The Adventures of Maqroll: Four Novellas :
Amirbar/the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call/
Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships/
Triptych on Sea and Land
by Álvaro Mutis
"the Gaviero was an insatiable reader, a tireless and lifelong consumer of books. This was his only pastime, not for literary reasons but because of a need to stove off somehow the tireless rhythm of his wandering and the unpredictable outcome of his voyages."
The Adventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s a collection of novellas that include adventure stories populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.
The book isn’t a novel, but a collection of four novellas (there are three additional novellas in the collection entitle simply Maqroll) about Maqroll the Gaviero, written by Álvaro Mutis, who is, according to the introduction and the book jacket, one of Latin America’s finest poets and best friend of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A gaviero is the ship’s lookout, the sailor tasked with sitting atop the masts scanning the horizon. His eyes must always be active. He must be alert to the nuances of the sea and the capabilities of his vessel. It was not lost on this reader that Melville's Ishmael, too, was a topman, feeling himself, "a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts," and revolving within himself "the problem of the universe."
Mutis is present in these stories, but in a passive role, as reporter of the Gaviero’s adventures. Narrated in no particular order, selected so as to highlight Maqroll’s insatiable desire for experience, each story alludes to many imagined but unwritten characters, places, and events. We’re left with an incomplete impression of a rogue’s beautiful life—Mutis’s ode to his notion of the romantic seafaring gypsy.
The Gaviero is part of a group of wanderers who fascinate those who task themselves with creating whatever literature might be: the heirs of Odysseus and Jason, spies, pirates, and cowboys who abide the outrageous and rely as much on apathy as on strength in order to avoid the nooses and axes wielded by their enemies.
The Gaviero is not a symbol. He is a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability. Barkeeps lose a new friend and a good source of business when he leaves town, and one woman always sits in the main room of her home, wondering whether anything she has given will supplement his resolve. He enjoys good food, uncomplicated wine, and the company of interesting friends. The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.
Among the novellas in this collection I particularly enjoyed "the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call" and "Abdul Bashar, Dreamer of Ships". Bashar was as interesting a character as Maqroll himself, described as having "strong, bony hands [that] moved with a singular elegance that has nothing to do with affectation, although these movements never corresponded to his words. It was vaguely disconcerting, as if his double, crouching there inside him and obeying an indecipherable code, had decided to express himself on his own. For this reason, Abdul Bashar's presence always aroused disquiet combined with sympathetic feelings for the captive who could make his presence felt only in gestures of a rare distinction, which were not those of the real person talking to us."
The first novella in the collection, "Amirbar", concludes with an appendix: "The Gaviero's Reading". I mentioned in my review of Maqroll that he was a great reader and this appendix provides detail about some of his favorite books. They are all antique, recondite works that I had never heard of (however upon researching the names and authors I found they were real and not fictional creations). They are among the books mentioned in passing in the other novellas, however the appendix provided not only the names but some details about the nature of each book.
This is a delightful book, but not necessarily a happy one. The Gaviero symbolizes the difficulty of attempting to internalize the good while accepting the inevitability of the bad, the chance to create the type of death we envision for ourselves, one with as many or as few regrets as our daily lives will tolerate. He seems to lead a life of adventure that would be possible only for a fantastic twentieth century romantic.
Mutis, himself a thorough Romantic, compels his readers, through the Gaviero, to examine our reasons for despondency, and instructs us to cherish our innate ability to fall in love with the world and with each other. This collection is an exhortation, a reminder that circumstances change but that innocent pleasures are abundant, available, and free.