The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosas, is a complex book that interweaves two different narratives, one by a writer, one by a storyteller; the book explores the people of the Amazon rain forest in eastern Peru from the 1950s to the 1980s.
This book was taken up by a half dozen inmates at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, a medium security prison in Hominy, Oklahoma, as part of the Oklahoma Humanities Council’s Let’s Talk About It Oklahoma.
The inmates, some of whom had read the book, some of whom listened to the guest scholar’s (your’s truly) opening discussion, were receptive to questions asked and possible answers posed.
The Storyteller begins with an unnamed narrator visiting Florence, where he goes into a small museum that features photographs from the Peruvian Amazon region. The narrator is from that area, and had spent time in the Amazon, and the photos brought back various memories. One photo featured a person who looked vaguely familiar to him.
The narrative returns to the 1950s in Peru and a conversation between the narrator and another person, Saúl Zuratas, nicknamed Mascarita, who is a person with a noticeable large birthmark covering one side of his face. It distinguishes him from others, who consider him a freak, almost like a monster, and he is the butt of ridicule. He is also a converted Jew, and knows the bias held by many Roman Catholics against the Jews. The two men discuss the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest, and the slow movement of civilization into the region: scholars seeking to study them and record their language; missionaries seeking to bring Christianity to the animistic, pagan people; developers and exploiters seeking to turn the jungle into a place to secure natural resources, and build civilized settlements. The narrator believes that it is inevitable that humans will change the region, which is after all part of the progress of science in modern civilization. These primitive people will benefit from such progress. Mascarita argues that such interference is a crime perpetrated against these people, who should be able to continue with their way of life, however primitive.
The narrative then shifts to a story, told by an unknown narrator, that portrays the beliefs of the people known as the Machiguenga. The story tells of their inherent belief in the supernatural engaging the natural, and humans, in every moment; of demons and divine beings—some good, some evil—that interact with the humans of the rainforest. It is a primitive, animistic, anthropomorphic, demonic, world where all life, corporeal and spiritual, are connected together, where the moon and sun come among the people, where taboos and rituals and magic are the ways to make sense of things.
After this evocative description, the narrative of The Storyteller shifts one again to the unnamed narrator who began the book, who describes his experiences in the Peruvian academic world, the linguists and anthropologists who seek to understand people such as the Machiguenga, to record their rituals, to preserve their language. But some people, such as Mascarita, believe that even such academic work is an incursion on these people, that such scholars have an ulterior motive to change these people, to civilize them. Indeed, academics are no better than Catholic and Protestant missionaries actively involved in trying to convert the Machiguengas to Christianity, hence to change their way of life, to civilize them.
Again, the narrative of the book alters to the same unknown narrator of before who tells other stories, focusing quite a bit on a mysterious figure, somewhat humanlike, somewhat godlike, called Tasurinchi. Various stories are told that reveal the worldview of these people, who see themselves as intricately connected to the creation, to the divine, to all life.
The narrative returns again to the unnamed narrator, who describes his experiences in the 1980s working with a television station in Peru that produced human interest stories, one of which was to visit the Machiguengas to find out their way of life, a life slowly vanishing in the face of civilized society. The narrator hears from Christian missionaries of a person among the Machiguenga who tells stories; he is a storyteller, and he provides the oral means for this illiterate people to recall their past, to understand their supernatural worldview, to preserve their rituals and taboos. The narrator discovers from the missionaries that the storyteller has a distinctive birthmark on one side of his face, and to his astonishment, he realizes this is his old friend Mascarita, who has apparently given up on civilized life, gone to the Amazon, lived with these people, become one of them, accepted by them, and has become their storyteller. He has been born again, he has experienced a transformed life, he has so yielded to his disgust of civilization, and its attempts to conquer a primitive people, as to become one of them, to help preserve them in a way no anthropologist, no missionary, no linguist, could have done. Because of his birthmark, his Judaism, his concern for the outcasts, for the helpless, Saúl decided to renounce his life, civilization, and go primitive. He is reborn, almost like a Christian conversion.
At the Dick Conner Correctional Center, as discussion leader, I asked the inmates what they thought about the story and the questions it poses, such as:
- How is the contrast between civilization and primitive society portrayed in The Storyteller? Is one better than the other?
- What has been the history of civilization spreading into the Americas?
- How are Christian missionaries portrayed? Is it justified for missionaries to go among such primitive, animistic people to convert them to a new belief and new way of life?
- What has been the history of Christian missionaries in the Americas?
- How should human progress be gauged, according to The Storyteller? When is progress disruptive, and when is it necessary?
- How is Saúl Zuratas, Mascarita, portrayed in the book: is he heroic or misguided? Can people undergo a new birth, a conversion, and is it always religious?
- What is the worldview (basic fundamental assumptions about existence) of the Machiguenga Indians? How does their worldview compare to the worldview of modern civilized Peruvian society?
- What was the significance of the storyteller in the lives and culture of the Machiguenga in that he provides through oral stories their histories, their religion, their relationship with the supernatural, their explanation for all life?
- The book has an environmental approach; the people are at one with the environment: what if all society was like this? Could it ever be?
- The figure of Tasurinchi appears almost Christlike at one point of the book. Is the author perhaps showing that all religions are essentially the same in their connection of the supernatural, natural, thought, and life?
These are difficult, sophisticated questions, which the inmates embraced and discussed extensively. I was pleased to find a nuanced, open-minded approach to answering these questions. The inmates saw the difficulties in the movement of progress in our society. They understood the challenges of the penetration of the academic world into primitive societies: to understand them will result in changing them. They realized the difficult questions that the missionary faces: that even though missionaries might feel like they know the truth, should they bring this truth to other people, who might have their own version of the truth?
Ultimately, the discussion resulted in no answers, only ongoing questions, which is the nature of The Storyteller itself: a book that brings forth manifold questions with no apparent answers.