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A writer's time is hard to waste. Then, for twenty-three years in Mexico City, he worked the media mills as sales manager for the television divisions of several Hollywood film companies. And yet without this rambling career how could he have supplied the eerie wealth of maritime and dockside details, the delirious abundance of geographic and culinary specifics, that give fascination and global resonance to his novella-length tales of Maqroll the Gaviero?
These, produced in a rush of deferred inspiration when Mutis was in his sixties, have won him international recognition and, in , the Neustadt Prize for Literature. The tidy paperback volume, exactly seven hundred pages of smallish Trump Mediaeval, with a warm and informative introduction by Francisco Goldman, has the supple heft of a newborn classic, a latter-day "Don Quixote" whose central persona, both amusingly shadowy and adamantly consistent, moves around the globe somewhat as the Knight of the Mournful Countenance traversed the plains of Spain.
Employing a resourceful variety of narrative textures and strategies, Mutis follows his hero through incidents of a Conradian exoticism; the narrative method, like that of Conrad, picturesquely involves the assembly of a coherent story from scattered documents, distant rumors, and elaborately couched secondhand recountings on betranced tropical verandas.
Yet Mutis denies any influence from Conrad, citing instead Proust and Dickens as prime inspirations. And it isn't that you want to write like Dickens, but rather that when you read Dickens, you feel an imaginative energy which you use to your own ends. The problem of energy, in this enervated postmodern era, keeps arising in Mutis's pursuit of a footloose, offhandedly erudite, inexplicably attractive shady character.
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. Gaviero in Spanish means "lookout"; Maqroll was one as a boy, in his first years at sea—"I had to climb to the top of the tallest mast and tell the crew what was on the horizon"—and Ishmael, too, was a topman, feeling himself, "a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts," and revolving within himself "the problem of the universe.
Mutis began as a poet and, until these Maqroll tales, was best known as one, though in Mexico his voice was widely broadcast; he did the voice-over in the Spanish-language version of the TV serial "The Untouchables.
In , according to Mutis, he realized, while editing the French translation of a prose poem entitled "The Snow of the Admiral," that "it wasn't a poem but a piece of a novel" and, "with a great sense of fatigue," proceeded to write the novel, sending its three hundred manuscript pages to his agent in Barcelona along with the disclaimer, worthy of Maqroll's own diffidence, "I don't know what the devil this is.
The author begins with a solemnly circumstantial description of how, browsing in a secondhand bookstore in Barcelona, he picked up a beautiful edition of a nineteenth-century volume on the assassination of the Duke of Orleans, and found, in a pocket in the back intended for maps and genealogical tables, a quantity of pink, yellow, and blue commercial forms covered with tiny writing, "somewhat tremulous and feverish I thought," in a purple indelible pencil "occasionally darkened by the author's saliva.
The captain of this quixotic craft, mourning a lost mistress, methodically keeps himself semi-inebriated; the boat's mechanic is a silent Indian; and the pilot's "features, gestures, voice, and other personal traits have been carried to so perfect a degree of non-existence that they can never stay in our memories. The project feels as futile as it is vague. He says to himself:. A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I've always known could be mine if it weren't for this constant desire to fail.
A family of four naked Indians comes aboard; he copulates with the woman, though she has "a rank smell of decomposing mud and rutting snake," and contracts, it turns out, a nearly fatal fever, of which he is cured by the commander of a frontier military outpost.
The sawmills turn out to be real, even majestic, but inoperative because of a government plot against their Finnish makers. Yet the particulars of this useless voyage—the river currents, the encircling jungle, the stultifying heat, the grimy details of the barge's operation, the repulsive personality tics of those aboard—are rendered so vividly as to furnish a metaphor for life, as a colorful voyage to nowhere.
Maqroll is in midlife; his consciousness is a web of past adventures, of old loves and tortuously failed enterprises, and his dreams figure as importantly as his present perils. He is sinking into squalor and petty crime in Panama's constant downpours:. He meets up with Ilona Grabowska Rubenstein, a dynamic, leggy international con artist who in the past has shared her favors and her illegal schemes with Maqroll and his Lebanese soul mate and sometime partner Abdul Bashur. Swiftly she takes Maqroll to bed, spruces him up, and appoints him her partner in an inspired venture, a whorehouse staffed with women dressed in the uniforms of airline stewardesses, thus catering to the fantasies of international travellers.
The idea makes a fortune, but success bores both partners, and one of their filles de joie , who lives in a wrecked boat on the beach and imagines she has uniformed lovers from the time of Napoleon, fascinates Ilona fatally. This episode is less of a poem than the first, and more of a story, with the storyteller's vice of sentiment; the conclusion invites a donation of tears, of sympathetic sorrow.
Both rebels and government eventually want to kill him, but he makes a getaway, albeit into the river's swampy estuary with a failing engine. Things look grim, yet we suspect that Maqroll, like the hero of a comic strip, leads a charmed life, with as many panels to come as his creator wishes to produce. Women—of whom a select few "filled his days with meaning and exorcised the demons of tedium and defeat whose attacks he feared as he feared death"—keep bestowing their magic potion.
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.
Petersburg, a shimmering sight passingly eclipsed by the transit of a decrepit tramp steamer:. 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.
At their first meeting, he says, he was stunned by her "almost Hellenic" beauty:. 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. 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. A kind of stiffening didactic brocade accumulates. These later tales expand the rolls of his acquaintanceship into, if not quite an Arthurian Round Table, a gallant brotherhood, "a small band.
An elegant international machismo offers itself as a palliative for life's existential agony. Men with the right stuff can be recognized by their "inbred decency and.
Widening the circle has the final effect of narrowing it, of diluting the value of Maqroll the Gaviero as an isolated image of quintessential male experience. For what are these adventures and misadventures—gold strikes whose profits are squandered, voyages toward mirages, erotic conquests whose fruit is painful loss—but symbols of the chronic ventures and defeats of the restless, death-plagued male mind?
Mutis's fiction, like Hemingway's, advertises a life style, a prescription for living. Part of the secret is travelling light; Maqroll has the "air of a sailor who's been thrown off his ship" and carries no more than his clothes and a few archly recondite books. What is it, in his minimal baggage, that keeps Maqroll rolling through the "network of itineraries," "the dark human labyrinth that leads to a small heap of gray ashes"?
He and his creator worry alike at the problem "Why live? Misfortune is rarely so complete, however, as to lack the price of a good restaurant meal or a night with a splendid woman: "I embraced the Governor's firm body with the joyful despair of the vanquished who know that our only victory is the triumph of the senses on the ephemeral but true field of pleasure.
His deepest relation is with his destiny, an obscure entity having less to do with God than with the gods, "the powers that move the strings. Nostalgia is the lie that speeds our approach to death. Lone rangers, from Don Quixote to Sam Spade and James Bond, are customarily engaged in combat against bad guys; they afford themselves the escapism of a virtuous quest, a perpetual cleanup.
He died in
Empresas y Tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero = The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
A writer's time is hard to waste. Then, for twenty-three years in Mexico City, he worked the media mills as sales manager for the television divisions of several Hollywood film companies. And yet without this rambling career how could he have supplied the eerie wealth of maritime and dockside details, the delirious abundance of geographic and culinary specifics, that give fascination and global resonance to his novella-length tales of Maqroll the Gaviero? These, produced in a rush of deferred inspiration when Mutis was in his sixties, have won him international recognition and, in , the Neustadt Prize for Literature.
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
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