…the weird thing is that I actually saw this as a kid. A few years later I saw Belle du jour (thanks to my uncle!) and then of course Un chien andalou and L’age d’or in college…
My fascination with:
Minimum conditions (from Robinson Crusoe to concentration camps)
My voyeuristic attraction to:
Cripples (Trip to Lourdes—they arrive from Germany in sealed trains)
—Notes from Susan Sontag’s notebook dated 8/28/65 Marseilles; published as part of the collection As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh.
“The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of Barnaby Rudge, says—”By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’s idea—but the author of Caleb Williams was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact or action may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel first, and secondly, a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterwards looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of events or tone as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but perhaps the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations,—in a word, at the wheels and pinions, the tackle for scene-shifting, the step-ladders and demon-traps, the cock’s feathers, the red paint, and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
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.
“Robinson Crusoe” by Franz Kafka:
Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.
From Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty / Adapted and Illustrated by W.W. Denslow.
- A Tale of Two Cities
- Robinson Crusoe
- The Iliad
- Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
- Tender Is the Night
- Native Son
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.