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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

One of the biggest questions raised by the text has to do with the most ethical way to deal with indigenous populations like the Machiguenga, a native group that lives in the Peruvian Amazon. Should they be incorporated or assimilated into the mainstream so that there is less chance that...

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One of the biggest questions raised by the text has to do with the most ethical way to deal with indigenous populations like the Machiguenga, a native group that lives in the Peruvian Amazon. Should they be incorporated or assimilated into the mainstream so that there is less chance that they will be exploited or victimized? This way, they learn the mainstream language, the economy, and so forth. Or, on the other hand, should these groups be left alone to live their lives they way they always have, though it puts them at risk? In speaking of the Institute of Linguistics at the University of San Marcos, the narrator asks,

What exactly is the purpose of the Institute? According to its enemies, it is a tentacle of American imperialism which, under cover of doing scientific research, has been engaged in gathering intelligence and has taken the first steps toward a neocolonialist penetration of the cultures of the Amazonian Indians.

The narrator feels that it simply isn't possible to "preserve these tribes just as they were, their way of life just as it was." They will, inevitably, be contaminated by outside influence. He believes the opposite of what his friend, Saul, thinks. As it is, the narrator believes, "Their primitive state made them . . . victims of the worst exploitation and cruelty." Saul, on the other hand, believes

"That these cultures must be respected . . . And the only way to respect them is not to go near them. Not touch them. Our culture is too strong, too aggressive. It devours everything it touches."

Ultimately, the novel doesn't really answer the question that it poses. Is it better to assimilate or alienate? Which strategy most protects a group like the Machiguenga? Are they inevitably destined to lose their cultural identity anyway? Or is it actually possible to preserve them by isolating them? Can we really halt the "progress" that would encroach upon their lands and culture forever?

We eventually learn that Saul most likely joined with the Machiguenga, that he found a purpose and a calling—not to mention a level of acceptance that he never enjoyed in his own society—as a storyteller. Further, the narrator arrives at the theory that the role of storyteller is so taboo in Machiguenga culture because Saul asked them to keep him a secret and because they care enough about him to do as he asks.

He very much enjoys the idea that

Saul found spiritual sustenance, an incentive and a justification for his life, a commitment that he had not found in those other Peruvian tribes—Jewish, Christian, Marxist, etc.—among which he had lived.

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