I FIRST became acquainted with the Amazon jungle halfway through 1958, thanks to my friend Rosita Corpancho. Her function at the University of San Marcos was vague; her power unlimited. She prowled among the professors without being one of them, and they all did whatever she asked; thanks to her wiles, doors of officialdom stuck shut were opened and paths of bureaucracy smoothed.
"There's a place available for someone on an expedition to the Alto Marañón that's been organized by the Institute of Linguistics for a Mexican anthropologist," she said to me one day when I ran into her on the campus of the Faculty of Letters. "Would you like to go?"
I had finally managed to obtain the fellowship to Europe I'd coveted and was to leave for Spain the following month. But I accepted without a moment's hesitation.
Rosita is from Loreto, and if you listen carefully you can still catch in her voice an echo of the delightful singsong accent of eastern Peru. She protected and promoted – as no doubt she still does – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an organization which, in the forty years of its existence in Peru, has been the object of virulent controversy. I understand that as I write these lines it is packing its bags to leave the country. Not because it has been expelled (though this was on the verge of happening during General Velasco's dictatorship), but on its own initiative, since it considers that it has fulfilled the mission that brought it to Yarinacocha, its base of operations on the banks of the Ucayali, some ten kilometers from Pucallpa, from which it has spread into nearly all the remote folds and corners of Amazonia.
What exactly is the purpose of the Institute? According to its enemies, it is a tentacle of American imperialism which, under cover of doing scientific research, has been engaged in gathering intelligence and has taken the first steps toward a neocolonialist penetration of the cultures of the Amazonian Indians. These accusations stem, first and foremost, from the Left. But certain sectors of the Catholic Church – mainly the jungle missionaries – are also hostile to it and accuse it of being nothing more than a phalanx of Protestant evangelists passing themselves off as linguists. Among the anthropologists, there are those who criticize it for perverting the aboriginal cultures, attempting to Westernize them and draw them into a mercantile economy. A number of conservatives disapprove of the presence of the Institute in Peru for nationalist and Hispanist reasons. Among these latter was my professor and academic adviser back in those days, the historian Porras Barrenechea, who, when he heard that I was going on that expedition, solemnly cautioned me: "Be careful. Those gringos will try to buy you." He couldn't bear the thought that, because of the Institute, the jungle Indians would probably learn to speak English before they did Spanish.
Friends of the Institute, such as Rosita Corpancho, defended it on pragmatic grounds. The work of the linguists – studying the languages and dialects of Amazonia, compiling lexicons and grammars of the various tribes – served the country, and besides, it was supervised, in theory at least, by the Ministry of Education, which had to approve of all its projects and received copies of all the material it collected. As long as that same Ministry or Peruvian universities didn't take the trouble to pursue such research themselves, it was to Peru's advantage that it was being undertaken by others. Moreover, the infrastructure set up by the Institute in Amazonia, with its fleet of hydroplanes and its system of radio communication between the headquarters at Yarinacocha and the network of linguists living with the tribes, was also of benefit to the country, since teachers, civil servants, and the military forces in remote jungle localities were in the habit of making use of it, and not just in cases of emergency.
The controversy has not ended, nor is it likely to end soon.
That expedition of just a few short weeks' duration which I was lucky enough to be able to join made such a great impression on me that, twenty-seven years later, I still remember it in abundant detail and still write about it. As I am doing now, in Firenze. We went first to Yarinacocha and talked with the linguists and then, a long way from there, to the region of the Alto Marañón, visiting a series of settlements and villages of two tribes of the Jíbaro family: the Aguarunas and the Huambisas. We then went up to Lake Morona to visit the Shapras.
We traveled in a small hydroplane, and in some places in native canoes, along narrow river channels so choked with tangled vegetation overhead that in bright daylight it seemed dark as night. The strength and the solitude of Nature – the tall trees, the mirror-smooth lagoons, the immutable rivers – brought to mind a newly created world, untouched by man, a paradise of plants and animals. When we reached the tribes, by contrast, there before us was prehistory, the elemental, primeval existence of our distant ancestors: hunters, gatherers, bowmen, nomads, shamans, irrational and animistic. This, too, was Peru, and only then did I become fully aware of it: a world still untamed, the Stone Age, magico-religious cultures, polygamy, head-shrinking (in a Shapra village of Moronacocha, the cacique, Tariri, explained to us, through an interpreter, the complicated technique of steeping and stuffing with herbs required by the operation) – that is to say, the dawn of human history.
I am quite sure that throughout the entire trip I thought continually of Saúl Zuratas. I often spoke about him with his mentor, Dr. Matos Mar, who was also a member of the expedition; it was on this journey, in fact, that we became good friends. Matos Mar told me that he had invited Saúl to come with us, but that Zuratas had refused because he strongly disapproved of the work of the Institute.
Thanks to this expedition, I was better able to understand Mascarita's fascination with this region and these people, to get some idea of the forcefulness of the impact that changed the course of his life. But, besides that, it gave me firsthand experience that enabled me to justify many of the differences of opinion which, more out of instinct than out of real knowledge, I had had with Saúl over Amazonian cultures. Why did he cling to that illusion of his: wanting to preserve these tribes just as they were, their way of life just as it was? To begin with, it wasn't possible. All of them, some more slowly, others more rapidly, were being contaminated by Western and mestizo influences. Moreover, was this chimerical preservation desirable? Was going on living the way they were, the way purist anthropologists of Saúl’s sort wanted them to do, to the tribes’ advantage? Their primitive state made them, rather, victims of the worst exploitation and cruelty.
Excerpt from THE STORYTELLER by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Helen Lane.
Translation copyright © 1989 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.