By Mario Vargas Llosa
New York: Penguin Books, 1990
ISBN # 0-14-014349-1
246 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2010

A middle-aged Peruvian writer enters a small shop in Florence, Italy and discovers a photographic exhibition about a small tribe of very primitive Peruvian Indians. He himself had trained in ethnology in Peru and had actually even visited this tribe. But, he is simply shocked to discover a photograph of a “native” storyteller in the exhibition. This is because he strongly suspects the storyteller isn’t a native Indian at all, but his former friend and colleague, Saul Zurastas, known as Mascarita because of a large birthmark on his face.

Thus begins his recounting of those early university days in Peru, his friendship with Mascarita, their visits and studies in the areas of the natives, and the puzzle of what was Mascarita doing as the “storyteller” of the Machiguenga peoples.

I found this to be a fascinating and challenging tale. There is the puzzling mystery story of Mascarita himself, the detailed ethnological story of the Machiguenga people, and some quite profound philosophical questioning of the moral issues involved in the interface of people of very different stages of so-called development.

The root story, that of the life of Saul Zurastas, Mascarita, is one I won’t say much about. His tale carries, drives and energizes the novel, and to say much about it would be a plot spoiler that wouldn’t serve any worthwhile purpose. However, I do want to talk about Mario Vargas Llosa’s treatment of the Machiguenga people and the gripping moral questions which flow from the interface of these people with “modern” Peru. Llosa’s treatment is respectful and he seems to lean a bit in one direction on the question of how to handle this interface, yet he isn’t heavy-handed about it nor even fully clear of where the narrator character comes down on the issues.

A key image of the Machiguenga people is that they are “walkers.” First of all this means that they tend not to settle as farming communities did, but to be more nomadic. But there is more to their “walking” that just a way to eek out a living. They are closely tied to nature and the land, and non-violent, wanting to avoid conflict with others. Thus when conflict arises with some neighboring or even newly arrived people, the strong tendency of the Machiguengan people is to “walk.” They just pack up a very few things and walk to a new place. This has been their history for many centuries, but their life has become much harder since the arrival of the Spaniards four centuries earlier since with the introduction of guns they provided weapons that greatly changed the balance of power in the struggle for freedom, space and survival in the jungle world.

The notion of the Machiguengan people as “walkers” is in two senses of this term: two senses of the walker

-- Walkers as nomads – more like folks on the run.
-- Truth seekers, but not of fixed truth – changing truths according to circumstances.

What’s hard not to notice is that the narrator (and I strongly suspect Llosa as well) is also attracted to this view of the world, but in a sort of post-modern sense, not in the simple manner of the Machiguengans.

These people live in close harmony with the earth, and rather than “tame” it as most settled people tend to do, and perhaps then defend what they’ve tamed, their tendency is that when the earth and it ecosystem itself poses a problem, they just pick up and leave, looking for a new and more welcoming environment. When enemies arrive and threaten them, they also “walk,” and walking is sort of the very central notion of life for their culture.

Mascarita tells of how other peoples, mentioning the Incas as an example, were defeated and lost their culture and ways to their conquerors. But the Machiguengans didn’t. They “walked,” and that determined the nature of their existence and their view of the world.

The great trauma that turned the Incas into a people of sleepwalkers and vassals hasn't yet occurred there. We've attacked them ferociously but they're not beaten. We know now what an atrocity bringing progress, trying to modernize a primitive people, is. Quite simply, it wipes them out. Let's not commit this crime. Let's leave them with their arrows, their feathers, their loincloths. When you approach them and observe them with respect, with a little fellow feeling, you realize it's not right to call them barbarians or backward. Their culture is adequate for their environment and for the conditions they live in. And, what's more, they have a deep and subtle knowledge of things that we've forgotten. The relationship between man and Nature, for instance. Man and the trees, the birds, the rivers, the earth, the sky. Man and God, as well. We don't even know what the harmony that exists between man and those things can be, since we've shattered it forever."

At times the reports on the Machiguengan life-form is done within the story of the characters of the novel – their visits and reports on visit to the deep jungle to be with these people. However, at times there are entire chapters which read much more like an anthropologist’s or ethnologist’s academic note book. There are long sections of descriptions of their life that aren’t immediately tied to any of the characters we have met.

There are two central questions which overarch the whole novel:

  1. Would it be morally better for the modern Peruvian world to just back off and leave people like the Machiguenga alone, let them live their form of life without outside interference?
  2. Might they not even be better off?

In the revealing of their lives one of the most fascinating parts was how utterly “other” their beliefs about the origins of the universe and its functioning was from that which grew out of our ancient roots of the west. I think back on the stories I learned as a child of how the sun was carried into the sky each morning in the chariot of the young Phaethon. Or the story of Orion the hunter and how his dog is at his side, or the famous seven sisters constellation of stars. I just heard and read these so often as a child that I sort of assumed, if one were not to have our modern science and notions of development, these seem quite interesting and useful myths. However, when I read myths of the Machiguenga they are just so different, so utterly “other” they at first seem absurd, perhaps even funny or perverse. But, a few minutes reflection points out they are just a “logical” as the Greek stories – they give an account of a story that tells us how this or that situation in the world might have come to be.

It has to do more with what we are used to and have heard for so long that they just seem comfortable, sort of “ours” and we tend not to focus on their absurdity. I am reminded of my work for so many years in Haiti studying the Haitian Voodoo religion and the practice of zombification. Here in the U.S. that notion is taken by many to be absurdly perverse and ridiculous and people often ask, “do those people REALLY believe such a nonsensical notion?” I often ask back, especially to my Catholic friends – how “nonsensical” is the notion that you go to mass and the priest says some magic formulas at the altar and you eat not bread as a SYMBOL of the body of Jesus Christ, but as the actual body itself? Craziness if one is using the criteria by which they are judging the Voodoo tradition. It’s just that they are used to their myth and like it, and they can’t imagine the Voodoo myth.

However, there is the second question that Llosa raises in this novel: Would it be better if the outside world just walked away and left these people on their own?

That’s a hard question. The narrator has had this discussion often with Mascarita when they would return to their university and the coffee houses from their Amazon visits with the Machiguengas. He tells us:

I remembered Mascarita and our last conversation in the seedy cafe on the Avenida Espana. I heard once again his prophecies and his fulminations. From what the Schneils told us, Saul's fears, that evening, were becoming a reality. Like other tribes, the Machiguengas were in the very midst of the process of acculturation: the Bible, bilingual schools, an evangelical leader, private property, the value of money, trade, Western clothes, no doubt ... Was all this a good thing? Had it brought them real advantages as individuals, as people, as the Schneils so emphatically maintained? Or were they, rather, from the free and sovereign "savages" they had been, beginning to turn into "zombies," caricatures of Westerners, as Mascarita had put it? Would a visit of just a couple of days be long enough for me to find out? No, of course it wouldn't.

We have our philosophers, theologians, scientists and artists who put forward the views of what the world is like; its meaning, value and the fundamental way it works, and the world of value.

So do the Machiguenga, but all those roles are rolled into one: the storyteller. This is the person whose job it is to sort out all those fundamental questions and to walk (always to walk) among the people and to be sure they understand these ultimate things. Part of that very lesson is the lesson to keep walking, reinforcing the fundamental wisdom of staying on the move, avoiding violence from both natural and human forces. One doesn’t aim at being a storyteller, one just discovers that’s who one is, and there is then a moral burden on one’s life.

One day, as I arrived to visit a family, I heard them saying behind my back: "Here comes the storyteller. Let's go listen to him." It surprised me a lot. "Are you talking about me?" I asked. They all nodded their heads. "Ehe, ehe, it's you we're talking about." So there I was -- the storyteller. I was thunder- struck. There I was. My heart was like a drum. Banging away in my chest: boom, boom. Had I met my destiny? Perhaps. That's how it was that time, it seems. It was in a little ravine by the Tirnpshia where there were Machiguengas. There aren't any there now. But every time I pass by that ravine my heart starts dancing again. Thinking: Here I was born a second time. Here I came back without have gone. That’s how I began to be what I am. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, I expect. Nothing better will ever happen, I believe. Since then I’ve been talking. Walking. And I shall keep on till I go, it seems. Because I’m the storyteller.

Why would anyone become a storyteller? Why would anyone become a moral leader of any sort? It’s nearly impossible to know. The narrator knows he can’t really penetrate that, and after having some discussion with the storyteller on this point he gives up. He know the storyteller himself doesn’t know.

If we had kept them up, would he have opened his heart to me and allowed me to glimpse what his intentions were? Most likely not. The sort of decision arrived at by saints and madmen is not revealed to others. It is forged little by little, in the folds of the spirit, tangential to reason, shielded from in- discreet eyes, not seeking the approval of others -- who would never grant it -- until it is at last put into practice.

Llosa and his characters never resolve the question of how should a reasonable and decent westerner respond to the Machiguengas and others like them. In which way would the natives be better off? It’s virtually impossible to know.

Yet toward the end Mascarita himself begins to have doubts about the role of the storyteller, fearing it might be a role of a monster-leader. He has images of a Gregor-Tasurinchi – Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in the role of a leader of the Machiguengas people. Mascarita is a Jew and he sees close relations between the role of the storyteller for the Machiguengas and the role of Jesus in the Jewish tradition, and he describes Jesus as a Jewish storyteller and even draws the analogy that the Jews were walkers of western and north Africa culture.

In the end Mascarita gets downright preachy. He has decided. Modern culture is the enemy of earth and the people like the Machiguengas are the hope of the planet. Yet I don’t think Llosa himself has declared. The narrator and a couple other major figures in the novel seem to remain in puzzle. Yes, they are deeply troubled by the oppression of dominant cultures on others, but are not as ready to declare with Mascarita:

The idea of an equilibrium between man and the earth, the awareness of the rape of the environment by industrial culture and today's technology, the reevaluation of the wisdom of primitive peoples, forced either to respect their habitat or face extinction, was something that, during those years, although not yet an intellectual fashion, had already begun to take root everywhere, even in Peru. Mascarita must have lived all this with particular intensity, seeing with his own eyes the havoc wreaked by civilized peoples in the jungle, as compared with the way the Machiguengas lived in harmony with the natural world.

I was deeply challenged by this novel. It wasn’t perfect and did a much better job of raising disturbing and difficult questions than with answering them in any persuasive way. However, I couldn’t help but realize I’ve had this sort of discussion hundreds of time in the past 25 years since my connection with the rural areas of Haiti began. The Haitian peasantry is no way even close to the separation from dominant western culture as are the Machiguengas of the novel, but there are very similar questions.

These rural folks live a life far from dominant western culture, and most would like many of the BENEFITS of it. They dream of safe sources of water, of better housing, health care, education for their children and so on. Yet, they are not rushing to leave the culture they know. They don’t seem to me to “walk.” But, they remain in an ambiguity within their own hearts about what they want and what is the meaning of their lives, over which they have little control.

In my earliest days there, the early 1980s, I wanted to bring some benefits of western culture and life. But quickly I was changed and began to try, to use the language of Llosa’s novel, to figure out where they were walking, and seeing if I could help them get there without harm. It’s a very hard line to walk.

The Llosa novel is beautifully written and a brilliant starting point for an whole batch of very difficult moral dilemmas. I highly recommend it.

Bob Corbett


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