This remarkable book has two protagonists. One is a learned, sophisticated (and somewhat jaded) scholar who has decided to spend the summer in Florence, Italy, “reading Dante and Machiavelli and looking at Renaissance paintings.” However, his plans go awry when he discovers a collection of photographs in a small shop.
The subject is an Amazon Forest tribe, the Machiguengas, whose colorful, tragic history has always fascinated him. Indeed, our scholar knows a great deal about the Machiguengas, including their customs and religious beliefs. As he pours over the photographs, he is drawn to an indistinct figure in one picture ... a vague image of a man seated among the tribal members, gesturing and talking in a manner that suggests that he is speaking to an attentive audience — a storyteller.
However, what is most disconcerting to the scholar is the fact that he knows there is no such thing as a traditional storyteller among these Amazonian tribes ... and he has the distinct feeling that he recognizes the face of the speaker — an old college friend named Saul Zuratas, who is the second (and most significant) protagonist of this novel.
As the scholar reflects on his numerous conversations with Saul in college cafes and seminars, he recalls his friend’s somewhat bizarre physical appearance: Jewish features with a wild shock of red hair and a strawberry birthmark that covered half of his face. Although timid and self-effacing, Saul Zuratas was given to proclaiming a passionate concern for Peru’s Amazonian tribes and their endangered cultures. Zuratas spoke bitterly about the forces that were destroying the Machiguengas — Christian missionaries, colonialism and labor exploitation camps that had either eradicated tribes or reduced them to slum encampments filled with zombie-like inhabitants who had become totally dependent on the white invaders.
The combination of his physical appearance and his angry diatribes against missionaries who promoted a kind of “progress” that destroyed the Machiguengas frequently made Saul an object of ridicule at the college where he was nicknamed “Masquerita.” Upon graduation, he announced that he was abandoning both the Amazon and a prestigious fellowship in a research project that would have sent him to Paris to study. Instead, he tells his friends that he has decided to accompany his father to Israel.
As our scholar/narrator studies the photographs, he realizes that “Masquerita” must have developed a secret plan to join the Machiguengas in their migrations into the remote Amazon wilderness. Known as “the people who walk,” the Machiguengas never establish a permanent village since they believe such action either angers the gods or disturbs the fragile balance between man, plants and animals. This tradition of wandering aimlessly and trusting to luck for food and substance carries them deeper into the most remote regions of the Amazon where fantasy and reality often merge.
At this point, The Storyteller undergoes a radical change in narrative. Abruptly, we are reading an astonishing compilation of stories, fables, myths and legends — all tightly woven together in a kind of stream-of-consciousness pastiche that blends ancient “creation myths” with “trickster stories” of Native Americans, the Old Testament and the classic works of Kafka, Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. It is the voice of Saul Zuratas reciting creation myths, the origin of the universe and tales of death and redemption — all woven into a dark, flowing tapestry.
Many of the tales contain universal themes: the consequence of offending the natural world by violating taboos (the terrible fate of the hunter who killed the sacred deer) and the significance of rituals, talismans and dreams. Tales of unwitting victims who are cursed with afflictions merge with a story of a man who became a cockroach; animals sacrifice themselves to assure mankind’s survival.
The author of The Storyteller, Mario Vargas Llosa, has been an outspoken critic of the unrelenting exploitation of the Amazon rain forests. This novel proves to be an ideal vehicle for exploring his major thesis. Ironically, some of the most destructive forces in the Peruvian region are widely considered beneficial. These include Christian missionaries who translate the Bible into native languages and anthropologists who strive to replace tribal customs with modern technology. For Llosa, these loudly extolled “humanitarian efforts” are actually eradicating tribal traditions just as effectively as the mining and timber camps.
However, the most compelling message in The Storyteller concerns the significance of the oral tradition, and Man’s compulsion to tell enigmatic fables ... frequently as he sits with his family before a fire and surrounded by darkness. Llosa restores this ancient tradition to its rightful place in the very heart of mankind’s origins. Beyond the whimsical tales of talking animals and the moralistic platitude that teach lessons in virtue and courage, there is a darker narrative that defines the world as tribes like the Machiquengas experience it. Often, these stories deal with terror, unspeakable suffering and despair, but there is also redemption and renewal. Such stories are compelling and comforting because they describe the world that the listeners recognize.
The Storyteller alternates between the scholar’s cynical response to the misguided efforts of missionaries and anthropologists and Saul Zuratas’ mystical tales for the “tribe who walks.” Who is most effective, then? Llosa obviously feels that in the modern world where change and progress are inevitable, the Machiquengas should be left alone with only their fragmented customs and traditions for comfort.
Since it was written over 25 years ago, The Storyteller has become a classic and is required reading for most anthropology students in the universities of the United States and South America. Filled with provocative ideas and opinions, it remains a popular (and controversial) chronicle of the continuing devastations in the Amazonian rainforests.
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa. Penguin Books, 2001. 246 pages.