Maqroll: Three Novellas
The Snow of the Admiral/
Ilona Comes With the Rain/Un Bel Morir
by Álvaro Mutis
“Life always holds in store surprises that are more complex and unforeseeable than any dream, and the secret is to let them come and not block them with castles in the air.” - Alvaro Mutis
If ever there was an original and charismatic hero it's Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). In this book over the course of three novellas he is introduced as an adventurer, sailor, lover, friend, and entrepreneur. Like the famous Odysseus he is a man of many sides and ways. In fact his character seems born of the lineage of Odysseus or Don Quixote or any of the sailors that inhabit the novels of Joseph Conrad. As with many a hero, one of Maqroll's strengths is simple knowledge: he's been everywhere, met everyone, has a memory or story for every occasion. Maqroll seems to be from the mold of characters created by B. Traven; Maqroll takes the world as known and thus no one's, with nothing to offer but memories of what's been lost and anticipations of the losses to come. He's much more Marlow than Indiana Jones, more fatalist than flaneur.
These three novellas describe his ventures that range from smuggling rugs in Alicante, to managing a brothel in Panama, to involvement, unintentional as it may be, with guerillas in South America. What makes these adventures stand out is not only the character and actions of Maqroll but the background of these episodes that benefit from the prose of Alvaro Mutis. He brings the rivers and the jungles to life along with the indigenous characters that inhabit them. The impressions of places including a coastal town and a decaying jungle settlement are inhabited by fascinating characters like the captains of the ships on which Maqroll sails or the beautiful and enigmatic Larissa who provides the intrigue for one of the novellas.
In "The Snow of the Admiral", after a brief introduction by the author, the story is told through entries in Maqroll's diary describing a trip up a river in some unnamed country. Maqroll is unique in the wealth of knowledge and experience he displays, especially the breadth of his reading; he reads every chance he gets, and in his very first entry he makes an offhand reference to Dicken's Little Dorrit. He ends his first diary entry with the following curious remark:
"It's all absurd, and I'll never understand why I set out on this enterprise. It's always the same at the start of a journey. Then comes a soothing indifference that makes everything all right. I can't wait for it to arrive."
Through the diary entries we see more aspects of his character. He attended a Jesuit Academy which tells you a lot about his education and his seemingly unorthodox discipline. In addition to his reading I liked his philosophical or thoughtful side as seen in this example of what he calls a "precept":
"Thinking about time, trying to find out if past and future are valid and, in fact, exist, leads us into a labyrinth that is no less incomprehensible for being familiar."
Moments later, after several more examples, he calls them all "fake pearls born of idleness and the obligatory wait for the current to change its mood". They are all the more fascinating nonetheless.
Weeks into the trip he speaks with a Major who tells him, "There's no mystery in the jungle, regardless of what some people think. That's its greatest danger. It's just what you've seen, no more, no less. Just what you see now. Simple, direct, uniform, malevolent. Intelligence is blunted here and time is confused, laws are forgotten, joy is unknown, and sadness has no place."
Following the diary entries the novella concludes with four appendix-like sections, one of which gives the novella its name, all introduced with the simple line, "Further information concerning Maqroll the Gaviero". In one of these sections he visits the Aracuriare Canyon where he builds a hut and stays for a time. "the Gaviero began an examination of his life, a catalogue of his miseries, his mistakes, his precarious joys and confused passions. He resolved to go deep into this task, and his success was so thorough and devastating that he rid himself completely of the self who had accompanied him all his life, the one who has suffered all the pain and difficulty. . . .
But as he faced that absolute witness of himself, he also felt the serene, ameliorating acceptance he had spent so many years searching for in the fruitless symbols of adventure."
There are two further novellas in this collection, and a second volume by Mutis that contains four additional novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero, an astonishingly unique adventurer.