El Hablador / The Storyteller 2

Notes on section 5

Note how often this text uses the word “perhaps” and “eso es, por lo menos, lo que yo he sabido” — and the way it uses “diciendo.” Everything is always tentative and always in process, it seems. And the moon comes down and walks as a person — it is very poetic. Consider also the humor, the kinds of humor there are in these stories.

There is a lot of justification on why they must walk in this chapter.

The viracochas (the whites), by invading, are helping them fulfill this destiny, says the storyteller.

So, is the novel showing us that the storyteller is manipulating people, taking advantage of his role and of the to justify pushing a certain agenda of cultural purity?


A mischievous kamagarini (these are little evil spirits in Machiguenga mythology, apparently, who live in the jungle and dance and sing if anything bad happens) stung Tasurinchi, who did not die, and is walking. Or perhaps he was killed by the Yaminahua. But no, he is there with the Yaminahua woman he stole; she is learning to talk (or to speak Machiguenga).

Since the kamagarini bite Tasurinchi obeys this spirit who seems to be in him. And he (and apparently people in general) has several souls. The bite was cured by a serpigari, a kind of healer.

Story of Kashiri, the moon, marrying Tasurinchi’s daughter on earth — this was earlier … before Kashiri’s face got spotted and he returned to the sky (although the daughter was pregnant and would give birth to the sun). Another serpigari has another version of the story … and there is another.

Narrator (called Tasurinchi by a talking bird) saved from a flood by an alligator. Flies away on the back of a crane. (If this narrator had met a serpigari, he would have addressed him as Tasurinchi.) And: was all of this an ayahuasca dream?

Story of a comet (anger, which deregulates the world) … at this time the Machiguenga had not yet begun to walk, and the moon lived among them. He and his wife engendered the sun, but then had so much sex that the world lost its equilibrium. Tasurinchi blew on the moon, so its light grew less bright, and equilibrium returned. Walking will bring further equilibrium…

The narrator has a parrot (this is one sign that he is Mascarita) … and they are calling him a storyteller … and he is learning to be a Machiguenga. All alone the hablador listens to nature as it begins to speak. Everything has a voice and a story, and the hablador tells these stories again. And during the time of Creation, everything was spoken (breathed) into existence.

Historical stories: the rubber trade. And then, the temptation to stop walking: it deregulates the world.

Notes on section 6

The tv program, a project reminiscent of the work of a storyteller (and that involves rough travel) … [nota personal this was real, and when he came to Berkeley … which he says is in San Francisco … it was to interview Milosz, and I remember this]

He ends up visiting the jungle and the Linguistics Institute again, due to the program

The Machiguenga are now organized into villages. The narrator is not sure the change is good, and nobody will talk about the storytellers initially. But Edwin Schniel has seen two, the second an albino or “gringo.”

The gringo storyteller is anti-Schniel and has a birthmark

*The fact that the Schniels confirm that Mascarita is a storyteller lends a level of certainty to this supposition*

Moshe from the tv program confirms that Mascarita’s father did not go to Israel and Mascarita may have or not

Notes on section 7

This is where the storyteller retells the Kafka story … and calls his parrot Mascarita

Notes on section 8

Summing up. Saúl, to become a storyteller, has gone back in time, become a primitive man, joined the jungle absolutely, and our narrator is impressed and amazed.

Florence, where he is, begins more and more to resemble the jungle, and what the narrator hears is the voice of this Machiguenga storyteller.

So: is it that in spite of himself, this narrator is won over and impressed, by the pure possibility and by the importance of the storyteller in this culture?

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Vargas Llosa



On the Machiguenga

Academic article in online literary review from the University of Madrid, that talks about Carpentier, Arguedas and Vargas Llosa and elucidates some Machiguenga history – interesting (we find out about Tasurinchi and some reasons for walking)

From the NGO Shinai, in defense of the Amazon, brief cultural and political information on the Machiguenga

Dos Mitos Machiguengas – Gerhard Baer – 2001 academic paper

Interesting information in Spanish from Perú Ecológico

Machiguengas participating in the Amazon area general strike (2009)

Machiguenga glossed text by Betty Snell – Summer Linguistics Institute, 1976

Noches, cosmos. Claroscuros entre los Matsigenka
– Esteban Gabriel Arias Urízar – academic paper citing Baer and also Betty Snell (“Mrs. Schniel”)

Terry, video on 2007 cultural and political situation of Machiguengas. Very interesting (Spanish only). Part 2Part 3Part 4

Video of Machiguenga territory with English subtitles, from “Millenial Peru.”  Interesting

Video of representatives of native groups in the area where the Machiguenga also live, speaking at a 2009 hearing against Hunt Oil

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Posted by on March 30, 2011 in News, Vargas Llosa


On Transculturated Narrators

In Spanish, for those who read Spanish, this is a blog post on The Storyteller by a PhD student at Colorado-Boulder and it is worth considering. I am not going to do it justice here, so read for yourself, but he is talking about the novel as a critique not just of Arguedas and indigenismo but of the idea of the “transculturated narrator” itself. Arguedas and other 20th century Latin American writers (Asturias, Castellanos) created bicultural narrators and the great critic Angel Rama wrote a famous 1982 study about this. I will say a little more about that below.

But this writer says The Storyteller alleges that the Latin American literary projects associated with indigenismo and the Boom, in which (in different ways) the writer is saying something of value — representing, signifying — are now irrelevant. Mascarita’s project (storytelling for the community) is shown to be solipsistic and futile. By extension, Western writing may be futile as well.

La radicalidad del proyecto novelístico de Vargas Llosa es extrema: sólo las formas narrativas fuertemente autocríticas, autorreflexivas, casi auto-deconstructivas, como esta misma novela, tendrán lugar en el futuro; aunque la suya sea, quizá, una supervivencia anémica y degradada.

The thing is this: writers like Arguedas posited bicultural identities in which the indigenous part could be the primary one, or if not primary, still a part which was not in the process of dying but was active, regenerative … and (I would say) was not necessarily nostalgic. Vargas Llosa sees that as outmoded. If it was ever nostalgic, is it still … given developments since this novel was written?

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Posted by on March 29, 2011 in Bibliography, Vargas Llosa


Nationalizing Exoticism

Pratt, M.L. “Nationalizing Exoticism: Spanish America After Independence.” Inscriptions 2 (1986): 29-36. Unrevised text of talk given at NY MLA, 1986.

I don’t know where she published a longer version of this, although it may be in one of her books (e.g. Imperial Eyes). I like this piece better than some of Pratt’s other work. It is related to the later Santiago Colás piece I like on Bello and the Latin American postcolonial moment, in a PMLA from the late 90s.

It is about literacy and voice, 1820s to 1840s, for the new Republics. Two sets of dynamics condition literate efforts to create a voice: changing relations between the new republics and Europe, and between SA intellectuals and other sectors of criollo society.

As A. Rama points out (in The Lettered City), intellectual and literary life in the colony was urban and yet the economic base was rural; the bourgeoisie identified with the land and not the city. Intellectuals were modernizers and writers; landowning elites were not.

Yet the rural people represented to the intellectuals their difference from Europe, which they wanted; Independence did not mean independence from Europe but freedom to associate with all of it.

These intellectuals were highly selective and inventive in their use of European cultural paradigms: they transculturate. Example: Bello’s poem “Agricultura de la zona tórrida.” He is writing against utilitarian British descriptions of America, which they see exclusively as the future object of industrial exploitation. (See Jean Franco, “Un viaje poco romántico: viajeros británicos hacia Sudamérica,” 1818-1828 (Escritura 7, 1979, p. 133.)

Pratt: “These accounts see creole society as indolent and ignorant; traveler after weary traveler complains of creole indifference to the consumer virtues of comfort, cleanliness, variety, and taste.” Bello is reacting against the industrializing, commodifying eye of the English engineers. He is not interested in mineral riches but in humble farmers; he does share the Britisher’s critique of the traditional inhabitants who have not domesticated the countryside.

In Sarmiento’s account of his 1845-47 voyage to Europe, in which he talks about what happens to him on the isle of Masafuera (where Crusoe had been set), he finds transculturated yet efficient North American castaways living there, with wild goats (a natural resourse Crusoe had left). Then goes to Paris and discovers how consumerist and so on the French are; he is amazed that they made the revolutions they made. Benedict Anderson points out that nation/nationalism is a transculturation that went in the other direction — America to Europe.

Pratt’s general point is that the exotic gets incorporated into 19C national visions in non imitative ways — ways that resist both colonialism and recolonization, although they aren’t always/aren’t necessarily “progressive” — and that this work on defining the nation state then gets exported to Europe. So, the nation is always about dealing with otherness, incorporating the primitive, and so on; that is interesting. This is part of why the nation is always about race; that is also interesting.


El hablador / The Storyteller 1

This is Vargas Llosa’s official website; even if you don’t read Spanish, you can see pictures of him when young. He married two relatives: an aunt-in-law (Julia Urquidi), and then his first cousin (Patricia Llosa). Our novel is dedicated to the Machiguenga storytellers and to his uncle and then father-in-law, Luis Llosa Ureta, who appears to be especially important to him given his poor relationship with his own father.

First section of the novel:

– The narrator has come to Florence – city par excellence of the European Renaissance – to forget Peru and all of its problems (of which it had very many in the 1980s when this novel was being written). But has seen in the window of an exposition the primitive tools and photographs of the Peruvian Amazon, and this disturbs his peace.

– The photographer proposed to photograph the Machiguengas “without demagogy or estheticism”

– The narrator feels terribly anxious and does not know why. He swears this is not a false memory (and there will be much in this novel about memory, rumor, projection, narration, what is “storytelling” if not these things, or as opposed to these things — one does want to know?)

– He recognizes some of the people in the photos, due to his earlier expeditions with the Linguistics Institute; he sees a picture of a child (with facial ulcers, common some parts of rural Peru) he has seen himself, and he is sure to see a picture of … someone … and there is the picture of a storyteller.

– The gallery must close and the photographer died of fever contracted on this trip.

Second section of the novel:

– Story of Saúl (“Mascarita”) with whom the narrator makes friends in college — “to the extent one can be friends with an archangel.”

– His mother was not originally Jewish, and was not of the right social class — and was not from Lima

– He is more involved with Amazonian cultures than meets the eye (note: this is discussed in the form of questions: did he? was he?)

– His pet parrot is named after Gregory Samsa, the Kafka character who turns into a cockroach (Metamorphosis)

– He says the Machiguenga artifacts are all written on in sacred writing

– For the Machiguengas the most important thing is to keep an even temper — if you don’t, you can cause accidents or storms

– He is more than professionally interested in this tribe (is “going native”) — his interest is “excessive”

– He is very concerned about the colonization of the jungle, which is pushing the Machiguengas off their traditional land

– Note: The Machiguenga are still worried about this kind of issue today.

– What does the narrator think of his friend’s attitudes and activities? How can we tell? What sort of words (in addition to “excessive”) does he use to describe them? How important is the survival of these tribes to him?

– They kill defective children, like the Spartans; Mascarita would not have been allowed to live

– The narrator tries to psychoanalyze his reasons for liking these Indians … and his father has done the same; Mascarita laughs

– He rejects a scholarship to France to do the PhD in this area; he has ethics related doubts about his field

– Porras Barrenechea (really a professor at the university at this time, playing himself in the novel): “Ethnology is a pseudoscience invented by the gringos to destroy the Humanities”

– There is a long meditation on how Mascarita may have decided to turn into a storyteller (and note: do we know for sure that he has?)

Third section of the novel

– Here, Mascarita is telling a story (the narrator is imagining him telling a story)

– What is he talking about, what is the structure of the story, what are its themes?

Fourth section of the novel

– Now we’re back to our first narrator, who is getting to go on a university-organized expedition to the jungle with the Linguistics Institute

– It’s like Paradise, a “recently created” world

– He is convinced that what Mascarita wants for the jungle is pre-Columbian purity. What were his own politics then, and what are they now?

– The Schniels have information on the culture (and problems) of the Machiguenga culture Mascarita had studied (they don’t have names and they die easily, and there is more)

– Returning, the narrator meets Mascarita, who is violently opposed to the Linguistics Institute (it will effectively kill the culture, he says, and perhaps the actual people)

– Then in Madrid, he finds the book by the Dominican missionary who had written about the Machiguengas [in the colonial period] … decides to write a novel about Machiguenga storytellers … writes Mascarita to ask for consultation … works on it but gets poor results … speaks with a friar who knows Machiguenga mythology, having lived in the Urubamba region … goes to Paris and tries to find out more in the anthropological museum … gives up …

– And Matos Mar, Mascarita’s thesis director, is in Paris for a conference, and the narrator looks him up; and Mascarita has allegedly emigrated to Israel.

– AT THIS POINT I am starting to wonder whether Mascarita isn’t an avatar of the narrator — who by now is doing a lot of his own research on Machiguenga culture.

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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Vargas Llosa


Spring 2010

Honors 385 / Spanish 442 / Humanities 400G



Why do modernism and primitivism so often go hand in hand? What are modern people searching for when they go off into the wild? We will explore these questions as they appear in 19th and 20th century literature and cultural theory. Reading journal, one shorter paper (5-6 pp.), one longer one (8-10 pp.), two brief oral presentations, active participation in class discussion.




Carpentier, Los pasos perdidos/The Lost Steps
Gallegos, Doña Bárbara/Dona Barbara
Rivera, La vorágine/The Vortex
Sarmiento, Facundo/Civilization and Barbarism
Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives
Williams, The Country and the City


Poetry by R. Darío, O. de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto,” Les Blank’s film Burden of Dreams, Coco Fusco’s video The Couple in the Cage, lectures by Edward Said, film and tv versions of Doña Bárbara.


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Posted by on September 26, 2009 in News, Plans



Somewhat later – I have a scrap of paper here telling me to look at Torgovnick, p. 40, on carnival, and that the quotation is good. When I get to a location where the Torgovnick book is available (I am many miles from it now) I will look at that page and post it here or somewhere else relevant.

The scrap of paper also says: the question is what the rules of exchange are between the modern West, the postmodern West, and their versions of the primitive. What the rules of exchange are. We will all think about this.

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Posted by on June 23, 2008 in Ideas