A century after his birth and a decade after his death, let this be the time to value the principal traits of the literary universe that the Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis (1923-2013) conceived from the middle of the twentieth century until the beginnings of the twenty-first. A creative process marked by the author’s childhood lived in Belgium, his transition into adolescence associated with the family hacienda located in Coello (municipality of Tolima, a department located in the so-called Colombian “hot land”), and his adulthood, which—after a few years in Bogotá—transpired for more than sixty years in the Mexican capital. The literary value of the heterogeneous network of poetic and narrative writing conceived by Mutis was recognized when he was presented with the Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana (1997), Príncipe de Asturias (1997), and Miguel de Cervantes (2001) awards, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (2002), among others.
There were five principal pillars around which Mutis constructed his literary universe. The first among them was his permanent and tumultuous doubt about the communicative limits of language. In the case of his poetic oeuvre, he went from an initial exaltation of the poetic word, as the cornerstone of the conception of an as-yet-unseen world, to a marked distrust of the reaches of poetic endeavor, to the point of considering it “a lost cause,” as shown by significant poems in the books Los elementos del desastre (1953) and Los trabajos perdidos (1965). However, despite the inevitable silence to which his poetry seemed to be condemned, already in these very collections of poetry, as well as in those published in the 1980s, (Caravansary, Los emisarios, Crónica regia, and Un homenaje y siete nocturnos), his poetry favored exploring the vicissitudes of the human condition through a verse that was always conscious of its expressive limits. This poetic endeavor shall oscillate between the painful conviction that: “It’s useless for the poet to say it… the poem has always existed. Solitary wind. Preserved and fragile claw of a powerful, quiet bird, old of age and valorous in its trance” (“Los trabajos perdidos”); and the fleeting, unsettling acknowledgment that: “Only one word. / One word and the dance begins / of a fertile misery.” The whole of Mutisian poetic production—the Summa de Maqroll el Gaviero—exemplifies what the German critic Hugo Friedrich called the “double failure” of modern poetry: the complete consciousness of the modern poet who through the word cannot grasp the absolute; and—at the same time—a condemnation of the absolute as only being able to be discerned through a failed or limited word.
On a par with that first pillar, Mutis conceived a peculiar development of heteronymy. On the one hand, from a vital necessity of creating a credible poetic voice, different from that of his precocious condition as a poet; and, on the other hand, in a clear dialogue with a tradition solidified in the work of writers such a Valery Larbaud, Fernando Pessoa, Antonio Machado, and León de Greiff, he created Maqroll the Gaviero, first as a lyrical voice and then as the narrator of and a character in his novels. A first name incapable of being associated with a determined spacio-cultural referent (Maqroll will serve as a paradigm of the contemporary stateless person); and an anachronistic profession (that of the mariner condemned to examining the horizon from the crow’s nest atop the main mast on a sailing ship), which would permit him to embody the contradictions of the modern poet. The one capable of functioning as a seer, given his privileged position vis-à-vis the rest of the ship’s crew, but at the same time condemned to maintaining a traumatic bond with them. This heteronymic project suffered a significant turn in the book of poems Los emisarios (1984). In it, the voice in charge of recollecting, editing, and producing the Gaviero’s visions and testimonies, as well as his own voice, lived through significant epiphanies that redefined their respective poetic functions. In the case of the former, it occurred in “Cádiz.” In this poem, a clearly autobiographical voice came through, which, after recognizing himself in the cultural keys of the land of his peninsular ancestors (let us recall that Mutis was descended from the brother of the wise José Celestino Mutis from Cádiz, who arrived in the territory of New Granada in the second half of the eighteenth century as the head of the Royal Botanical Expedition), he was able to affirm without the necessity of resorting to an intermediary: “And I arrive at this place and I know that it has always been / the untouched center whence / my dreams flow, the engrossed vitality / of my territorial secrets, / […] /
And in the yard where my grandparents played, / […] it has been revealed to me anew and forever / the hidden cipher of my name, / the secret of my blood, the voice of my people.” In the case of Maqroll, the epiphany took place in “El cañón de Aracuriare.” In this mirific canyon located at the base of the mountains and bathed by a torrential river, the poetic voice puts forth a meticulous examination of its own existence that makes him realize that he has stopped being the looking eye belonging to a lookout, in order to become, from that moment on, just another one in the crowd, just as he had announced years before in the so-called “Oración de Maqroll.” The dilemma of becoming a “mariner on land” (to paraphrase Rafael Alberti) will be added to this new profile, during the transition from the poetic to the narrative domains, as happens in the majority of the novels and stories that constitute The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.
This condition of building an atypical voice, always with the unease of feeling out of place and foreign in the time that it had to inhabit, will give rise to the consolidation of the third pillar of the Mutisian literary universe: the paradigm of hopelessness. In the often-cited talk “La desesperanza” [“Hopelessness”], which he gave in 1965 at the Casa del Lago of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mutis established the profile of the hopeless modern hero based on his reading of a diverse group of twentieth century authors such as Conrad, Drieu la Rochelle, Malraux, Pessoa, and García Márquez. In said profile, the following stands out: the hopeless hero’s lucidity for perceiving the inevitable failure of all human endeavor; the impossibility of communicating to his brethren said vision of the world; the loneliness that arises from the latter; the tight relationship that is established with death (in a similar way to the imaginary “self-death” conceived by Rilke); and a brief and limited feeling of hope that does not go beyond what a “brief enthusiasm for the immediate joy of certain probable and fleeting chances” could offer. Almost three decades later, in an extensive interview with Eduardo García Aguilar, the by then well-established poet and narrator added in respect to this:
[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. […] [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.
A profile which Maqroll the Gaviero would fit into with each new poem or story, and which allowed him to put up with his vital estrangement and proclaim in a haughty tone in a police station in Vancouver, in the company of his close travel friend Alejandro Obregón: “I am a Chouan lost in the twentieth century” (Amirbar, Edith Grossman, trans.).
Associated with this identification of the Gaviero with the reactionary peasantry of Brittany and Maine in the north of French territory—whom at the time of the French Revolution, sided with the ancien régime—was what this author revealed in an interview at the end of twentieth century with Carlos Fresnada: “More than once I have defined myself as a medieval man lost in this century.” For this, there existed a significant antecedent: “I am a Ghibelline, monarchic and legitimist,” as he pointed out in the 1980s to his colleague and one of the great scholars of his work, Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda. However, beyond the confessed reactionary character of the author as well as his fictional creation, these declarations accounted for the fourth pillar of Mutis’s work: the significant spacio-temporal escapes—visible in his work and accompanied by provocative diatribes in the author’s interviews and newspaper articles—through which, rather than being intent on detailed and rigorous recreations of certain historical passages, he constituted a valuable distancing vis-à-vis the “here and now” and, in this way, denounced his contradictions in a more visceral and acute way. This was the case in his stories “The Strategist’s Death (2005, Beatriz Hausner, trans.) and “The Last Face” (2005, Beatriz Hausner, trans.) in which the intrigues of the Byzantine Empire in the transition from the eighth to the ninth centuries, or the intrigues lived by Bolívar and his closest friends during the last months of the Liberator’s life in San Pedro Alejandrino, respectively, function as an oblique mirror to question the socio-cultural dynamics of the second half of the twentieth century. An equal appraisal can be made of the poetry collection Crónica regia y alabanza del reino (1985) which he dedicated to the always problematic figure of Philip II.
Lastly, to the aforementioned pillars of development of the literary universe created by Mutis during more than half a century, there should be added the particular appropriation that he carried out of a geographical reference point such as that associated with his maternal family’s estate—the Coello hacienda—in order to transform it into a cultural landscape known as the “hot land.” This landscape, although susceptible to being likened to a wide spectrum of Colombian geography, will acquire in Mutis’s work a dual condition: at certain points it will be a refuge in which Maqroll and his entourage will find a modicum of tranquility in the always muddled catalog of their existential avatars, but on other occasions, it will take on the meaning of a lost paradise when his occasional visitors are obliged to take paths far away from him. The Mutisian “hot land” will oscillate between being a point of departure or arrival for its unmoved travelers, but it will also be the evidence for the writer of the principal accomplishment of his prolonged literary project, as he confessed one day to Fernando Quiroz:
[…] from Coello, from its environs, comes my small universe. This land is the source of everything I have written. I am not interested in the value my stories may have, or in how long they will remain in people’s memories… what really matters to me is that I made Coello live more than it really did.
One can also appreciate this metamorphosis of an “affective landscape” into a “cultural landscape,” as his son and editor, Santiago Mutis Durán, has well pointed out, in the case of Diario de Lecumberri (1961). This is a story that rises above its initial condition of autobiographical testimony of what it meant for its author to be incarcerated for fifteen months in the Mexican jail formerly known as “El Palacio Negro,” to become the substratum of significant and traumatic experiences that permeated the comings and goings of Maqroll the Gaviero and his peers throughout the poems and stories that were weaved into an intimate network of solidarity and affection.
Returning to this interwoven literary fabric or diving into it for the first time is the opportunity we have again as we celebrate the centenary of the birth and a decade since the death of its creator. At our disposal we have the recent re-editions of his work: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (NYRB), The Mansion (Ekstasis Editions), and Maqroll’s Prayer and Other Poems (NYRB). An invitation to reading characterized by the disturbing warning that the Mutisian poetic voice had given in its day to a possible interlocutor: “Around the corner / the one you did not become, the one that died / will continue waiting for you in vain / because you yourself are so much what you are. / Neither the slightest suspicion, / nor the slightest shadow / indicates to you what could have been / of that encounter. However, / the key was there / of your brief chance on earth” (“Canción del este”).
Translated by Luis Guzmán Valerio