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 no way round it.” They discuss the crude customs of the primitive tribe, their pragmatic cruelty...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)