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.