Posts Tagged ‘NYRB

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.

18
Mar
14

What A Bitch: My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

My Dog TulipMy Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

A month or two ago, my dog died. He was about 15 years old and admittedly in rough shape near the end, having accidents in the house and spending most of his days sleeping. Still, it’s hard to let go and a couple of days after his passing, I found myself looking for a good book about a dog. Eventually I ended up with JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an amusing, fun account of life with a skittish, freewheeling German Shepherd. And although it’s a nice read, I can see why it’d also turn some readers off.

For many years, Ackerley was an editor at The Listener, a magazine published by the BBC. In his lifetime he wrote a handful of memoirs – Hindoo Holiday, My Father and Myself – and a novel, We Think the World of You, which prominently features a dog. I think it’s safe to say he was a dog lover, or at least that he loved one dog in particular: Tulip, a German Shepard he insists is more intelligent, beautiful and interesting than the average mutt.

He let her do whatever she pleased, more or less. When they went for a walk, Tulip was off-the-leash, roaming around as she pleased to sniff, scratch and take a crap. If people didn’t like, tough on them. Take this exchange from when a passing bicyclist yells at Ackerley:

“Try taking your dog off the sidewalk to mess!”

“What, to be run over by you? Try minding your own business!”

“I am an’ all,” he bawled over his shoulder, “What’s the bleeding street for?”

“For turds like you!,” I retorted. (pg. 33)

Turds come up in more ways than one, since what this book does best is what some people hate about it: its utter frankness. Ackerley never minces his words, describing Tulip in startling detail: her rambunctious attitude, her fur coat, her bowel movements and her heats. He never once tries to turn her into a human, but never treats her flippantly, either. It’s a full portrait of a canine, warts and all.

Well, sort of. While Ackerley never hides how naughty she was – “I never knew you friendly before,” says one anonymous person when approached by a subdued Tulip – apparently he’s also got the blinders on, too. Sure, he mentions how she takes a dump in front of a greengrocer, chases and kills a rabbit or bites a bus driver, but according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ introduction, that’s not the half of it. In real life, Tulip was often so wild Ackerley’s friends stopped inviting him over since he always brought the dog.

But then again, Ackerley was utterly devoted to her and tried to make her life as happy as he could. He tried to find her a “husband,” so she could experience being a mother and he nurses her (and the pups) to health. He takes her for long walks in the woods and along the riverside, even takes her inside the pub when he gets a Sunday pint. When she does something bad, he occasionally yells and gives her a swat, but all she has to do is look at him with her and he just about melts. Truthfully, I did, too.

A note about context: this book is mostly set in the mid-to-late 1940s. This was a time when you fed your dog table scraps (or, as Ackerley does, raw meat), and before getting your dog spayed or neutered was a common practice. I’ve seen more than a few people cringe when Ackerley debates his options with puppies (does he do The Dark Deed, as he calls it?), but such a practice was hardly unknown then – and besides, all the pups get a home, anyway.

Rating: 6/10. I liked this a lot: it’s insistence on a total portrait, its frank language and utter devotion to Tulip. Ackerley certainly loved his dog. But I can see those very same things turning people off, too. This is one of those books that either clicks immediately or repels you. Maybe it was a matter of timing, but it clicked with me.




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