(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)