Second Glance: The Conrad Connection
by Álvaro Mutis
NYRB Classics, 2002
You would think being compared — favorably compared — to Joseph Conrad is no bad deal for a writer, but the Colombian novelist and poet Álvaro Mutis is on record as being less than entirely pleased with the blurb writer’s meme that gets fastened onto his books with the implacability of a bar code. “Yes, I’ve read Heart of Darkness,” he grumbles. “It’s about a boat going upriver, and so is my story, The Snow of the Admiral. If I had known what I was letting myself in for, I would have had that boat go downriver.”
Which is a joke, of course, and no one knows it better than Mutis, who has acknowledged that “Conrad is my father, the gentleman who knows all there is to know about me, and what’s very odd, every time some new book or research paper comes out, the closer to me he seems.” That can be taken with as much irony as you please but the jury that in 2001 awarded Mutis the Cervantes Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to literature in Spanish would doubtless agree that the paternal influence has been positive.
Critical creds notwithstanding, it has to be admitted that actual paying readers are scarce on the ground, even in the quantitatively vast, bring-on-the-serious-stuff Spanish-language market, and the same goes for the skillful but rather free English versions crafted by Edith Grossman of Mutis’ seven loosely-connected novellas detailing the wanderings, “enterprises” and “tribulations” of an intellectually over-qualified merchant seaman known as Maqroll the Gaviero.
This is where you are supposed to say “Okay, I give up, what’s a gaviero?” It’s an archaic word for the lookout on a sailing ship who scans the horizon from the top of the mainsail (gavia). As can be imagined, they are about as common nowadays as four-masted barks and square riggers, yet Maqroll is supposed to be a contemporary figure. Most odd.
What else do we know about the lead character? Well, nothing, really. Not a single one of the attributes dignified in English with a capital letter is made clear to the reader: his full name, nationality, and status (he seems to be neither officer nor ordinary seaman). We get no clue as to his muttersprache, age or physical characteristics, other than note taken of a scar on his right cheek where he was grazed by a bullet fired by an obese dwarf in a Mindanao brothel. Take away the specificity that makes a somebody and what’s left over is a modern Everyman.
After a lifetime of “mad and illusory” pursuits, the seventh and last novella in the sequence finds Maqroll working as a caretaker at an abandoned shipyard. It’s an unlikely finale for the character we have seen in the six previous episodes working an abandoned gold mine spiked with dead bodies, or as manager of a brothel in Panama where the ladies dress up in the uniforms of air hostesses, or as a gun runner in the Levant, or a smuggler in Morocco, or dredging the St Lawrence River, among a great many close shaves, unmitigated disasters and disappointments leading up to “that pious nothing that is required to shelter us all.”
In the meantime, he has been vagabundeando like his ancestor, Ulysses, with interruptions that allow momentary surcease from the inevitability of the sea and the opportunity to enjoy close friendships and the embraces of women. More than simply offering sexual easement, Flor Estevez, Iona Grabowska, and the unnerving Larissa, who is possessed (in every sense of the word) by ghosts, are the source of earthy wisdom and guarantors that the certainties Maqroll cannot believe in will someday be revealed to him.
Not until the end of his life does he form a deep personal attachment, with the orphaned son of the man who had been his lifelong best friend, a connection that “brought him to a kind of serene acceptance of the arduous path of his destiny and led him to follow, to its ultimate consequences, his doctrine of embracing without reservation the high secrets of the unnamable.” Maqroll has learned a thing or two about the paths along which his own existence must be directed, and shares them with the reader:
In the ruins of the Krak of the Knights of Rhodes, standing on a cliff near Tripoli, a nameless tombstone bears this inscription: “This was not where.” Not a day goes by that I don’t think about those words. They’re so clear, and at the same time they contain all the mystery it is our lot to endure.
A caravan doesn’t symbolize or represent anything. Our mistake is to think it’s going somewhere, leaving somewhere. The caravan exhausts its meaning by merely moving from place to place. The animals in the caravan know this, but the camel drivers don’t. It will always be this way.
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.
If those bespoke aphorisms sound much like paraphrases of the “meaning” of a poem, it is no coincidence. Mutis is a very fine poet with a remarkable oeuvre extending over six decades (he’s coming up on 90 next year) and confident enough of his mastery to allow himself be directly influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud (French is his first language). In the words of Octavio Paz: “Mutis is one of the rarest breeds of poets in Spanish, full of riches, yet devoid of ostentation and extravagance.”
As long ago as 1953, Maqroll begins appearing intermittently in Mutis’ verse as a first-person voice differentiated from the poet’s own. But Maqroll did not get transposed to the key of narrative prose until 1986 when Mutis concluded that his existential predicaments raised more questions than could be properly addressed in a poem. Try imagining T.S. Eliot writing novels about J. Alfred Prufrock and you get the idea.
Mutis’ extra-poetic “undertakings” include being head of public relations for Standard Oil’s Latin American operations and a senior executive for other big US multinationals. He dubbed voices for The Untouchables TV series. In 1956, Esso accused him of misappropriating money set aside for cultural good works, so he decamped to Mexico, only to wind up jailed for 15 months in that country’s notorious Lecumberri prison. One of the world’s worst penal hellholes, Lecumberri has the distinction of having incarcerated both Pancho Villa (who escaped) and William Burroughs (who didn’t, and probably had a very nice time there).
There are problems, though, in reading Mutis. The Spanish prose is beautifully written. But it’s very hard, sometimes, to take Maqroll and his friends all that seriously. Not just because we come up against a blank slate where we were expecting a conventionally realistic character, endowed with a core personality. Maqroll is all attitude and circumstances, and what little we do know about him doesn’t make it any easier believe in him, or if we do manage to believe in him, to know what to make of him.
Look at all those coincidences. Over the years, Mutis and Maqroll keep on running into each other in places like the grubby motel near Northridge, California, the city where Mutis just happens to be visiting his brother. Mutis goes into a Barcelona bookshop and acquires a copy of the Enquêt du prévôt de Paris sur l’assessinat de Louis, Duc de Orleans, published by the Bibliothèque de l’Ecole de Chartres in 1865 and lo, sewn into the binding is the handwritten manuscript in which Maqroll recounts his latest adventure.
Consider Maqroll’s own reading habits. He reaches into “the deep pocket of his seaman’s coat” and pulls out the “Memoirs du Cardinal de Retz, the beautiful 1719 edition in four volumes published in Amsterdam by J.F. Bernard and H. de Sauzety. One of the volumes was always with Maqroll and the others lay in his eternal duffel bag.” He obsessively re-reads Chateaubriand’s Memoirs d’outretombe in “an ordinary edition, with the yellow covers of the Classiques Garnier.” And instead of dirty pictures and the odd volume of Ken Follett that any other merchant seaman would have in his kit, between shipboard watches he delves into the letters of the Prince de Ligne, Joergensen’s Life of St. Francis and Gabory on the wars of the Vendée.
This sort of thing puts me in mind of another merchant sailor whose pockets are as deep as his ways mysterious, only what he usually pulls out of them is a can of spinach. Which is the more preposterous of the two?
In several of the Maqroll tales, the author powerfully evokes a little-known South American landscape, the cocoa and coffee-growing “hot lands” of Colombia’s cordillera central whose slopes are scored by steep, torrential rivers. Its lush, temperate beauty, which Mutis got to know as a child, has nothing in common with the humid, hellish upriver tropics where the worst instincts in human nature are bred and nurtured. Just like, let’s say for the sake of argument, in Heart of Darkness.
By the same token, Mutis (or his biographical doppelgänger) is also the framing narrator who repackages the story to enhance it with glosses that challenge, confirm or expound on its significance. It’s the same device utilized by Joseph Conrad in the four works narrated viva voce by veteran ship’s officer Marlow. But Marlow is passive, a clearing house for fragments of information and speculation about the experiences of others from which he tries to arrive at a sense of the “moral order” behind all things.
“Yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical,” Conrad says “[...] and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”
Maqroll is a lot like that, too, though far from passive. Behind his musings on life and destiny there must lie a secret. A secret identity, if you will. In his earlier incarnation, he could also have been a voracious young reader, one that spent his second mate’s wages on Sartor Resartus and Byron’s complete works.
At the same time, he has abandoned his former pose of prissy expertise on the subject of woman and struck up an acquaintance with women, plural. Kurtz’s native mistress, the “savage and superb” example of womanhood whom he once observed with appalled bewilderment at the Inner Station, has ceased to be a “wild and gorgeous apparition” to him. The women who now share his bed are even more formidable and empowered, and that’s the way he likes them.
Far up the Congo River, he ”peeped over the edge” to observe the face of “heroic nihilism” from up close and decided to live his life accordingly. And one more thing: he’s a pretty deft hand at telling tales. Of course, that’s Marlow. How could he have returned from “one of the dark places of the earth” after witnessing “the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself” and just keep on being the same person? He couldn’t. He didn’t. He had to become Maqroll.
Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid.