Of the Latin American writers I have mentioned as the truly magical creators of fiction, Álvaro Mutis (1923-2013) is the most interesting both as a storyteller and as a literary stylist. English-language readers are not as familiar with his novels as they are with those of his fellow-Colombian Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Much as there is to admire in the latter, especially the later playful Márquez of Love in the Time of Cholera, it is Mutis’s Maqroll stories that are more profoundly engaging. Set mostly in no fixed country but in that shifting universe which is the chaotic wilderness of the interior self in which the human being is both a pilgrim journeying towards a hoped-for redemption and a lonely lost soul in a jungle of confusion and hopelessness, there is in Mutis’s narratives a metaphysical dimension that is lacking in his more famous Latin American contemporaries.
Though he was first an accomplished poet—much praised by Octavio Paz—Mutis is principally known for the seven novellas about a character he named Maqroll the Gaviero, which were collected in two volumes, Maqroll and The Adventures of Maqroll, excellently translated into English by Edith Grossman, and reissued in one volume, with an informative Introduction by Francisco Goldman, as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.
Of indeterminate nationality, carrying a convenient but questionable passport from Cyprus, known by no other name but Maqroll the Gaviero, Mutis’s hero has sailed the oceans and wandered across the five continents. He is Everyman and yet uniquely himself. Odysseus in one episode, Quixote in another, Tom Jones one day, and Tartuffe the next, he embodies many of the heroes of literature; or, unscrupulous criminal with no concern for morality when he plays the smuggler or the pimp, he is the anti-hero who remains likeable, like Robin Hood, in spite of his villainy. But behind his chameleon personality he always remains himself, Maqroll the Gaviero.
The Gaviero means the Lookout, the person who sits up in the crow’s nest of a sailing ship, from which high position he is the first to spy distant lands or what good or evil awaits the voyaging mariners on the horizon; his is the restlessness of the human spirit that is constantly searching that new abode, that new friendship, and above all that ideal love which will be the soul’s consummation when the self is entirely subsumed by the other, but finding that search forever frustrated and discovering only the great void of nothingness. In that bleak reality, there is no consolation for the tormented self. The tragedy of an Oedipus or a Lear repeats itself.
Mutis says none of this; as in much good writing, the ideas are not spelled out but implied by the objective imagery in which the absorbing action is presented—proving once again that ideas are a function of language and are discovered during the literary act of creation when the writer assembles different combinations of words to see which combination is most pleasing and appropriate to continue the action that has begun, and therefore the finer the author’s command over language the more extensive the range of his or her ideas; and in literature the quality of the language is measurable by the freshness and sharpness of the author’s imagery. Mutis learned this from writers like Dickens and Proust (which proves another important point, that good literature transcends the cultural boundaries so favoured by the parochial enthusiasm of flag-waving critics and by professors of literature who guard their narrowly defined exclusive field with the alacrity of pit-bulls).
There is an old-fashioned, but brilliantly invented, surface narrative in Mutis’s stories that will absorb the attention of readers at all levels—from those who merely seek the entertaining distraction of hair-raising adventures to those who demand the adventures be suggestive of an intellectual understanding of the human condition—those who are happy with the Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island and those who prefer the more complex thought behind Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness or the symbolic suggestiveness of Melville’s descriptive prose.
Critics have compared Mutis to Conrad, but done so for the superficial reason that in some of his narrative Maqroll is on an old barge struggling on a river in a forbidding interior where the human being is subjected to physical hardship that carries the symbolic burden of a spiritual test; they could equally well have compared Maqroll’s trials to those suffered by the Humphrey Bogart character in The African Queen, that memorable movie in which the elemental man and woman battle against and survive the arbitrary punishment inflicted upon them by the pitiless interior. The heart of darkness is heartless. In that dark interior, and in Mutis’s vision, the voyage into Dante’s inferno repeats itself in a densely organized imagery in which the literal level of the spellbinding story unfolds, an imagery that conveys an unconsciously apprehended layer of symbolic meaning.
All great works of the imagination project an individual mind’s obsession with a set of images which derive their power by being created as that person’s singular vision expressed in a very particular style which is yet a variation of a general collective vision of the human condition in which the physical body never ceases to be tormented by the shadow now in front of us and now behind us that we call the self.
Mutis begins the first novella, The Snow of the Admiral, with the familiar device of the author discovering his text through an accident that seems providential and places on him the obligation to transcribe that text in a readable form without compromising the integrity of the original. The author obliged to assume the role of an impartial editor is an old trick (older than Daniel Defoe’s use of it in Robinson Crusoe) to sustain the fiction that the story about to be told is true, and Mutis uses it convincingly. Speaking in his own person, Mutis starts with an account of visiting a curious old bookshop in Barcelona where he finds a rare book he had been seeking for years.
It is as if the reader has been drawn to the world of The Arabian Nights where something magical is about to transpire. The book Mutis finds is a work of history that contains a large pocket inside the back cover intended for maps and documents associated with the history but instead of which Mutis discovers there “a quantity of pink, yellow, and blue sheets…covered by tiny, cramped writing”: they are the notes, in the form of a diary written by Maqroll “in an indelible violet pencil occasionally darkened by the author’s saliva,” narrating his “misadventures, memories, reflections, dreams, and fantasies” as he voyaged up the Xurandó River.
That detail about the writing being in an indelible violet pencil makes the reader see the cramped writing and the reference to the writer’s saliva springs a sudden image in the reader’s mind, that of the writing person touching the point of the pencil with the tip of his tongue, an image which compels the reader’s suspension of disbelief and communicates the unstated idea that the ink with which the indelible words are being inscribed is a vital substance flowing from the writer’s body. It is such precise imagery that, entering the reader’s mind as a physically experienced sensation, conditions the mind to accept as true all that is to follow, provided, of course, if what follows is presented in an equally vivid language.
Mutis then notes that Maqroll’s “Diary is an indefinable mixture of genres,” it contains direct narrative as well as “hermetic precepts,” an observation that permits Mutis, the author pretending to be an editor, the liberty to subvert any strict formality that the text might assume with stylistic variations that keep the reader’s imagination entranced while the basic content keeps one gripped with its unfolding drama. A beguiling informality becomes the formal procedure of the seven novellas. Mutis can allow himself asides, introduce himself as a character in the narrative, make references to his friends, thus diffusing the distinction between fiction and reality, so that when in the ultimate chapter of the last novella, Triptych on Sea and Land, Mutis and his wife Carmen listen to Maqroll tell his final story, all sense of fiction evaporates: the author who invented Maqroll has become Maqroll’s friend and has flown across the Atlantic with his wife to be with him in Mallorca in his time of need. It sounds like a family reunion.
The discoverer of the text finds his own being is a living presence within the text; all pretexts to illusion dissolve: we have been looking at the real thing, having long forgotten, for such is the magic of the writing, that we had entered the world of The Arabian Nights, though sometimes, in the waking dream of our involvement with the text, we were adrift on the high seas with Odysseus or lost in some strange underworld passages of the Divine Comedy. While Mutis holds us in awe with his dark drama, he never neglects his responsibility to keep his story interesting, that one obligation which Henry James declared is imposed upon all novelists, nor does Mutis forget that a crucial character in a tragedy is the clown who makes us laugh before we surrender ourselves to sorrow.
What attracts one’s imagination in Maqroll’s stories is the ceaseless human curiosity as one stares in amazement at the self become the displaced other orbiting in a dreamlike, but palpable, universe. Another’s life, notes Maqroll, has been flowing next to his in “the blind current of another destiny,” and adds despairingly, “flowing beside me like ghostly blood that calls my name yet knows nothing of me.” Once, on the river in the interior, delirious with malaria, Maqroll is subjected to “a terrifying trial” in which he loses “all sense of the passage of time.” The literal level of the descriptive prose renders precisely what he experiences in his delirium. But there is a suggestiveness prompted by the finely controlled language that adds a poetical dimension to the dramatically absorbing surface reality. The people around him seem “totally alien, bathed in an iridescent light,” as if he had descended into some inferno. In that interior darkness, “we don’t become another being, we turn into another thing.” As in Becket’s How It Is in which the humans Bom and Pim have become crawling things in a sea of mud.
Recovered, Maqroll continues his journey. The descriptive prose pans its wide-angle lens across the scene: “The river is narrower and the first foothills are beginning to rise along the banks, exposing a reddish soil that sometimes resembles dried blood,” then the lens captures the cliffs where “the tree roots are bared like recently polished bones.” The imagery seems to throb in the reader’s senses, and sets up the context for the important statement, “Everything is silent and seems to be waiting for some devastating revelation,” which on its own would sound portentous, but embedded in that sharp cinematic prose becomes a central idea: for it is the desperate human longing for that significant revelation, a sort of unquenchable spiritual thirst, which we religiously hope will release us from the heart of darkness and transport us to a glittering oasis glowing under an eternally full moon, that persuades the Maqroll in each one of us to venture into the dangerous interior.
But metaphorically Maqroll remains the Gaviero who, watching the horizon and broadcasting storm warnings, feels the sway of the crow’s nest in his bones even when he is in the underworld of a gold mine looking for the gleaming vision that reveals the rich vein of reality, but finds himself in dark labyrinths where the wind “carries voices, laments, the unending relentless toil of insects” and the desperate “screech of a bird lost in the depths of the mine shafts.”
That suddenly heard “screech” conveys the bird’s desperation at being trapped in that lower depth, and the reader, jolted by the sharp sensation of the bird’s pain, experiences an unconscious transmission to his imagination of the bird’s wings beating desperately as if the pain is not the bird’s but his own and the maddened wings his soul unable to escape the darkness of the self. The passage is a perfect example of how precise objective imagery takes on a Jungian symbolic transformation and transmits meaning, for the human collective unconscious teems with mythical phantoms and demons which are the dreamlike disguises of our quotidian reality that create within us a private surreal epic filled with a dizzying imagery that combines Dionysian infidel frenzy with religious orthodox piety, which is but a variation of all the stories ever told.
While the general import of each of his stories is timeless, with the hypnotically suggestive imagery making each particular geographical setting the universal space of human consciousness, Mutis is not unmindful of the problems of his time. He will sometimes have an aside that places his larger theme in a contemporary context or observe “the age-old vileness of men and their calamitous vocation for sacrifice,” and record the sort of barbarity that can strike “hospitable, amiable people” anywhere.
Mutis’s broad view of humanity and his understanding of diverse cultures infuse Maqroll’s stories with a liberal sensibility that rejects the social and religious prejudices which erect barriers between nations. Maqroll’s close friend and accomplice is a man named Abdul Bashur, and in the novella devoted to him, Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships, there is a sympathetic account of Islam, with Maqroll saying of the Europeans that “These people understand nothing about Islam, and the worst of it is that their arrogant ignorance has not changed since the Crusades. They always pay for it dearly in the end, but they can’t understand the warning and persist in their wrongheadedness.” Bashur responds that he is more frightened by the fanaticism of his Muslim brothers, and Mutis adds the telling remark that this has been a “centuries-old conflict between two civilizations that have held a dialogue of the deaf for more than a millennium.” Mutis wrote that nearly thirty years ago. But then, of course, a good writer is always a shrewd witness of history and, obsessed by the enigma of existence, abjures the narrowly parochial and doctrinaire quarrels of his time.
That enigma is the fever that takes over Maqroll in the gold mine named Amirbar (“from the Arabic Al Emir Bahr,” which means Chief of the Sea). At the height of his fever he realizes that what his brain is burning for is not to find a priceless vein of the precious metal; the fever that consumes him is a “kind of possession” of the soul, it is a fiery heat within the body which “works deep inside us and has nothing to do with the concrete desire to find great treasure.” What we burn for, risking our lives in this dark interior in which we crawl, is “to hold in our hands, at least once,” that other gold: “a tiny, cursed piece of eternity.”
From The Algebra of Conceptual Narrative, forthcoming Summer 2021 from Left Field Books