08
Jul
14

Jungles, Oceans, and the Lookout: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

He travels with a shady Cypriot passport, takes odd jobs at sea and travels with almost nothing but the clothes on his back and a hardcover book or two. Money, friends, adventure all slip through his fingers. He’s known throughout the world, but his full name never gets mentioned. He’s just Maqroll or The Gaverio: the lookout.

Throughout this book the Gaverio gets involved in arm smuggling, gold mines, a brothel and sawmills, often barely escaping with his life. Yet the stories are never as action-driven as you’d think: Maqroll drifts along, like a boat travelling with the current, getting himself wrapped up with a weary resignation. He doesn’t impose himself on his surrounding, but before long, he’s impossible to miss.

Maqroll’s not a person who elicits an easy description. There are shades of Conrad’s Marlow, but unlike him, the Gaviero retains his wits even as his adventures descend into chaos. Don Quixote also comes to mind: like Maqroll, he roams the world for adventure. But unlike Cervantes’ book, this is neither a satire nor a cruel joke. It’s more melancholy (although I should note, it’s never sad. It’s often quite fun, actually). Maqroll stands alone, an attitude I think he’d agree with; he certainly seems to prefer his own company.

The one person who kept coming to mind is German director Werner Herzog, who seems to share similar opinions on humanity and the jungle. It’s not hard to imagine him reading some of Maqroll’s lines:

“Sometimes I think this land is so good it makes certain people angry… They shoot, they burn and they leave. They’re all the same. Things are quiet now. Who knows how long it’ll last.”

But he’s not the only compelling character here. He’s often accompanied by Abdul Bashur, a merchant who dreams of finding the perfect tramp steamship, or Ilona, an Italian woman who comes up with the ideas. Their schemes often run just a shade to the illegal– they range from running a brothel where the women dress like stewardesses to making signal flags for smugglers – but they’re not bad people, just ones with a sliding sense of morality.

For me, the most striking section of the book comes with that brothel, an idea born of a desperate need for money and a sudden insight, but quickly spirals out of control and ends in disaster. But there are others: a visit to a drug kingpin in the jungle, multiple run-ins with guerrillas and military intelligence, even an attempt as babysitting. And even at 700 pages, I was left wanting more.

By book’s end, you feel like you know the Gaviero intimately. His loves, his losses, his taste in books (and booze, especially; he loves his drinks and especially to experiment for the perfect martini) and why he has such a melancholy outlook on people.

Before he turned to writing novels, Mutis was a poet. His prose retains shades of that: it has a flowing feel, which carries the reader along without them noticing they’re reading page-long paragraphs. Maqroll likes to speak in images and fragments, making book occasionally spiky and illusionary with flashes of insight: lines painted on the wall, conversations where people are really speaking about something else, etc. Kudos to Edith Grossman’s translation, which never lags or feels like it’s trying to compensate for something missing. Given the varying ways Mutis narrates his action – sometimes in the first person, other times as a diary or epistolary – this was no easy task.

Rating: 8/10. Mutis died a little less than a year ago, leaving behind a long legacy as a poet and novelist. I’m not as familiar with the poetry (it looks a little hard to come by in english), but this weighty volume is an ideal a way to honour the man’s work and a great read to boot.

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