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The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll

by Alvaro Mutis

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This New York Review Books edition contains seven linked novellas by the great Colombian poet and novelist Álvaro Mutis. I'll be posting a review of each novella as I move through the book. Here is my review of the first three:

THE SNOW OF THE ADMIRAL
For John Updike, The Snow of the Admiral is “rendered so vividly as to furnish a metaphor for life as a colorful voyage to nowhere.”

Maqroll the Gaviero - our intrepid trekker. The bulk of The Snows of the Admiral consists of a very personal diary written by the Gaviero (the Lookout) chronicling his journey up the Xurandó River through jungle in a diesel-powered barge. Xurandó, such an apt name for Álvaro Mutis's fictional river since the sound and spelling blend in so well with a number of indigenous Amazonian tribespeople: the Xipaya, the Xiriana, the Txikao, the Kaxarari.

How much can a reader cherish Maqroll? The Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas threatened to sue Mr. Mutis if he ever killed off his beloved character. And Álvaro Mutis himself spoke of Maqroll as if he were a living person. After reading The Snow of the Admiral, the first of seven linked novellas forming The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, I likewise treasure the Gaviero and plan to join him on all his other quests right to the final paragraph of this 700-page modern classic.

Such passion for literature, Gonzalo Rojas! Likewise, John Updike, myself, and I’m supremely confident many other readers hold a special place for author Álvaro Mutis’s colorful, lovable voyager.

There's also that fascinating story behind the publication of The Snow of the Admiral: Back in 1986, the Columbian author, age 63, is editing one of his prose poems and realizes it “wasn’t a poem but a piece of a novel.” Then, with a sense of fatigue, Mr. Mutis processed to write a prose narrative and send the manuscript to his Barcelona agent along with a note telling her “I don’t know what the devil this is.” She replied back informing him what he wrote was “quite simply a wonderful novel.” And, give praise to the gods of literature, over the next five year, Álvaro Mutis proceeded to write six more short novels about Maqroll. Quite a feat for an author who spent a forty-five year career publishing not novels but poetry.

The New York Review Books edition of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is ideal - in addition to all seven novellas published together in English for the first time as one book, also included is an informative introductory essay written by Francisco Goldman, himself a celebrated novelist and friend of the author.

In his Introduction, Mr. Goldman relates the time when Álvaro Mutis spent his entire two week vacation sitting in a garden reading a stack of Charles Dickens novels morning until night. As Mr. Mutis told Francisco Goldman directly: “A real influence is an author who communicates an energy and a great desire to tell a story. And it isn't that you write like Dickens, but rather that when you read Dickens, you feel an imaginative energy which you use to your own ends.” Worth mentioning since many critics reading about Maqroll’s tropical river journeys compare the author to Joseph Conrad but it is Charles Dickens who is the prime influence for Álvaro Mutis.

Turning to The Snow of the Admiral, I’ll never forget in the first pages the narrator relating his purchase of a rare volume from a Barcelona secondhand bookstore only to notice tucked inside the back cover a diary written in tiny, cramped handwriting, a diary written by one Maqroll the Gaviero during his journey up a jungle river.

Likewise, Maqrill’s description of the captain as always semi-inebriated from steady drinking that keeps him in a state of euphoria alternating with a drowsy stupor; the mechanic, an Indian who speaks to the captain in a mixture of different languages; the pilot who reminds Maqroll of a menacing character from Little Dorrit (Álvaro Mutis and his voracious reading of Charles Dickens!); Maqroll’s fellow passenger, a calm blond giant speaking with a Slavic accent.

Or, when one nightfall, after the barge’s propeller hits a root, they’re forced to pull up on a sandy beach and a family of beautiful, tall, naked natives with their hair cut in the shape of a helmet and their teeth filed to points appear unexpectedly. And that night, Maqroll is aroused from a deep sleep by the Indian woman and shortly thereafter enters her and feels himself sinking into a bland, unresisting wax, all the time a putrid stench clinging to his body.

And yet again the way in which Maqroll recalls his own recurrent failures and how he, at least in his own mind, keeps giving destiny the slip. Also the Gaviero's recounting his various vivid dreams and fantasies along with establishing certain precepts, among which “Everything we can say about death, everything we try to embroider around the subject, is sterile, entirely fruitless labor. Wouldn’t it be better just to be quiet and wait? Don’t ask that of humans. They must have a profound need for doom; perhaps they belong exclusively to its kingdom.”

Then there are major episodes of the voyage, among which an old-style Junker seaplane landing near the barge and the appearance of a stern major who immediately takes complete control, the illness of Maqroll himself and his report of the near-death experience, the surprise encounter at Maqroll’s destination far up the jungle river.

But more than anything, the lush, poetic, intoxicating language, the full expanse of what it means to write sublime prose. Obviously, all those year Álvaro Mutis wrote his poetry exerted a profound influence on his writing his novellas. To take but one spectacular sentence as an example:

“I could discover that my true home is up there in the deep ravines where giant ferns sway, in the abandoned mine shafts and the damp, dense growth of the coffee plantings covered in the astonishing snow of their flowers or the red fiesta of their berries, in the groves of plantain trees, with their unspeakably soft trunks and the tender green of their reverent leaves so welcoming, so smooth: in the rivers crashing down against the great sun-warmed boulders, the delight of reptiles that use them for their lovemaking and their silent gatherings; in the dizzying flocks of parrots that fly through the air, as noisy as a departing army, to settle in the tops of the tall cambulo trees.”

After reading The Snow of the Admiral (the name of a memorable eatery for Maqroll, by the way), I was inspired to come up with the following quote: "Great literature is the opium of the book reviewer." I highly recommend joining Maqroll’s trip upriver. Completely addictive.

ILONA COMES WITH THE RAIN (Ilona llega con la lluvia)
This Álvaro Mutis novella, the second in a series of seven forming The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, could carry the subtitle: A Tale of Freedom and Fate. And the more we turn the pages, the deeper we dive into this tale, the progressively more gripping. Since the storyline is simply too good and loaded with too many unexpected twists, I’ll steer clear of plot and offer comments on the following people, places and things:

Frame: The narrator, author of the six chapters we are about to read, recounts his many conversations with Maqroll wherein he would revisit key episodes of the Gaviero’s tale again and again until they were fixed in his memory so he could write in a way that would allow “our friend” to speak directly to the reader. One thing the narrator (who might or might not be Álvaro Mutis himself) takes pains to make clear is the past and future held little consequence for Maqroll; rather, the adventurer gave the impression “his exclusive and absorbing purpose was to enrich the present with everything he happened upon.” To my mind, one of the glories of the human experience: storytelling as enrichment.

Globetrotting Gaviaro: Our protagonist is an adventurer, a radical individualist, which ultimately boils down to life as a solo journey – lovers and friends are embraced at the next port or on the next barge, but when it's time to move on, you travel alone. If there is any one of the seven Álvaro Mutis novellas placing Maqroll's wandering philosophy in bold capital letters, it is Ilona Comes with the Rain.

Colorful Portrayals: Maqroll looks out at the dock in Cristóbal; he’s under the command of a luckless Captain of a dilapidated freighter painted the garish yellow of a yellow-tailed parrot, a captain who is about to have his boat taken away and who goes by the name of Witto - thin, of medium height with bushy brows covering his eyes, a man of slow, precise speech and who bares the mark of defeat, one with a secret emotional disorder who moves through life as if needing to hide a deep, painful psychic wound. Reading Álvaro Mutis is a literary feast – characters, landscapes, city streets, everything described in vibrant, memorable detail.

Panama City: Once in this bustling metropolis, his first time ever, all blaring car horns and howling sirens, Maqroll knows in advance he’ll never encounter anyone he will recognize. All new faces – just the way he likes it. First off, after making arrangements at a not so rundown hotel, he locates an ideal bar, quiet, attentive but not overly talkative bartender and returns to his hotel room drunk that night.

I’ll never forget the Gaviero’s shock the next morning at finding an enormous, naked black woman with Zulu warrior hair asleep beside him. He gives her some money and kicks her out. Ditto the next morning after yet again another drunken night at the bar, only this time she’s a terrified bleach blonde. No money exchanged, Maqroll simply kicks her out and goes down to pay a visit to the concierge. He assures Maqroll it will never happen again. The next week the rainy season hits like a tornado, turning the city streets into impossible to cross rivers. Our adventurer hunkers down in his hotel room and reads. Ah, books to the rescue! Then it happens: paying a visit to one of the city's casinos, he recognizes a past love: the alluring, captivating Ilana.

Ilona: Tall, blonde, athletic, age forty-five, spirited Ilona has a comparable sense of life as an ever expanding adventure. Ilona the Vivacious and Maqroll the Gaviero – quite a team; their common adversary: boredom and monotony. Ilona and Maqroll have rousing success in Panama City (a ton of loot and a ton of fun) operating their new, creative business venture (unique upscale house of prostitution). But they reach a point, surprise, surprise, for restless adventurers, where an added infusion of energy is called for – and they get what they’re after in the form of a beauty with long jet black hair and mysterious past – Larissa.

The Fourth Dimension: At this point Álvaro Mutis kicks his tale into what some might term magical realism or the fantastic or the supernatural. Gripping is understatement. Maqroll is unhinged, as is Ilona; she confides in the Gaviero: “Something in Larissa awakens my demons, those ominous signs in me that I learned to tame when I was a girl, to keep anesthetized so they don’t come up to the surface and put an end to me.”

Coda: As noted above, this novella hits squarely on the philosophical dimensions of fate and freedom. Good luck and bad luck could be added to the mix. With Larissa the stakes are raised. All of a sudden our two adventurers are caught in an episode of life and death. A tale not to be missed.

UN BEL MORIR
The third in a series of seven novellas forming The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by the great Columbian author Álvaro Mutis, the only one in the series not written in intimate first person.

Why the switch in voice? Maqroll is an older man in this tale – a specific age is not given but one can infer the Gaviero is in his sixties. Perhaps an objective third person narrator provides a more panoramic lens, an opportunity to step back and view the arc of Maqroll’s entire life from a distance.

In similar spirit, perhaps also it is no coincidence Un Bel Morir returns to the landscapes of Maqroll's childhood - in and around a river town near coffee plantations nestled in the Andes Mountains, a small town by the name of La Plata (not the city south of Buenos Aires in Argentina). This is a tale of high adventure, a thriller with a cast of colorful characters. Here are several:

Doña Empera: Blind old woman who runs the boardinghouse where Maqroll spends an entire two months lolling about, paying visits to the local tavern or in his room overlooking the gently murmuring, tobacco colored river where he occasionally reads about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi or from a two volume set containing letters of the Prince of Ligne. On occasion the Gaviero will even read aloud to Doña Empera, a trusted and knowledgeable source of information on all matters relating to La Plata, including the young women who come down from the mountains to provide companionship for men.

Anparo Maria: Columbian Aphrodite with a stern, fierce Gypsy air, a lady of few, well-chosen words who hungers for affection. And she receives what she’s after every time she pays a visit to the Gaviero. Is it any surprise this sensual lovely and the aging adventurer form a bond of the heart? At times Anparo Maria reminds Maqroll of Flor Estévez and at others Ilana Grabowska (Readers will be familiar with Flor from The Snow of the Admiral; Ilana from Ilana Comes with the Rain). The Gaviero considers Anparo Maria a gift from the gods, in all likelihood at this point in his life, the last he will receive.

Jan van Branden: Over the course of several evenings between drinks down at the town tavern, this burly red-bearded Belgium talks Maqroll into transporting equipment up a mountain as part of a railroad project. The Galviaro smells a rat. Is van Branden really Belgium? Does he, in fact, have a background in engineering? Are those crates loaded with railroad equipment or something highly illegal and maybe even dangerous? He initially vacillates but ultimately surrenders and accepts the proposition. Hey, the Gaviero might be old but he still has the fire of risk and adventure in his soul. After all, sitting around the boardinghouse reading books to an old blind woman strikes him as a less appealing alternative. He reflects: “The real tragedy of aging lay in the fact that an eternal boy still lives inside us, unaware of the passing of time.”

The Helpers: Rancher Don Anibal offers hospitality and seasoned advice as the Gaviero makes his way up the mountain. There’s danger around every bend. Maqroll is joined by Zuro, a young man who proves an invaluable sidekick, an expert mule driver, desperately needed as mules are carrying the load. On one trek up Zuro warns Maqroll, “Be careful of your sleep senor, Señor. You need to stay alive. In the barrens altitude the exhaustion make you dream a lot. It’s not good for you. You don’t get your strength back, and they’re never good dreams. Just nightmares. I know what I’m talking about: the foreigners who came to try mining all went crazy and tried to murder each other in the tavern or drowned themselves in the whirlpools in the river.”

Men in Uniform: The Gaviero usually has had to deal with both the police and the military at one point or the other during the misadventure part of his adventures. Never a totally satisfying or pleasant experience but Maqroll knows the drill only too well – either cooperate or in all likelihood lose your freedom or even your life. On this mountain adventure it isn’t any different. He’s seen it many times before. He is brought before a Captain Segura who demands his orders be followed without exception and a Captain Ariza who demands he repeat his story over and over without deviating from the truth. Follow orders? Repeat the truth? Fortunately Maqroll the Gaviero comes through as Maqroll the Gaviero – a most satisfying reading experience.

Lastly, permit me to underscore the sumptuous language and exquisite storytelling. There's good reason fans of Maqroll cherish Álvaro Mutis' cycle of seven novellas. And I'm sure Un Bel Morir is high on the list.

Special thanks to Goodreads friend Fionnuala for her engaging review of this book that inspired me to start reading. Link to her review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1297736919?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1


Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, 1923-2013

“Weather is a purely personal matter. There is no such thing as a climate that is cold or hot, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. People take it upon themselves to create a fantasy in their imagination and call it weather. There's only one climate in the world, but the message that nature sends is interpreted according to strictly personal, non-transferable rules.”
― Álvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Mutis displays prevalent talent in the unveiling of the adventures and misadventures of the mysterious Maqroll. There is a richness to Mutis' prose and a depth to his writing that evokes comparisons to Conrad, Neruda, and Whitman. I also felt a Dickensian tone to certain parts, primarily those that came straight from Maqroll.

On the basis of talent alone, it's an awesome book. Maqroll is the gin to Mutis' vermouth, a timeless combination - the perfect dry martini. Layered but smooth enough to carry the reader into the travels of Maqroll. To have those layers, to be able to bring so much into a novella, speaks volumes to Mutis' ability as a stylist.

I wouldn't go so far as to classify Maqroll as a 'hero' though the combined weight of his experiences could certainly outfit the classical epic easily enough. He's a man alone who stumbles into a bunch of things and does whatever comes to mind. It's an interesting read and, as mentioned above, the talent is there. But stretches did become a bit boring. I felt pretty removed from some of his actions which probably fleshes out the root of my remove from his character and from the stories in parts. So I'd say it was Mutis' talent that really kept me into the book at large.

( )
  lamotamant | Sep 22, 2016 |
I found myself reading more slowly as I neared the end of this magnificent book, a collection of seven novellas, because I was reluctant to leave the world of Maqroll the Gaviero (lookout) and his diverse and far-flung friends. In varying styles, including describing Maqroll as a friend who sends him dispatches from around the globe, Mutis presents the tale of an inveterate wanderer, usually by sea, who consistently gets involved in money-making schemes, often not exactly within the law, that come to naught, who is steadfastly loyal to his friends, and who is given to reading historical books and musing philosophically about the important issues of life.

As the novellas progress, the reader becomes more and more familiar with Maqroll and some of the key episodes of his life, although his origins are murky: he travels on a clearly forged Cyrpiot passport but it is unclear where he was born, and the text hints that he had an unhappy childhood and took to a life at sea (as the lookout who climbed the tallest mast) at an extremely early age. He is older when the novellas begin, and to some extent they jump back and forth in time, so the reader has to figure out which adventure or misadventure came first. And because he is older, there is an elegiac if not downright melancholy feel to his thoughts. This is a fascinating work partly because it combines the downright adventurous with an equal helping of philosophy.

So what of his adventures? They range from traveling up a South American river with somewhat sketchy guides to find some lumber mills, starting a brothel using women who pretend to be stewardesses, engaging in a scheme to substitute lower quality oriental rugs for valuable ancient ones, transporting some mysterious boxes for a highly suspicious person, gold mining, and more. One novella focuses on Maqroll's best friend, Abdul Bashur, another inveterate wanderer, who sprang from a Lebanese family of shipbuilders and ship owners, his family, and his search for the perfect ship, and others involve other unforgettable friends of Maqroll, including a variety of strong women who he has been deeply attached to.

Mutis vividly depicts the environment, whether it's the hot, humid, buggy tropics, the cold of Vancouver, or the activity of a Mediterranean port. Above all, the reader gets a feeling for the sea, for life on freighter and other ships, and for the vibrant seediness (and criminality) of port communities. Mutis was a poet (who apparently wrote about Maqroll in poems long before he got the idea of writing a novella about him), but he was also gainfully employed as a publicist for an oil company and then a US film company, so he presumably traveled to many of the places he "traveled" to as a character in some of these novellas.

Maqroll lived a very full life, full of trials, hardships, love, friendship, adventure, stagnancy, but it is his reflections on literature and life, usually dark, that are as compelling if not more so than his adventures. Does he find a little happiness at the end?
8 vote rebeccanyc | Dec 26, 2013 |
The Snow of the Admiral

The Snow of Admiral is the diary of Maqroll’s journey on Xurando` river towards a sawmill.
Everything is real but could be otherwise: as Don Quixote and the windmill, or the quest for Dulcinea.

Metaphysical question, and some answers:
‘The best thing is to let everything happen as it must. That’s right. It’s not a question of resignation. Far from it. It’s something else, something to do with the distance that separates us from everything and everybody. One day we’ll know.’ (page 45)

‘How many wrong turning in a labyrinth where we do everything we can to avoid the exit, how many surprises and then the tedium of learning they weren’t surprises at all, that everything that happens to us has the same face, exactly the same origin.’ (page 62)

‘A woman’s body under the rush of a mountain waterfall, her brief cries of surprise and joy, the movement of her limbs in the rapid foam that carries red coffee berries, sugarcane pulp, insects struggling to escape the current: this is the exemplary happiness, that surely never comes again.’ (page 17)

Eventually Maqroll comes to the sawmill:
‘And again, in the fading afternoon light, the enormous metal structure was surrounded by a golden halo that made it look unreal.’ (page 70)

**************************************************​

Ilona Comes with the Rain

Ilona comes with the rain, and goes with the fire.

‘Somewhere in his soul he bore the mark of the defeated that isolated them irremediably from other men.’ (page 105)

The adventures (and misadventures) of Maqroll this time are set in Panama City.
As always in Maqroll’s life, when the bottom is very close, he meets an old friend, Ilona: so Maqroll’s adventures start again.

Maqroll and Ilona start a business of ‘stewardesses’. After a while, of course, they become bored of this way of life and also another woman, Larissa appears to remind them about finitude of life.

Maqroll’s adventures are always mixed with the idea of humankind without borders, distances, as a world waiting for this character to start running its soul.

**************************************************​

UN BEL MORIR
(or A Beautiful Death)

‘I imagine a Country, a blurred, fogbound Country, an enchanted magical Country where I could live.
What Country, where? …
Not Mosul or Basra or Samarkand. Not Karlskrona or Abylund or Stockholm or Copenhagen. Not Kazan or Kanpur or Aleppo. Not in lacustrian Venice or chimerical Istanbul, not on the Ile-de-France or in Tours or Stratford-on Avon or Weimar or Yasnaia Poliana or in the baths of Algiers.’ (page 286)

The Gaviero takes lodging in La Plata and finds a room in the house of a blind woman. Under his room, the river: ‘The room resembled a cage suspended over the gently murmuring, tobacco-colored water …’ (page 193)
Quiet living is not for the Gaviero, so he is hired to transport supposed railway materials upriver. The job turns out to be very dangerous, and ‘His wide-open eyes were fixed on that nothingness, immediate and anonymous, …’ (page 294)

The Gaviero’s question, where ‘I could live?’, has only one answer: everywhere, and always with water (a river or the ocean) which faces and leads to another place.

**************************************************​

THE TRAMP STEAMER’S LAST PORT OF CALL

Alvaro Mutis tells about his ‘meetings’ with a dying tramp steamer, the Halcyon, all around the world.
‘The tramp steamer entered my field of vision as slowly as a wounded saurian. I could not believe my eyes. With the wondrous splendor of Saint Petersburg in the back ground, the poor ship intruded on the scene.’ (page 301)

The tramp steamer as a talking soul suggests to Alvaro Mutis about ‘the world of dreams and fantasy’.
But ‘Life often renders its accounts, and it is advisable not to ignore them. They are a kind of bill presented to us so that we will not become lost deep in the world of dreams and fantasy, unable to find our way back to the warm, ordinary sequence of time where our destiny truly occurs.’ (page 302)

The bill is presented to Alvaro Mutis in form of the Halcyon’s captain; who recounts his love affair with Warda, and the Halcyon.

Warda is the sister of Abdul Bashur, close friend of the Gaviero.
Abdul Bashur warns the Halcyon’s captain: ‘What you two (Warda and the captain) have will last as long as the Halcyon.‘ (page 349)

Alvaro Mutis needed to know Halcyon or the idyllic time of the past.

**************************************************​
1 vote GrazianoRonca | Feb 5, 2011 |
You've found one of the best books written - now read it ! ( )
3 vote Ianaf | Dec 6, 2010 |
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I thought that the writings, letters, documents, tales, and memoirs of Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) had all passed through my hands, and that those who knew of my interest in the events of his life had exhausted their search for written traces of his unfortunate wanderings, but fate held in store a curious surprise just when it was least expected.
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7 novellas: "La Nieve del Almirante"; "Ilona llega con la lluvia"; "Un bel morir"; "La última escala del Tramp Steamer"; "Amirbar"; "Abdul Bashur, soñador de navíos"; "Tríptico de mar y tierra"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940322919, Paperback)

Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis's seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman's prize-winning translation.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:42 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute." "Alvaro Mutis's seven chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman's prize-winning translation."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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