For the Listeners

By Guthrie Johnson Gloag | February 20, 2006

 “But what do I have? The things I’m told and the things I tell, that’s all.”

                                                           — Mario Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller

In the temperamental light and crackling of a roaring night fire, the storyteller begins. The crowd gathers around him, eagerly listening to every word he spits out (for his people believe that one who does not spit while talking is a liar), as though they were listening to instructions on how to breathe or how to live. Some might argue that they were. The firelight illuminates his grandeur and that of the stories he tells, as his listeners crouch before him unmoving, basking in his words and the warmth of the fire. He speaks steadily as though talking with the rhythm of time, moving from the people’s history, myths, and gods, to what he did the day before or how the people should live and see the world. He is a storyteller of the Machiguenga people, a dispersed, persecuted tribe of the Amazon Jungle. Every culture has its own form of storyteller; whether it is a Socratic teacher at a Canadian college, an Irish bar patron, or a Peruvian writer, they all serve the same purpose: that of the life blood of a culture. “Using the simplest, most time-hallowed of expedients, the telling of stories, [storytellers] were the living sap that circulated and made the Machiguengas into a society, a people of interconnected and interdependent beings,” claims Mario Vargas Llosa in his provocative novel The Storyteller (1989).

It is this Machiguenga storyteller that is the focus of Vargas Llosa’s appropriately named book. This character captivated him (much like the storyteller did his audience), and as Vargas Llosa is an accomplished Peruvian writer, he deeply identified with him as a fellow storyteller. Vargas Llosa made his name as part of the boom in South American literature that hit the global stage in the late twentieth century. The author uses The Storyteller — both the book and the character — to discuss fundamental human social issues ranging from the nature of storytelling, cultural superiority and what should be done with aboriginal culture, to how religions manifest themselves in different cultures. Before I can discuss these issues in full I must first focus on the vehicle with which Vargas Llosa chose to convey his ideas: the novel itself.

This book is a transformation of reality. As Vargas Llosa wrote in A Writer’s Reality (1991) regarding storytelling and novel writing, “the novel was invented, not to transcribe reality, but to transform it, to do something different, to make of real reality an illusion, a separate reality… ” The Storyteller takes place in the 1950s and onward, in Peru after the end of the dictatorship. The story is partly narrated by an ambiguous character that is thought to be Vargas Llosa himself, but may be a clever deception to create a sense of authenticity around this possibly fictional character. This narrator begins by reflecting on Peru after seeing a photograph in a small Firenze art gallery twenty-seven years after his first encounters with the Machiguenga people. The narrator is astonished at how “the photos eloquently showed how few of them there were in the immensity of sky, water, and vegetation that surrounded them, how fragile and frugal their life was; their isolation, their archaic ways, their helplessness. It was true: neither demagoguery nor aestheticism.” This amazement catapults the reader back in time through memories of Peru and the Amazon jungle. This first narrator also believes that the photo that captures his attention is of the Machiguenga storyteller — the same person that has haunted him through the years. This Machiguenga storyteller becomes the second narrator of this elegantly written novel.

The reader is introduced to the two narrators at the beginning of the novel as schoolmates struggling to find their place and career path in ever-changing and impoverished Peru. Through different experiences, both narrators discover a fascination with the tribes of the Amazon jungle, in particular the Machiguengas. Saul Zuratas (also known as Mascarita), the man who is eventually revealed to be the Machiguenga storyteller and the second narrator, finds a deep connection with these marginalized, persecuted Machiguengas, as he is disfigured by a large birth mark on his face. On a different level, his Jewish heritage gives him a personal understanding of persecution. He remarks himself that “‘a Jew is better prepared than most people to defend the rights of minority cultures.”’ Saul Zuratas becomes a Machiguenga storyteller after abandoning his original society which he feels is monstrous and malignant. Zuratas changes his whole identity by severing all connections in his life and moving to the Amazonian jungle. There, he is accepted by the Machiguengas and begins to think and feel as his new people do.

The text unfolds as the two narrators alternate colourful stories of life in Peru. The first narrator’s memories are mainly of his time at university with Saul Zuratas, working on a Peruvian television show as a writer, and of a research mission for his university’s linguistics institute to the Amazon jungle. The storyteller’s (second narrator) parables of life in the jungle include his tribe’s history, myths, gods and the stories of other Machiguengas that are scattered around the jungle. All these stories, whether whimsical or seemingly superficial, are important in the unveiling of what this book is really about: to discuss underlying cultural issues. Out of the many issues that The Storyteller deals with, the nature of storytelling is the most apparent.

Vargas Llosa the author, and his manifestation as the narrator of this book, are both keenly interested in storytelling as they are essentially storytellers themselves. While discussing the elusiveness of the story of the storyteller, Vargas Llosa writes, “Ever since my unsuccessful attempts in the early sixties at writing about the Machiguenga storytellers, the subject had never been far from my mind. It returned every now and then, like an old love, not quite dead coals yet, whose embers would suddenly burst into flame.” I think Vargas Llosa, as one can see from the quote above, was interested in the storyteller because he identified fundamentally with him. The author saw the universal existence of storytellers in a man that lived in the same era as him but whose culture was a glimpse into the human past.

Storytelling can be thought of on many levels, as one can just enjoy the simplicity of apparently anecdotal remarks, or see deeper into their true meanings and metaphors. For example, under jokes and whimsical remarks there may lie a culture that is oppressed and suffering, or a simple fishing story may convey to the youth gathered round that if one takes too much there will be no food for later, and so you may starve. Storytelling is entertainment whose purpose is not just to amuse the listener, but to inform and prepare. It is a way in which all cultures perpetuate morality, myth, and wisdom through the ages. Through the stories of others, one learns what is going on in the world and how one should deal with it. Thomas King, an award winning First Nations author, said in The Truth About Stories (2003), a CBC Massey Lecture, “The truth about storytelling is that that’s all we are.” I think King was speaking of the fundamental nature of storytelling and how humans are defined by the stories they tell and those that they hear.

John Berger, an acclaimed writer of novels and nonfiction, writes in his short essay, “The Storyteller” (1985), “Very few stories are narrated either to idealize or condemn; rather they testify to the always slightly surprising range of the possible.” Berger is saying that stories express the possible; they remind readers that life exists beyond what they know and past what they will know. Berger also sees stories as a way to comment on the complexity of life. This complexity and range of possibility is expressed in Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, as the characters discuss ethical and cultural questions, but the answer is never definitive and is left to the reader to ponder. Vargas Llosa’s narrative touches upon many topics, including the struggles in life that the Machiguengas face and also on the issue of cultural superiority.

Cultural superiority and inferiority are underlying themes in this book, as Vargas Llosa questions, through dialogue and situations, what should be done with aboriginal culture. In my view, the great western ‘civilized’ culture is insatiable, and is constantly attempting to consume and assimilate other cultures and their ways of living. In this context, a critical question is whether a dominant culture is superior to others or whether it should respect the cultures of more marginal groups. Do we have an obligation to save an individual culture from this ever-growing cultural extermination? Does this individual culture have value to humanity as a whole? In a dingy Peruvian diner, these very questions are debated between Saul Zuratas (Mascarita) and the character who is probably Mario Vargas Llosa. “‘Seriously, Mascarita, do you think polygamy, animism, head shrinking, and witch doctoring with tobacco brews represent a superior form of culture?’… ‘Superior, no I’ve never said or thought so, little brother…But that’s the way they are and we should respect them.’” It is the view of Saul Zuratas as well as myself that individual cultures have intrinsic value and should be protected and respected to avoid assimilation and destruction.

Within this novel, the Machiguenga tribe was constantly persecuted and infiltrated by the outside world and was able to survive by adapting to this threat. In fact, the culture adopted a method of self-preservation by constantly moving from place to place, or “walking,” as the Machiguengas refer to their nomadic lifestyle. Their religions and myths all focus on walking, which shows the resiliency of this individual culture, as it did not disappear but adapts and stays strong while under attack. The Machiguengas have been persecuted since the time of the Incas. Their tribe has been forced to disperse into the depth of the Amazon jungle after centuries of mistreatment, including enslavement by white and other colonial forces during the rubber boom and later the cocaine boom. They have also been exploited over and over again by outsiders and have steadily been losing their land to encroaching development, causing them to move out in fear and out of necessity. Their culture and religion have also been under attack from missionaries and language institutes whose mandate is to learn their language in order to translate the Bible into the vernacular and convert them to Christianity.

The Storyteller deals with crucial global issues. What was done in the jungles of Peru is similar to the European-Canadians’ treatment of the First Nations people in the Arctic. As is discussed in Hugh Brody’s anthropological study, The People’s Land (1975, 1991), European immigrants to Canada attempted to control and assimilate the aboriginal people. The Whites forced foreign religion and law on the Inuit people in the name of progress and civilization, but it could be said that it was more in the name of oppression and assimilation.

In The People’s Land, an Inuit man discusses the interaction between Whites and Inuits: “‘There are so few Whites whom one can talk with and become friendly with.’” This quote sadly reflects upon the attitude that the white population had and has toward the aboriginal people of the land. The Whites have forced their culture upon others without an attempt to understand the people they wish to control. As shown in Brody’s book, Whites have rarely attempted to identify with or learn from the Inuit; rather, they simply attempt to exploit and oppress them. In The Storyteller, Vargas Llosa proposes the same ideas as Brody through the passionate statements of Saul Zuratas. “‘Do our cars, guns, planes, and Coca-Colas give us the right to exterminate them because they don’t have such things? Or do you believe in ‘civilizing the savages,’ pal? How? By making soldiers of them? By putting them to work on the farms as slaves…By forcing them to change their language, their religion, and their customs, the way the missionaries are trying to do? What’s to gain by that? Being able to exploit them more easily, that’s all. Making them zombies and caricatures of men.’” Both Brody and Vargas Llosa give somber records of a dominant society’s treatment of aboriginal minority cultures.

One of the rays of hope in Vargas Llosa’s novel is the references to the Jewish religion. In my view, the author uses Saul Zuratas’ Jewish faith to show that a culture can survive through the ages in the face of persecution, displacement, and even mass extermination. The Jewish people have dealt with all of this and are still a thriving cultural group and religion. In this novel, Vargas Llosa discusses the presence of religion among different peoples and how religion manifests itself in different cultures. The Machiguengas’ religion is a form of Animism and is based on myths and legends which hold important wisdom and morality for their people. In my view, their religion is born out of their environment and out of the necessity to maintain their way of life. For the Machiguengas, religion acts as a sort of container for the fluid knowledge gained by the tribe. Just as the ancient Israelites preserved the Jewish faith in the face of persecution through an elaborate system of stories, the Machiguenga storyteller holds the power to maintain his culture.

Christianity is also depicted in The Storyteller, but this religion is not in a state of self-preservation but in a state of self-expansion. Christians in this book have come to the jungle with the sole purpose of learning the aboriginal language and teaching the tribes about their God. They represent another attack on the Machiguengas that is less apparent but almost more detrimental, for if they are successful they will not only convert them, but destroy their religion and culture from the roots up. Ironically, however, Saul Zuratas’ character as the storyteller mimics the mandate of the Christians. Through translating the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ to the Machiguengas, although he is not attempting to replace their faith, he may indirectly alter it. Furthermore, there is a subtle arrogance that Saul Zuratas, a white Jew, is able to transmit the culture of an Amazonian tribe. However, the transmitting of the Machiguengas’ culture by an outsider may have been necessary as it instills a sense of tangibility and reality within the storyteller and his words.

Vargas Llosa was perplexed by the problem of creating the Machiguenga storyteller’s perspective, as he confessed in The Storyteller. “Why, in the course of all those years, had I been unable to write my story about storytellers? The answer I used to offer myself, each time I threw the half-finished manuscript of that elusive story into the wastebasket, was the difficulty of inventing, in Spanish and within a logically consistent intellectual framework, a literary form that would suggest, with any reasonable degree of credibility, how a primitive man with a magico-religious mentality would go about telling a story.” Vargas Llosa found the voice of his elusive storyteller with the invention of Mascarita. Having an outsider narrate the Machiguenga culture is the author’s way for the reader to identify with the tribal storyteller, a character that would otherwise be difficult to understand. This might be the key that Vargas Llosa found that enabled him to write this story. However, although Mascarita is able to take on the role of the storyteller, he will always be a masked version of Saul Zuratas.

Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller is an intellectual look at cultural issues. This novel discusses the nature of storytelling in a self-referential manner as Vargas Llosa, the storyteller, writes of a fictional Machiguenga storyteller as a way of discussing storytelling’s meaning to humanity. In the end, the simple act of telling stories is greater than the man who tells them, as these stories are the connection between cultures through the ages. Out of the narrative, more issues are discussed, as the stories reflect the challenges of everyday life. The threats to the aboriginal tribe’s culture and religion are the central focus of many of the Machiguengas’ stories and are a way for Vargas Llosa to discuss this global issue. Storytelling exists within all societies, and is fundamental to the transmission of culture. Around roaring fires throughout the world, people will always gather to listen to the storyteller.

“That, anyway, is what I have learned.” — Vargas Llosa, The Storyteller

Vancouver, Feb. 20, 2006. Guthrie Gloag studies philosophy and culture at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C.


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