Posts tagged ‘Álvaro Mutis’

September 23, 2013

RIP Álvaro Mutis

by Biblioklept

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RIP Álvaro Mutis, 1923 – 2013

Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died in Mexico City today. He was ninety.

Mutis is likely most famous in the English-speaking world for his excellent series of picaresque novellas focusing on the Gaviero, which have been collected as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I first learned of the book through a friend who reviewed it on this blog; his review made me pick it up and read and riff on it myself. I don’t know if I can overstate how wonderful these novellas are. I’ve mixed them into my readings over the past year, breaking up the space between new novels by taking a trip with the Gaviero. They are something beyond palate-cleansers; they are the kind of adventure narratives that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. I feel strangely fortunate that there are two more I have yet to read.

Here’s John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.

And: a 2001 interview with Mutis by Francisco Goldman. From that interview:

FG: If you could travel with Maqroll to any period, which would it be?

AM: The 18th century. Casanova and I would have been friends. I would have been friends with the Prince de Ligne and I would have lived in Paris and Venice. I’d take the elegant life, the brilliant prose, like Voltaire—each time you read him you realize that he’s the real thing. And that is where my interest in the 18th century ends; once they get to the French Revolution and the horror and saving of mankind, that’s where I exit.

And a few last scraps from Un Bel Morir:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.

A crack of wood waking him in the humble hotel on the Rue de Rempart and, in the middle of the night, leaving him on that shore where only God is aware of other people.

The eyelid twitching with the autonomous speed of one who knows he is in the hands of death. The eyelid of the man he had to kill, with repugnance, with no anger, to save the life of a woman whom he now found unbearable. 

All his waiting. All the emptiness of that nameless time used up in the foolishness of negotiations, proceedings, journeys, blank days, mistaken itineraries. All that life, from which he now begs, as he slips through the wounded dark toward death, some of the leftover scraps he thinks he has a right to. 

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June 24, 2013

Pleasure and Sorrow in Álvaro Mutis’s Novella The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call

by Edwin Turner

The Tramp Steamer — Edward Hopper

1. Biblioklept has already published a review of Álvaro Mutis’s collection of novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollI didn’t write that review—my friend Dave Cianci did—but the review prompted me to read the book—or rather, to read Maqroll: Three Novellas, which I found used, wrote about here, and passed on to a friend before getting the NYRB edition with all seven novellas.

2. So I read The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call last week. At 66 pages (in a tiny font), it’s the shortest novella in the book. It’s also the first story where we don’t really get an adventure or misadventure of Maqroll, who more or less sits this one out. Instead, an unnamed narrator—a writer of mundane tracts but also poems—tells the story. And of course, because this is Mutis, there is a second storyteller embedded in this tale, a Basque sailor, captain of the titular steamer. The shifting, labyrinthine connections between the steamer, the narrator, the Basque sailor, and a Lebanese woman named Warda frame the plot of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call.

3. Even though Maqroll the Gaviero is on the margins of this tale, the text resonates with his weary, picaresque spirit. And even though his name doesn’t even appear until the novella’s second half, we nevertheless get one of the more lucid descriptions of our anti-hero thus far in the collection:

The other man, whose name he never understood clearly but who was also called Gaviero, was treated by Bashur with unreserved familiarity and listened to with the greatest attention in matters relating to commercial shipping and the operation of freighters in the most remote corners of the world. The Basque could not determine if Gaviero was a nickname, a surname, or simply a designation left over from the time he was a lookout in his youth. A man of few words, with a rather odd, corrosive sense of humor, he was extremely attentive and sensitive in his friendships, knowledgeable about the most unexpected professions, and, while not a womanize, very conscious of, one might say dependent on, a feminine presence.

4. As fate—and fate is the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call (and maybe all of Maqroll, and maybe all of Latin American literature, and maybe all of literature, but specifically the major theme of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, which organizes itself around the interconnections between its narrator and the Basque captain)—as fate would have it, the narrator knows the Gaviero,

an old friend whose confidences and tales I have been collecting for many years, considering them of some interest to those who enjoy hearing about the unusual, contrary lives of people who do not follow the common path of gray routine in an age of mindless conformity.

(The above citation is, of course, a wonderful metatextual review of Mutis’s big book).

The narrator doesn’t reveal that he knows the Gaviero though; he doesn’t wish to pollute the Basque captain’s story.

5. Back to fate and chance for a moment: “Chance is always suspect, and much that is fraudulent imitates it.” This might be the thesis statement of The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call. Maybe.

6. The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, much like the novellas that precede it, is very much a study of heterogeneity, depicting of a world of shifting identities and ever-changing motivations and outcomes. Words like labyrinthmaze, and intertwine repeat in the text, whether Mutis is describing rivers or cultures or individuals. The text is larded with blends and syntheses, but I’ll grab one simple example, one of the rare times this particular novella returns to the Gaviero. Talking to the narrator, the Basque captain says:

I realized that my own provincial and national prejudices had kept me from seeing the enormous wealth of experience and the solid, warm humanity of this man, whose nationality I never learned, as I never learned the correct pronunciation of his name, which sounded vaguely Scottish but could also have been Turkish or Iranian. I found out later that he carried a Cypriot passport. But that doesn’t mean anything, because he himself hinted I should not put too much faith in its authenticity.

7. What is most authentic in the ever-shifting world Mutis depicts? I think it’s food. I can’t think of another writer who depicts scenes of gustation with such sybaritic pleasure. Mutis never neglects to describe a meal, even on a humble tugboat:

Each tug had two cabins for passengers, who shared with the captain the food prepared by two Jamaican women whose culinary talents we never tired of celebrating. The pork in plum sauce, the rice with coconut and fried plantains, the succulent stews made of river fish, and, and indispensable and always welcome complement to the meals, the miraculously refreshing pear juice with vodka that left us splendidly disposed to enjoy the constantly changing panorama of the river and its banks; thanks to the magic of that imponderable drink, everything took place in a velvety, contented distance that we never attempted to decipher.

8. Okay, authentic might not be right word. Everything in Mutis’s novella is authentic, true even when it’s not true. I suppose I mean stable. But: Our narrator warns us that if we try to replicate the pear and vodka drink we’ll fail, like all the others who try.

9. Let me try again: What is most authentic—I realize I’ve already employed the superlative; mea culpa—what is most authentic in the world that Mutis depicts is the strange intersections of pleasure and sorrow, the way these modes intertwine the labyrinths of our lives.

The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call is a beautiful, dark, sad love story.

10. I realize that I’ve failed to summarize the plot. Do you want that—a plot summary? I don’t have it in me, and someone did it way better. I’ll close with a long excerpt from John Updike’s thorough, excellent review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (in a 2003 issue of The New Yorker):

Possibly alert to the dangers of doting on his hero, Mutis next provides a tale in which Maqroll hardly appears, except as a cherished acquaintance of the principals. In “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” the shortest of the lot and one of the best, the narrator relates an experience he himself has had, in a voice close to what we know of Mutis’s own life: “I had to go to Helsinki to attend a meeting of directors of internal publications for various oil companies.” In Helsinki, he asks to be driven to the point from which he can see across the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg, a shimmering sight passingly eclipsed by the transit of a decrepit tramp steamer:

The captain’s bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever.

He sees the wretched, plucky ship, which fragmentary letters on its bow identify as the Halcyon, three more times—in Costa Rica, in Jamaica, and in the delta of the Orinoco River. Its apparition invades his dreams. While on another errand for the oil company, travelling downriver to a strike-threatened seaport refinery, he occupies one of the two cabins in a small tugboat; the other is occupied by a Basque sea captain called Jon Iturri, who, it turns out, was the captain of the ghostly tramp steamer, which broke up and sank in the Orinoco. Its owner, Iturri relates, was a Lebanese woman, a younger sister of Abdul Bashur, named Warda. At their first meeting, he says, he was stunned by her “almost Hellenic” beauty:

“Her blue-black hair was as dense as honey and fell to shoulders as straight as those of the kouros in the Athens Museum. Her narrow hips, curving gently into long, somewhat full legs, recalled statues of Venus in the Vatican Museum and gave her erect body a definitive femininity that immediately dispelled a certain boyish air. Large, firm breasts completed the effect of her hips.”

As he got to know her better, his admiration intensified: “Warda, when she was naked, acquired a kind of aura that emanated from the perfection of her body, the texture of her moist, elastic skin, and that face: seen from above, when we were in bed, it took on even more of the qualities of a Delphic vision.” But the lovestruck captain was fifty, and a non-Muslim, and Warda was twenty-four and, the longer she lived in Europe, ever more approving of the conservative ways of her native Lebanon. The tramp steamer, which she inherited from an uncle, was financing her European sojourn with its hard-won profits; she flew to Iturri’s ports of call and spent rapturous days in hotels with him, but their romance could last only as long as the fragile tramp steamer did. Warda’s perfect, elastic, symmetrical beauty was one with the listing, disintegrating body of the ship as it conveyed her aging lover from port to port. The story, Mutis tells us at the outset, “has something of the eternal legends that have bewitched us over the centuries”; he ends by assuring us that “there has been only one love story since the beginning of time.” Not a happy one.

May 27, 2013

A Summer Reading List

by Biblioklept

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Okay:

Prospective reading list for the summer.

First, I’ll finish Mikhaíl Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, not pictured here because I’m reading it on the Kindle. No new novels until I finish this novel! (Will break this rule).

I just finished another trip through Ulysses, again via audiobook plus tandem-rereading on the Kindle. I like big audiobooks (and I cannot lie), so I’ll get into Against the Day on mp3.

This weekend I read “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk,” the first story in a freshly translated collection from Nikolai Leskov. The Enchanted Wanderer is new in translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa ­Volokhonsky. I’ll be reading it in chunks this summer.

Speaking of reading in chunks: I devoured the first three novellas in Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll series and then took a break to get some other stuff in. Break over.

Also: Matt Bell’s novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

And I still haven’t read Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, so I’ll try to fix that this summer.

I also plan to read Evan Lavender-Smith’s Avatar, but I’d like to do it in one sitting, which means I need to free up a few hours.

Finally: Who knows. Reading lists are kind of ridiculous.

January 6, 2013

A Lazy Riff on the First Three of Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll Novellas

by Edwin Turner
The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam

The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam

1. Last year on this blog, my friend Dave Cianci reviewed Álvaro Mutis’s collection of seven novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. That review got me to eventually pick up the book and start reading. That review is better written and more accomplished than what I’ll likely end up doing here.

2. There are seven Maqroll novellas; I’ve read the first three. They are excellent.

3. Let me steal from Cianci’s review. He describes Maqroll the Gaviero as

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.

4. The Gaviero—the lookout—is a picaro, a roguish but poetical sailor. Mutis’s book is picaresque, carnivalesque, a river—or maybe a maze—of storytelling.

5. This is maybe what Maqroll is about: storytelling. Each Maqroll novella is framed as another’s story, or a found document—you know this trick, you’ve read Borges, right? 

6. The book is crammed with stories, stories that lead to other stories, that recall other stories, that tell their own stories—or cover over other stories.

7. A line that might instructively illustrate point 6: In Ilona Comes with the Rain, Mutis unpacks the life of a minor character, a sea captain named Wito. Consider his opening gambit:

His life deserves an entire book. It was so full of adventures, some of which he hurried over as if they were hot coals, that one became lost in their labyrinthine complexity.

The life described here could just as well be the Gaviero’s.

8. Well of course, that’s what Mutis is doing, channeling and conveying and expressing Maqroll’s life, a life of picaresque adventures (and titular misadventures), of loss and gain, of love and despair, drinking, sailing, scheming and plotting—a life full of allusions and hints and digressions. Mutis’s technique is marvelous (literally; he made this reader marvel): he gives us an aging (anti-)hero, a hero whose life is overstuffed with stories and mishaps and feats and enterprises and hazards; he gives us one strand of that life at a time in each novella—but then he points to the other adventures, the other serials of Maqroll that we would love to tune into if only we could.

9. To illustrate point 8: Consider Maqroll in Un Bel Morir, doing some time in prison: His consciousness floats to other prisons, other countries: Afghanistan, British Columbia: And then we get those stories, miniature epics—and nested within them, their own characters tell stories.

10. There’s a wonderful timelessness to Maqroll, a sense that the adventures exist somehow before the postmodern world, that they belong to the pulp fictions of jungle adventure…

11. (Indeed, re: point 10: In Ilona, we find one character who is unstuck in time, taking a Naopleonic lover during a transcontinental voyage…)

12. I’ve already noted the Borgesian quality of Mutis’s tales, brought up their picaresque scope (a la Cervantes), so let me lazily compare Mutis to others: let me note the sprawl of his storytelling, which recalls García Márquez—only more compact, more precise. Let me suggest that there’s something of Kafka in there too—indeed, the first novella, The Snows of the Admiral seems to me a reworking of “Before the Law.” (The tale is also conspicuously quixotic; tilting at windmills and all that). Conrad of course, but also something of Melville—the grand (Moby-Dick) and the sly (The Confidence Man). And hell, also something of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s high adventure, or even, dare I say it, the better parts of the Indiana Jones films.

13. Lazy as I am, I’ve failed to quote Mutis at any length—a shame, because it’s wonderful prose (translated by Edith Grossman, by the way). So here’s a little morsel—one that I think captures why we tell stories—from the appendix to Un Bel Morir, the last of the three novellas I read; before I offer it up I’ll conclude my riff by saying how happy I am that there are four more of these Maqroll novellas to read:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.

November 26, 2012

“The Exemplary Happiness That Surely Never Comes Again” — Alvaro Mutis

by Biblioklept

A woman’s body under the rush of a mountain waterfall, her brief cries of surprise and joy, the movement of her limbs in the brief cries of surprise and joy, the movement of her limbs in the rapid foam that carries red coffee berries, sugar cane pulp, insects struggling to escape the current: this is the exemplary happiness that surely never comes again.

From Alvaro Mutis’s novella The Snows of the Admiral, collected in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.

April 11, 2012

Crews, Gaddis, Lish, Mutis (Books Acquired Late Last Week)

by Biblioklept

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I picked up Harry Crews’s novel The Knockout Artist, which I hadn’t read, after his recent death. I was not the only person to pick up Crews books: the Crews section of my favorite used bookstore, once swollen is now depleted (the omnibus and collections all snapped up).

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape was my occasion (as if I needed one) for visiting said store; I ordered it after finishing The Recognitions. I managed to bend the cover badly in the first five minutes of ownership. I started it over the weekend and then got distracted by a friend calling me to meet at a bar. I started it again last night and got about a third of the way in. Full review on the horizon.

I have no idea why I picked up Lish’s novel other than the fact that Lish is awesome; it’s a first edition paperback and the cover is awesome. Maybe that’s why. I have no idea when I’ll get around to reading it. Compulsive behaviors.

The Mutis novel, or collection of novellas, is half of the book that Dave Cianci aka Noquar reviewed on this blog  a few months ago. I wanted the full version, which collects six novellas, but I’ll settle for this (it’s used; I have store credit, etc.). Anyway, Noquar’s review made me want to read it, so I’ve slated it for summer reading (May?).

February 15, 2012

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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