa subtly supports an ideology that is central to the novel’s debate. The Western narrator and his world are dry, fact-based, single-minded, and extremely impersonal and cerebral. The world of the storyteller and the Machiguengans is, conversely, rooted in visceral functions, emotions, physical acts and phenomena, and chance and improbability. In each half of the novel, one of the storytellers expresses how he has come to puzzle out his universe, but their methods, reflected in their characters and the worlds they portray, could not be more different. This difference provides ironic commentary on implicit assumptions about the civilization of “civilized” society and the primitiveness of “primitives.”