The Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis died one year ago today.
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.
John Updike explained the attraction to Mutis and Maqroll in his 2003 New Yorker review of NYRB’s Maqroll collection:
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.