The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll — Álvaro Mutis

by noquar

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s an outlaw adventure story populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.

The book isn’t a novel, but a collection of six novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero, written by Álvaro Mutis, who is, according to the introduction and the book jacket, one of Latin America’s finest poets and best friend of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A gaviero is the ship’s lookout, the sailor tasked with sitting atop the masts scanning the horizon.  His eyes must always be active.  He must be alert to the nuances of the sea and the capabilities of his vessel.

Mutis is present in these stories, but in a passive role, as reporter of the Gaviero’s adventures. Narrated in no particular order, selected so as to highlight Maqroll’s insatiable desire for experience, each story alludes to many imagined but unwritten characters, places, and events. We’re left with an incomplete impression of a rogue’s beautiful life—Mutis’s ode to his notion of the romantic seafaring gypsy.

The Gaviero is part of a group of wanderers who fascinate those who task themselves with creating whatever literature might be: the spies, pirates, and cowboys who abide the outrageous and rely as much on apathy as on strength in order to avoid the nooses and axes weilded by their enemies.

The Gaviero is not a symbol.  He is a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Sam Spade, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability. Barkeeps lose a new friend and a good source of business when he leaves town, and one woman always sits in the main room of her home, wondering whether anything she has given will supplement his resolve. He enjoys good food, uncomplicated wine, and the company of interesting friends. The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.

Ilona Comes With the Rain finds Maqroll destitute in Panama City, Panama after the suicide of his ship’s captain. We learn this is a city “like a sedative, full of agreeable but unkept promises of unexpected happiness”; Ilona, the second story in the collection, is indicative of the tone of the collection. Washed up at a hotel owned by a fence and finding himself selling stolen goods outside of tourist attractions, the Gaviero encounters a familiar face by chance, a woman who takes him in, feeds, and clothes him. They make love and decide afterwards to open a brothel catering to men with a thing for stewardesses. It is a magical, buoyant tale and emblematic of the mixture of adventure and world-weariness that Mutis maintains throughout the collection. Before the tragic end we’re treated to stories about a pair of incubi, spirits of noblemen, who drive women insane, the dangers of allowing bookkeepers into whorehouses, and a blind Anatolian with the ability to guess a woman’s place of employment by the texture of the fabric of her clothes.

Throughout the collection, Mutis takes his readers from Malaysia to Finland, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean.  We live, with the Gaviero, through malarial fever dreams, military interrogations, and assassination attempts.  Un Bel Morir is perhaps the standout story.  Our hero finds himself older, angrier, and  more alone than ever, in a languid town on the banks of a pestilent river.  Broke and bored, knowing better, he takes a job running cargo by mule train up a crumbling mountain trail for a Dutchman with cash (and questionable motives). The Gaviero must evade capture by the rebel forces he has unwittingly aided—as well as the government troops who question his history and motives.

Mutis spent most of his career as a writer crafting verse and not prose, and his poetic inclinations shine through in pieces like this one, a good story that becomes great when the beauty of the unchanging landscape is evoked and contrasted with the hero’s pitiful condition. The cycle of life.  In Un Bel Morir, Maqroll, surrounds himself with beauty, contemplates it, and then tortures himself with unanswerable questions:

. . . the aroma of perpetually damp foliage, the explosion of rich, unrestrained color, the thunder of water in the ravines singing its opulent descent in boiling crests of foam, an ancient restorative peace replaced the weariness of the road and the struggle with the mules. The sordid deceptions he foresaw in the uncertain enterprise lost all reality and were buried in the resigned acceptance of his Islamic fatalism.

This is a delightful book, but not a happy one. The Gaviero symbolizes the struggle to internalize the good while accepting the inevitability of the bad, the chance to create the type of death we envision for ourselves, one with as many or as few regrets as our daily lives will tolerate.

Mutis, a thorough Romantic, compels his readers, through the Gaviero, to examine our reasons for despondency, and instructs us to cherish our innate ability to fall in love with the world and with each other. This collection is an exhortation, a reminder that circumstances change but that innocent pleasures are abundant, available, and free.

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18 Responses to “The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll — Álvaro Mutis”

  1. Reblogged this on Rameshnanda's Blog and commented:
    Without adventure life is dull.It’s fantastic blog.You love to read it.So your time starts right now <

  2. I can NOT explain how important and influential this book is for me. I cherish it. In some respects, it is like a modern Don Quixote. This title should be as ubequitous in the U.S. as anything by Marquez or Bolano. And though each novella works independent of the others, reading the book from beginning to end is, to me, much more satisfying. I don’t consider it an interconnected set of 7 novellas but rather a n highly original ‘novel’ with recurring characters and themes. Thank you for writing about it.

  3. I think you’re right about looking at the collection as one piece. I blasted through the entire 600 or so pages in just a few weeks and annoyed a number of people to death talking to them about it. At the same time, though, each of the stories could stand alone, or be read in combination with one or more of the other novellas.
    Did you read these in the original Spanish? Does one selection or another stand out in your memory? How’d you come to discover it?

  4. By luck, a friend gave me the book as a birthday gift. He knows I have a passion for Latin American literature. It sat on my nightstand for roughly a month or so before I finally picked it up and, like you, quickly annoyed my friends by my excitement for the book. I raced through each story, amazed by the quality of the writing, the naturalness of the storytelling, but also engaged by the stories and the adventures. Unfortunately, I can’t read Spanish. Fortunately the book was in the capable hands of Edith Grossman! I also agree, each story is absolutely amazing by itself. I think I have the urge to think of it as a single book because I read it that way (although I know he wrote the stories at various times).

    I sometimes find myself looking up Mutis on the internet in the hopes he may have something new in the works, although I realize he is an older gentleman and has already secured a place (at least in my personal canon).

    I’m not sure if a specific story stands out for me, but images and passages seem to revisit me often. Maqroll’s weariness with life even as he continues to go on is also very profound. I do love the scam involving the stewardesses quite a bit though!!!

    Thanks again for a thoughtful article. Did you by chance, read it in Spanish and if so, did you find any major differences?

  5. I am intrigued by your review of this book and I’m determined to read it now.

    Your blog is a blast, unlike anything else Iv’e seen.

    Thanks, I’ll be hanging around more.

    Scott

  6. I read it in English, too, so I have nothing to add regarding differences between this version and the original. Grossman always does a bang up job and considering how much critical love these stories have gotten throughout Spain and Latin America, I think it would be difficult for someone to get away with making editorial choices.

    Somewhere in my research for this review, I think I saw a mention (somewhere) that new stories may be coming. I could be making that up. I hope so, because at times I was just blissfully floating along with the narrative. Maybe there are translations of his poetry somewhere.

    Finally, to Mr. Tearfuldishwasher, thanks for stopping by. This blog is the product of years and years of work by a good friend. I am lucky because I occasionally get to post a submission that might live up to his standards. Please continue to come by the site and look back through the archives.

  7. My God, this book sounds incredible. Your review gives me goosebumps, right on!

  8. Arturo, this book is incredible. Though to stake my position in the debate, I would certainly say books, if only because the trade paper edition pictured here followed the hard cover publication of these novellas as two separate collections, “Maqroll” and then “The Adventrures of Maqroll.” Moot point though, especially in light of Mutis’ treatment of coincident, tale & chronology. John Updike had an excellent piece in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/13/030113crbo_books) on these stories some time ago, which is how they became woven into my adventures.

    BK, so glad to see this here. I appreciated your line: “The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.” Certainly true for me. Even now, the ships are calling…

    There is at least one other book by Alvaro Mutis that has been translated into English. It is, “The Mansion,” and it is a very different sort of thing.

  9. Excuse me, noquar, it is your line that I appreciated so much.

  10. Jesus, Noquar, this book is my undoing!

    I got it today in the mail and I am just about weeping from the beauty and wonderful strangeness of it. I want to hold it fiercely to me, as it burns and burns and burns, like an ingot of fire dropping into the heart of the dark sea.

    i am in your debt.

    yrs-

    Scott

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