Mutis wasn’t on my radar until a few years ago, when a friend of mine, Dave Cianci, urged me to read the author’s opus, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, a collection of seven novellas that speak to each other in a loose, rich, intertextual poetics of adventure, romance, and loss. My friend Cianci was so enthusiastic about the book that he reviewed it for this blog (the review convinced me to read it). I’ll crib from that review:
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.
Later in his review, Cianci characterizes the titular Maqroll—the Gaviero, the “lookout” —as “who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.” In one of my own pieces on Maqroll, I described the world that Mutis offers, part fantasy, part nightmare, as
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.
The problem of energy, in this enervated postmodern era, keeps arising in Mutis’s pursuit of a footloose, offhandedly erudite, inexplicably attractive shady character. A lowly seaman with some high-flying acquaintances on land, Maqroll is a drifter who tends to lose interest in his adventures before the dénouement is reached. Readers even slightly acquainted with Latin-American modernism will hear echoes of Borges’s cosmic portentousness, of Julio Cortázar’s fragmenting ingenuities, of Machado De Assis’s crisp pessimism, and of the something perversely hearty in Mutis’s fellow-Colombian and good friend Gabriel García Márquez—a sense of genial amplitude, as when a ceremonious host sits us down to a lunch provisioned to stretch into evening. Descriptions of food consumed and of drinks drunk, amid flourishes of cosmopolitan connoisseurship, are frequent in Mutis, even as the ascetic Maqroll goes hungry. North Americans may be reminded of Melville—more a matter, perhaps, of affinity than of influence.
Updike’s review is one of the only prominent and long English-language pieces about Álvaro Mutis that I’ve come across. There’s a good 2001 interview with Mutis in Bomb by Francisco Goldman (who wrote the NYRB edition’s introduction), and a few translated poems of Mutis’s can be found online, but on the whole, despite accolades throughout the Spanish-reading world, his reputation among English-readers seems relegated to “friend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” (who called Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”).
Álvaro Mutis deserves a bigger English-reading audience. NYRB’s collection of his novellas in Edith Grossman’s translation bristles with energy. At once accessible and confounding, these tales that ask us to read them again, like Borges’s puzzles Bolaño’s labyrinths.
Is it tactless to name Bolaño here? Maybe—he’s perhaps too-easy an example: A Spanish-language author whose readership radically expanded after his death. Anyone who follows literary trends (ach!) will see how quickly a writer’s currency elevates after his or her death. (Ach! again). But I think that Mutis should attract fans of Bolaño, whose currency still spends (and will spend in the future, I think). Another comparison I would like to be able to make though would be John Williams’s sad novel Stoner, which, as any one who follows literary trends (ach!) could tell you became an unexpected best seller last year. Stoner—also published by the good people at NYRB—had to wait half a century to get its due. I don’t see why the English-reading world should wait that long to embrace Mutis.
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 readand 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.
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.
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 labyrinth, maze, 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.
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.
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 Maqrollseries 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.
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.
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.
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?).