In the vast repertoire of notes, articles, interviews, prologues, epigraphs, and explicit or implicit references in his poems or narrative through which Álvaro Mutis (1923-2013) proved his tireless condition as a precocious, constant, and heterodox writer, two lectures that he delivered in 1965 at the Casa del Lago at the Autonomous University of Mexico stand out. In them, in addition to corroborating and widening the heterogeneous catalog of literary references with which his literary universe established significant communicative pathways, it is also possible to identify a significant ensemble of literary proposals which he appropriated, with their necessary nuances, in order to develop his own writerly practices.
One of the marks of identity of the poetic universe contained in the Summa de Maqroll el Gaviero (Maqroll’s Prayer and Other Poems, NYRB, Edith Grossman, trans.) is its so-called poetic heteronymy. That practice consists of conceiving specific poetic voices that differ from a poetic voice susceptible to being related in a diaphanous way with the biographical I of its creator. In the model conceived by Fernando Pessoa, the possibility exists of assigning complete autonomy to the heteronymic voice vis-à-vis the authorial voice, their views of the world, and the way of ingraining it in their discourses differ entirely. An intermediate point is constituted by orthonymic voices that do maintain certain points of alignment with the authorial voice, most of all in the worldview they share. Another model was the one devised by Antonio Machado in order to give life to his complementary voices, those semi-autonomous voices that always made evident their ties to other voices, as occurred with those of Juan de Mairena and his peculiar teacher Abel Martín. These two models coexist in the conception of Maqroll the Gaviero, in terms of poetic voice. However, there exists a third variable that partakes in the coalescence of the Mutisian project and it is the one its creator took up in one of the lectures delivered in 1965: the one titled “¿Quién es Barnabooth?” [“Who is Barnabooth?”].
In July of 1908, a volume by an anonymous author with the title Poèmes par un riche amateur was published in France; included two collections of poetry (“Borborygmes” and “Ievropa”), a short story (“Le pauvre chemisier”), and a biographical note (“Biographie de M. Barnabooth par X.M. Tournier de Zamble”). Five years later, the Nouvelle Revue Française included in its catalogue of publications the book A.O. Barnabooth, ses Œuvres complètes, c’est à dire un Conte, ses Poésies et son Journal intime. This last piece replaced, in the new edition, the prior biographical note attributed to the apocryphal Tournier de Zamble. This new edition also made visible the identity of the until-then anonymous author of the prior version: French writer Valery Larbaud (1881-1957). This peculiar incursion of the heteronym conceived by Larbaud in the context of French literature in the beginning of the twentieth century is subject to being compared to the one made by Maqroll the Gaviero half a century later, now in the context of Spanish American poetry. In both cases, the authorship of a discourse and the understandings that had to be presented in order to reach the reader’s hands were at stake. In the case of Larbaud’s proposal, the intention of attributing the authorship of the poems, short story, and the subsequent intimate diary to the fictional Archibaldo Olson Barnabooth was clear. According to what was recorded in his diary, he was originally from Campamento (Arequipa, Peru) and descended from a Swedish family that, since the end of the eighteenth century, had sought its fortune in the Americas, testing its luck initially in the Hudson valley, then in California and Cuba, and finding it finally in the Peruvian Andes, where A.O.’s father would dedicate himself to mining operations. At first, A.O. Barnabooth’s discourse was mediated by an apocryphal biographer, Tournier de Zamble, who quickly left the scene, leaving as the only interlocutors of this literary proposal Larbaud and his heteronym. In the conception and later literary development of Maqroll, the eternal stateless man, the author, intermediary voice, and heteronym triad was present from beginning to end. This allowed the Colombian writer to consolidate a project that could be termed “complementary heteronymy.” In it, he made use without distinction of resources originating in the models of Pessoa, Machado, and Larbaud. However, it was precisely in the assessment of his reading of Larbaud’s heteronym’s writing in which Mutis shaped an appreciation capable of being extended to the entirety of his own work:
The circumstances surrounding the appearance in the world of the character’s writings [Barnabooth’s], the reason for his existence, belong most entirely to the particular world of the preferences, to the context of his author’s life, and his creation [Larbaud’s], with which they are mixed up and are confounded at many points, when they are not parallel for very long periods. […] the identity that exists between A.O. Barnabooth, the rich amateur, and Valery Larbaud, the amiable erudite and man of letters par excellence, inheritor of rich springs and huge hotels in Vichy, and owner of a great fortune, this identity only ceases to exist when the character fulfills certain dictates of destiny that are impossible for the author to heed. […] I have wanted to go quickly and succinctly through this life full of essences and cordial richness [Larbaud’s life], precisely so that it may be A.O. Barnabooth who might tell us, through that modest third person that characters are, how he thought, how he lived, or would like to have lived, and which were Valery Larbaud’s confessed and secret passions.
It would suffice in the prior fragment from the lecture to switch the names of A.O. Barnabooth and Valery Larbaud for those of Maqroll the Gaviero and Álvaro Mutis in order to consider it a declaration of principles on the part of the latter with respect to his creative course, at that time in complete consolidation in the poetic sphere and subsequently also developed in the narrative sphere: the necessity of conceiving of an Other on the stage of literary fiction in order to exorcise through him the existential demons of the writer, albeit accepting the risk of autonomy that the heteronym can attain vis-à-vis his creator.
The other lecture that Mutis gave in 1965 at UNAM’s Casa del Lago was the one with the title “La desesperanza” [“Hopelessness”]. In it, the Colombian poet and storyteller carried out a personal review of a number of works inscribed within the Western literary sphere in the twentieth century. His literary voyage began with the final passages of the novel Victory (1915) by Joseph Conrad; in an implicit way he invoked Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) by Rainer Maria Rilke; then he spent time on the prologue to La suite dans les idées (1927) by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, which he discussed contrasting it to Une saison en enfer by Rimbaud; later on he arrived at La condition humaine (1933) by André Malraux, alluding to other works by the French novelist such as Les conquérants (1928), La voie royale (1930), and L’espoir (1937); he returned to Lisbon holding hands with the Pessoan heteronym Álvaro de Campos, in the version of “Lisbon Revisited” translated into Spanish by Francisco Cervantes; and his port of arrival was the novel published a few years before by his compatriot Gabriel García Márquez: No One Writes to the Colonel (1961).
As a result of this excursion, Mutis established the five conditions that would govern the existence of the hopeless one as a paradigmatic figure in contemporary literature, in light of the cases that were studied. These conditions would be: the lucidity that allows for the cultivation of hopelessness, the difficulty of communicating to others what is perceived in terms of the prior condition, the loneliness in which the hopeless one usually lives, the close relationship that is established with death, and the vindication of a “carpe diem” circumscribed to a “brief enthusiasm for the immediate enjoyment of certain probable and fleeting pleasures.” These five conditions would become Maqroll the Gaviero’s principle signs of identity once he completed his transit from the domain of poetry to that of narrative. In said journey, it was not only the heteronymous voice over which the entire structure of the Maqroll’s Prayer and Other Poems was articulated; rather, it also embodied the “mariner on land” who wandered among the lowlands, the hot land, and the highlands throughout his Empresas y tribulaciones (1986-1993) (Adventures and Misadventures, NYRB, Edith Grossman, trans.). Not in vain, in the conversations Mutis had with Eduardo García Aguilar during the realization of said journey, he reiterated, almost three decades later, what he had said in the lecture from 1965:
[Hopelessness is] a resigned attitude, a complete acceptance of destiny, without asking it for that supposed happiness that the adolescent thinks is around the corner. […] [And the hopeless man is] the man who takes on the responsibility of a task knowing its final futility, its small vanity, its zero importance in the panorama of the destiny of men, but carries it out well and entirely like a man and manifests himself and becomes in this way a man. Celebraciones y otros fantasmas. Una biografía intelectual de Álvaro Mutis (1993)
A vision of the world that was not alluding exclusively to the possible Maqroll the Gaviero as a poetic voice and subsequently as a character in a novel, but rather also to Mutis’s writerly task itself, which, from its beginnings always recognized its limits, to the point of conceiving of itself as a “lost cause.” However, despite that critical conscience, he did not choose total silence, but rather insisted on reaching those who, to a greater or lesser degree, also saw themselves as hopeless readers. Because of it, if the lecture about Barnabooth provided significant clues about the heteronymous writing project that its author was preparing at that time in terms of Maqroll the Gaviero; the one dedicated to the so-called “meridian of hopelessness” offered the world vision the writer would share with his heteronym, and by extension, with his future readers. Because of it, it was no exaggeration when a decade after giving the lecture at Casa del Lago, Mutis confessed to his colleague Guillermo Sheridan, “[t]hat essay qualifies the essence of all my readings, my situation, and my position before everything.”
One of the qualities Maqroll the Gaviero shared with (or inherited from) his creator was that of the impenitent reader. This was made evident in his Adventures and Misadventures, be it going up the mirific Xurandó River in search of some sawmills buried in the Amazonia, during his period as a procurer in Panama City accompanied by Ilona Grabowska, when he saw himself involved in weapons trafficking between La Plata and Cuchilla del Tambo, or when he submerged himself in the entrails of a mine located in the Andes, among other episodes that characterized his continuous wandering. His tireless mediator voice gave an account of some of said readings in the appendix to Amirbar (“The Gaviero’s Reading”). In it, aside from recovering some of Maqroll’s evaluations of French-language writers like Simenon, Céline, and Balzac, there is a detailed reference to the editions of four books that usually accompanied the Gaviero in his almost always failed adventures: Mémoires du Cardinal de Retz (1719), Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe (1848) by René de Chateaubriand, Les guerres de Vendée (1912) by Émile Gabory, and Mémoires et lettres (1865) by the Prince Ligne. The titles of these works could sound anachronistic in the hands of an old sailor who played out his footsteps throughout the second half of the twentieth century. However, they would acquire another connotation when said sailor responded, upon being questioned by agents of the Vancouver Police about his occupation: “I am a Chouan lost in the twentieth century” (Amirbar, Edith Grossman, trans.). This identification with the peasants of Brittany who took the side of the Monarchy at the time of the French Revolution, was an anticipation, with its necessary nuances, of the response Mutis gave the Spanish writer Carlos Fresneda en 1997: “More than once I have defined myself as a medieval lost in this century.” Diaphanous testimonies of the malaise shared by the writer and his heteronym vis-à-vis the world in which they had to live and in which reading afforded them, more than an escape valve, a mechanism for resisting and placing in their rightful place the small miseries of everyday life. For Mutis, as shown in the two lectures referenced, the act of reading also offered him the possibility of being enriched by certain formal and thematic proposals in order to conceive of his own. However, it is also possible that at some point he may have assumed it as his heteronym, according to the testimony of the mediating voice: “[T]he Gaviero was an insatiable reader, a tireless and lifelong consumer of books. This was his only pastime, not for literary reasons but because of a need to stave off somehow the tireless rhythm of his wandering and the unpredictable outcome of his voyages” (Amirbar, Edith Grossman, trans.). These two alternatives also still hold up, almost three quarters of a century later, for those readers who dare from time to time to cross the threshold of Maqroll’s Prayer and/or The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio
Luis Guzmán Valerio has a Ph.D. in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His creative writing has appeared in Chiricú. His literary translations have been published in BODY Literature, Delos, FIVE:2:ONE, Sargasso, and Translators’ Corner. He lives in New York City.