Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Alvaro Mutis: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll

John Updike reviews Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.
The problem of energy, in this enervated postmodern era, keeps arising in Mutis's pursuit of a footloose, offhandedly erudite, inexplicably attractive shady character. A lowly seaman with some high-flying acquaintances on land, Maqroll is a drifter who tends to lose interest in his adventures before the dénouement is reached. Readers even slightly acquainted with Latin-American modernism will hear echoes of Borges's cosmic portentousness, of Julio Cortázar's fragmenting ingenuities, of Machado De Assis's crisp pessimism, and of the something perversely hearty in Mutis's fellow-Colombian and good friend Gabriel García Márquez—a sense of genial amplitude, as when a ceremonious host sits us down to a lunch provisioned to stretch into evening. Descriptions of food consumed and of drinks drunk, amid flourishes of cosmopolitan connoisseurship, are frequent in Mutis, even as the ascetic Maqroll goes hungry. North Americans may be reminded of Melville—more a matter, perhaps, of affinity than of influence. Gaviero in Spanish means "lookout"; Maqroll was one as a boy, in his first years at sea—"I had to climb to the top of the tallest mast and tell the crew what was on the horizon"—and 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." Both writers, through their wayfaring alter egos, stubbornly stare at a universe that, though apparently devoid of God, seems still to brim with obscure metaphysical import. "And some certain significance lurks in all things," Ishmael reasons, "else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher."
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