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The Storyteller (Vargas Llosa novel)

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Wikipedia article

'The Storyteller' is a novel by Peruvian author and Literature Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa. The story tells of Sal Zuratas, a university student who leaves civilization and becomes a "storyteller" for the Machiguenga Native Americans. The novel thematizes the Westernization of indigenous peoples through missions and through anthropological studies, and questions the perceived notion that indigenous cultures are set in stone.


The plot develops an extended argument of two sides of what to do with Peru's native Amazonian populations. One side argues that tribes should be left alone to live as they have for millennia, leaving them full access and use of their ancient lands. The other side posits that such ancient ways cannot survive the exploitation of economic interests. In order to save them, natives must be protected by modern intervention of missionaries and government agencies. Through the book, each character seeks ways to protect these groups.

Odd chapters are narrated by Mario Vargas Llosa, both a character and the author of the text. These chapters are set in San Marcos University, the radio station where Mario is employed, and several pubs around the city. Even number chapters are narrated by Sal Zaratas as the Storyteller for the Machiguenga and are devoted entirely to telling the history of the tribe and its methods of survival. Those chapters are set throughout the Amazon as the Storyteller travels from one group to another. The two characters meet only in the odd chapters from time to time, debating politics, university life, and occasionally the rights of the native tribes to either exist as they have or be saved by modernization.

The narrator creates a commentary for public television to shed light on the plight of the Machiguenga, with the hope of convincing himself that the tribe is in better shape for the interventions of modern civilization imposed upon them. Sal, for his part, fully integrates into the tribe, doffing his western ways and incorporating himself fully as a historian and communication link for the disparate members across the Amazon.

Main characters


Middle-aged, Peruvian writer who is telling the story of the native Amazonian Indians through his experience and that of his friend Sal, both of whom are obsessed, in different ways, with a particular tribe of Indians, the Machiguengas. At the time of the narrative he is living in Florence Italy and has lost all contact with Sal. Based on hints, chance encounters and indirect evidence, the narrator comes to the conclusion that Sal has not only disappeared into the Peruvian jungle but has, somehow, become a tribal storyteller of the Machiguengas.

Sal Zuratas

Fellow student at San Marcos and friend of the overall narrator. To an increasing degree, he becomes a second narrator, though it is not clear to the reader whether it is the actual Sal or the first narrator's idea of Sal that is doing the second narration. Sal is also called "Mascarita" because of the large birthmark "mask" that covers half of his face. Sal develops a deep connection to and appreciation for the Machiguenga Indians during his time at college and apparently trades in his life in modern civilization in order to travel amongst the tribes as a storyteller or "hablador."

Machiguenga Tribe

The tribe of the Amazonian Natives whose stories and fate are the basis of the book.


Is a name used in the storytelling chapters throughout Vargas Llosa's book, one that can cause considerable confusion. Because the Machiguengas do not use personal names, "Tasurinchi" is not a consistent individual, but the name used for the person or god about whom someone is talking. It is used, roughly, to mean "revered male about whom we are speaking". Early in the book Saul defines Tasurinchi as "the god of good", but this is just one use of the name. During his storytelling, Mascarita uses "Tasurinchi" as a pronoun used to stand for oneself, other males, and even the sun. Later, as Mascarita goes more "native," he adopts the name as a person pronoun, referring to himself as "Tasurinchi."

Don Salomon Zuratas

Sal Zuratas's father. Converted to Judaism upon moving to the capital of Peru. After Don Salomon dies, Saul leaves the city to become the storyteller.

Major Themes, symbols, and motifs

To analyze the themes in a broader concept, Vargas asks the reader to think about the positive and negative effects of globalization, specifically through the roles of the Viracochas (White men, most typically used in negatively describing the ruthless rubber merchant of the rubber boom) and the missionaries. The Viracochas used the native Indians to harvest rubber, promising them food, shelter and goods to come work for them. The Viracochas treated the Indians horribly once they got to the camps and began pitting the tribes against each other once manpower became scarce. They would send Mashcos to capture three Machiguengas or vice versa to buy their "freedom." "They wanted to Bleed us like they bled the trees."Vargas Llosa 50 The Viracochas shed a negative light on globalization by exploiting the land and people for profit. Regarding the missionaries and linguists at the Summer Institute, the line between negative and positive impacts are blurred. By studying the Machiguengas, learning their language, and teaching them English and religion, some may argue that the native Indians are being saved from extinction in modern civilization. Others argue that the linguists and missionaries are a "tentacle of American imperialism which, under the cover of doing scientific research, has been engaged in gathering intelligence and has taken the first steps toward a neocolonist penetration of the cultures of the Amazonian Indian."Vargas Llosa 71 Through these examples of progress versus preservation, Vargas Llosa asks the reader, "which is more important?"

Cultural nomadism

The Machiguenga are described as "walkers". A vital aspect of their character is the nomadic nature of social tradition. This transient lifestyle informs their ability to learn from new experiences and encourages curiosity for other cultures. The narrator, Mario, begins to tell the story of Saul (who he suspects is the subject in a mysterious photograph displayed in a gallery in Florence). Through Saul's stories of his ethnological research, Mario illustrates the Amerindian general thirst for the unknown. This custom manifests as acceptance of the other. Despite his physical imperfections (and cultural differences), the Machiguenga accept Mascarita. The issue of cultural tradition and abomination are discussed and highlights this very idea of multi-cultural acceptance. Mascarita astutely remarks on the traditional killings of newborns that are born with imperfections. This tradition truly exemplifies Machiguenga respect for the foreigner. If Mascarita was native to the tribe, his birthmark would have led to his immediate demise. By allowing Mascarita to live and learn from their culture the Machiguenga implicitly accept him by sparing his life. This acceptance is guided by a tenet that is so essential to the fabric of their society: cultural nomadism.


Sal's birthmark is more of a symbol, but it still touches upon the theme of cultural hybridism. While Sal finds himself to be infatuated with the Machiguenga culture, his birthmark is essentially a constant reminder of the society from which he truly came. When interacting with Westerners, Sal gladly accepts any insults he is given that relate to the birthmark and even accepts the nickname "Mascarita," translating to "mask-face." When a drunk man calls him a monster and tells him to keep his face off the streets, Sal simply smiles and replies, "but if this is the only one I've got, what do you suggest I do?" (14). Sal finally gets flustered when discussing the fact that the Machiguengas kill any newborns who are imperfect. Since Sal's face is "deformed," he would not have lived had he been born into the Machiguenga society. The narrator notes that this was "the only time he ever alluded, not jokingly but seriously, even dramatically, to what was undoubtedly a tragedy in his life" (26). Since so many of his relationships in the past have been killed off by his imperfection, Sal seems afraid that his relationship with the Machiguengas will be marred by this permanent reminder of Western culture. The mark also helps accentuate the Machiguenga's practice of unity and collectivism. In the end, they accept him as a person more than any Western culture did.


As indicated by the novel's title, storytelling is a very prominent theme in The Storyteller. After hearing about the special role of Hablador or Storyteller in Machiguenga culture, he is immediately intrigued by it. "They're a tangible proof that storytelling can be something more than mere entertainment... Something primordial, something that the very existence of a people may depend on. Maybe that's what impressed me so." (94). The author even goes on to say that stories are the essence of a culture and that Sal's position as the Storyteller is a feat that requires penetrating the heart of the Machiguenga culture. In this way, The Storyteller can be seen as a work of metafiction on a self-aware level in the author's chapters and on an unconscious level in the Storyteller's chapters. Throughout the novel, both the author and the Storyteller question what it means to tell stories and why they are important. This is done through the questioning of the many different stories told in the novel. The stories Sal tells the author, the stories the Storyteller tells the audience, and even the memories narrated by the author are questioned by the author as being inaccurate and heavily dependent on who is telling it. In the storytelling chapters this is done by the constant qualification of statements with the words "perhaps", "maybe", "it seems", and "That, anyway, is what I have learned."

Native myths

The parts of the novel narrated by the storyteller are mostly the accounts of the mythological figures in the Machiguenga culture. These native myths often do not have explicit lessons, but instead narrate the complicated Machiguenga mythology. The early parts of the novel begin with creation myths which explain the nomadic, non possessive nature of the Machiguenga people. As the novel progresses, however, the myths begin to relate to Jewish and Christian figures such as Jesus. Ultimately, it is revealed that the storyteller has begun to hybridize the native myths with Western stories and traditions.


Religion is one of the forefront motifs in 'The Storyteller'. While the author's own religion is not explored deeply, he is shown to see religion as a system of rituals and this view is demonstrated early in the novel. "The Catholic religion was a breeze, a measly half-hour Mass every Sunday and Communion every first Friday of the month that was over in no time." (p. 9) This passage shows the author's view of religion as a ritual that requires effort rather than a strong belief system by which to live life.

Much more is written about Sal's religion. As a Peruvian Jew, Sal participates in holidays such as Sabbath and knows much about Judaism. However, he and his mother (who was a Jewish convert) would play games together to pass the time in the synagogue. Also, any other efforts put forth by Sal to study Judaism are also efforts to please Don Salomn. Later in the story, the author hears that Sal has left the University to study in Israel with his father. The author is skeptical of this news since Sal was so invested in the Machinguenga culture. It is later revealed that Sal has instead gone into the Amazonian jungle to live with the Machinguengas as their storyteller. At this role, Sal hybridizes religious stories from the Bible with the native mythology, demonstrating his views of relativism.

Gregor Samsa

Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis', is mentioned many times in the story as a motif. In 'The Metamorphosis', the protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up transformed into a monstrous verminous bug. Sal has read The Metamorphosis to a point where he "knew [it] by heart" (17). He even names his pet parrot Gregor Samsa, indicating an intimate association with the story. Sal also makes several more references to Gregor Samsa throughout the novel whenever he speaks of something or someone out of the ordinary. For example, Sal would refer to the Machiguenga disfigured babies (who would be killed by their mothers) as "Gregor Samsas" (25). He even uses that term as a way to bring attention to his own disfigurement, his birthmark. In the stories he tells, he eventually fuses the idea of the thunder god Tasurinchi with Gregor Samsa in the later chapters -- "Gregor-Tasurinchi"as an example of his eventual cultural hybridism.


The academic world, represented in the novel by the University of San Marcos and the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is actively engaged by the author. He not only completes his studies at the University of San Marcos in Literature, but he also participates in expeditions done by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. In fact, it is revealed in the beginning that the author is in Italy "to read Dante and Machiavelli and look at Renaissance paintings for a couple of months in solitude." (4). The academic world is heavily criticized by Sal Zuratas, however. In Sal's view, academia is a means of aggressive Western proselytization. "Those apostolic linguists of yours are the worst of all. They work their way into the tribes to destroy them from within, just like chiggers." (p. 95) While Sal himself is a student for the early part of the novel, he says that he is a student only to please Don Salomn. Ultimately, he leaves the University of San Marcos presumably for Israel. It is later revealed, however, that Sal left to join the Machiguengas.

Development history

Mario Vargas Llosa made a journey into the Amazon Jungle in 1958. He felt that "The absence of law and institutions exposed the jungle natives to the worst humiliations and acts of injustice by colonists, missionaries and adventurers, who had come to impose their will through the use of terror and force.". Instead of finding the landscape exotic, he was faced with violence and cruelty of the native tribes. This trip into the jungle would be Vargas Llosa's inspiration for several of his novels, including 'The Storyteller'."Mario Vargas Llosa - Biographical". Nobelprize.org. 5 May 2012

'The Storyteller' originally written in Spanish, was translated in 1989 by Helen Lane, translator for numerous authors of many different languages. Since its original publication 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".

Publication history

*1987, Spain (Barcelona), Seix Barral Biblioteca Breve

*English trans.: 1989, USA, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Helen Lane

*German translation by Der Geschichtenerzhler

Explanation of the novel's title

The "storyteller" ('hablador') of the title refers primarily to a position within Machiguenga cultureto a person who preserves and recites the culture's history and beliefs to the rest of the tribe. The narrator, himself a writer, is fascinated by this type of person in various cultures around the world, such as the Celtic seancha, which he refers to for comparison; he is even more intrigued to find that in the twenty years since his first encounter with 'habladores', they seem to have disappearednone of the Machiguenga will even acknowledge the storyteller exists.

The "storyteller" has a secondary reference to the narrator himself, a writer who briefly runs a television show that tries to copy the work of the 'hablador' by presenting assorted stories of cultural significance.


The storyteller is full of many provocative ideals and opinions. Vargas Llosa commonly writes about violence, corruption, and struggling against authoritarian regimes. 'The Storyteller' chronicles continuing devastation in the rain forest. Over the last few decades, missionaries have occidentalised the Amazon Indians. There are few tribes that are still isolated from the rest of the world. A clear question brought into mind by the novel is: Is it better to back off and leave native tribes such as the Machiguenga alone, or will their lives be worse off without outside influence? This, amongst other questions, put the novel at the center of a large debate.

Formal criticism and reception

The Storyteller was regarded highly among most literary critics. Ursula K. Le Guin, NY Times correspondent for the book review supplement, briefly summarized her reactions to the novel, describing the Storyteller as a science fiction novel; it portrays a fictitious tribe that has been immune to acculturation and Western influence and its influence on a Jewish ethnologist seeking to learn more about their culture. She gives the book an impressive review, praising Vargas Llosa's ability to discuss the role of Western influence on the native and the overpowering impact of primitive culture on the white man. She writes, "To me this is Mr. Vargas Llosa's most engaging and accessible book, for the urgency of its subject purifies and illuminates the writing. I was spellbound, as if by the voice of that storyteller in the circle of listeners(Le Guin 1989)."

The Kirkus review comments on Vargas Llosa's fruitless efforts to emphasize the role of storytelling. This formal review criticizes this essential component to the novel, accusing Vargas Llosa of writing a novel that is "unsatisfying and cobbled-up" (Kirkus Review 1989).

The Publishers Weekly gave the Storyteller a rave review. "Written in the direct, precise, often vernacular prose that Vargas Llosa embues with elegance and sophistication, this is a powerful call to the author's compatriots--and to other nations--to cease despoiling the environment" (Publishers Weekly 1989).

The New York Times Book Review praised The Storyteller as "Intellectual, ethical, and artistic, all at once and brilliantly so."

Raymond Sokolov, of The Wall Street Journal, credited the novel as being "Brilliant . . . A whole culture is contained within these dreamy narratives".

Time magazine comments on The Storyteller: "A fascinating tale . . . with enormous skill and formal grace, Vargas Llosa weaves through the mystery surrounding the fate of Saul Zuratas."

Awards and nominations

Though The Storyteller itself has won no awards, the author, Mario Vargas Llosa, won the Prince Asturias Award for Literature, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Upon his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, Peter Englund of the Swedish Academy referred to Llosa as a "divinely gifted storyteller." While he had no intentions of singling out this particular novel itself, novels such as the Storyteller undoubtedly contributed towards his ultimate earning of this prize through its story's ability to express themes and motifs while continuing to be entertaining.







Further reading

Because of its focus on the role of storytelling within culture, the novel has received numerous critical studies, including:

*"Language, Absence, and Narrative Impossibility in Mario Vargas Llosa's 'El Hablador'." By: Newmark, Julianne; 'Latin American Literary Review', 2003 Jan-June; 31 (61): 5-22.

*"Mascarita's Metamorphosis: Vargas Llosa and Kafka." By: Caldwell, Roy Chandler, Jr.; 'Comparatist: Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association', 2001 May; 25: 50-68.

*"Mario Vargas Llosa Writes Of(f) the Native: Modernity and Cultural Heterogeneity in Peru." By: Kokotovic, Misha; 'Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispnicos', 2001 Spring; 25 (3): 445-67.

*"Mario Vargas Llosa's 'El hablador' as a Discourse of Conquest." By: Castro Urioste, Jos; 'Studies in Twentieth Century Literature', 2000 Summer; 24 (2): 241-55.

*"Between Translations: Mario Vargas Llosa's 'El Hablador'." By: Fahey, Felicia; 'Cincinnati Romance Review', 1999; 18: 46-53

*"Bivocality, Identity and Unreliable Narrators in Vargas Llosa's 'The Storyteller'." By: Nicosia, James; 'Revista de Estudios Hispnicos', 1999; 26 (2): 137-50.

*"A Fascination for Stories: The Call to Community and Conversion in Mario Vargas Llosa's 'The Storyteller'." By: Geddes, Jennifer L.; 'Literature & Theology: An International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture', 1996 Dec; 10 (4): 370-77.

*"Vargas Llosa, 'The Storyteller', and the Premature Demise of Ethnography." By: Gallagher, Thomas E.; 'MACLAS: Latin American Essays', 1992; 6: 121-33.

*"Vargas Llosa and 'The Storyteller': The Failure of Ethnography and the Recuperation of Writing." By: Cameron, Douglas M.; 'MACLAS: Latin American Essays', 1992; 6: 135-45.

*"Reading and Writing for Meaning: Narrative and Biography in 'El hablador'." By: Snook, Margaret L.; 'Mester', 1991 Spring; 20 (1): 63-71.

*"'The Storyteller': A Modern Paradox." By: Peterson, Jennifer; 'Torre de Papel', 1991 Winter; 1 (2): 48-55.

*"Mario Vargas Llosa's 'El hablador': Variations on a Theme." By: Perricone, Catherine R.; 'South Eastern Latin Americanist: Quarterly Bulletin of the South Eastern Council of Latin American Studies', 1991 June; 35 (1): 1-10.

*"'The Storyteller', Mario Vargas Llosa's Two Tales of the Amazon." By: Prodoscimi, Mara del Carmen; 'Amricas' (English Edition), 1989 Mar.-Apr.; 41 (2): 22-27.

*"Writer-Speaker? Speaker-Writer? Narrative Cultural Intervention in Mario Vargas Llosa's 'El hablador'." By: Acosta Cruz, Mara Isabel; 'Inti: Revista de Literatura Hispanica', 1989 Spring-Fall; 29-30: 133-145.

*"Mario Vargas Llosa and Reality's Revolution: 'El hablador'." By: Davis, Mary E. IN: Bevan, David (ed.) 'Literature and Revolution'. Amsterdam: Rodopi; 1989. pp. 135144.

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