At the end of The Snow of the Admiral, the first novella to feature Maqroll the Gaviero, or “Lookout,” the hero finds himself presiding over the remote café of Flor Estévez, “the woman who understood him best and shared the exaggerated scope of his dreams.” Situated high on a plateau, the roadside stop has a dramatic bathroom—patrons, mainly passing truckers, must walk out onto a jerry-built deck and urinate into the ravine below, which is so deep that they can’t hear their pee hitting ground. It is only fitting that an “uncommon urinal” so perched should have such elevated bathroom graffiti, a sample of which succinctly lays out the ethos behind the Gaviero’s adventures: “I am the disordered creator of the most obscure routes, the most secret moorings. Their uselessness, their undiscovered location are what feed my days.” Unlike other epic heroes, Maqroll is armed only with a small collection of treasured books and a confidence that a hidden world of signs will reveal itself to him in due time.
Maqroll’s creator, the Colombian Álvaro Mutis, died last year at the age of 90 in Mexico City after a long career as a television executive, poet and, later, writer of the acclaimed Maqroll novellas, best known to American readers as collected in the NYRB Clasics edition The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I can think of no better way to honor both the man and his singular hero possessed of an “incurable wanderlust” and a “vocation for defeat” than by quoting the latter’s bathroom graffiti, bits of wisdom written by the Gaviero in his seclusion. Some of these are gnomic: “Two metals exist that prolong life and sometimes grant happiness. Not gold or silver or anything else you can imagine. I only knew they exist.” Some convey practical advice: “Follow the ships. Follow the routes plowed by worn, melancholy vessels…Deny all shores.” And as befitting the long tradition of outhouse scribblings, women do come up, though in keeping with the fundamental gentillesse du coeur that defines Maqroll and his band of conspirators (no matter how shady their dealings), the tone is reverential:
Women never lie. Truth always points from the most secret folds of their bodies. Our lot is to interpret it with an implacable paucity. Many men never can and die in the inescapable blindness of their senses.
Needless to say, there are no phone numbers provided.
The Snow of the Admiral was spun out from a short prose poem. (Maqroll was conceived in poetry, a recurring character in Mutis’ poems before featuring in his prose works.) The novella describes Maqroll’s eerie journey up a fictional South American river and into “the half-light of the immeasurable jungle’s vegetation.” His scheme is to buy timber at a remote sawmill, whose location and very existence are in doubt, then sail it downriver to sell it a higher price.
Maqroll realizes at journey’s beginning that it is bound to end poorly, and thus the drama lies less in the specific plot turns of the disastrous adventure than in the otherworldliness of the tableaus: a nightmarish orgy involving an Indian family and a Slavic “blond giant”; the life-threatening fever contracted from the encounter; the harrowing upstream navigation of the rapids in the barely functioning boat, preceded by a “barbaric” litany recited by its alcoholic captain; the sawmill in the middle of nowhere, no less illusory for being real, a “floating Gothing marvel of aluminum and glass lit by that morguish light and lulled by the gentle hum of its electrical plant”; and Maqroll’s return to the isolated café, where he pauses for several years, spiritually exhausted and nursing a suppurating wound on his leg, a stoic Philoctetes in exile.
Over the next six books, a group of elect gathers around Maqroll, confreres whom John Updike astutely referred to as a kind of Arthurian roundtable: the Lebanese Abdul Bashur, partner in many adventures, the glamorous Ilona, the narrator, a zealous collector of all things Maqroll, and Alejandro Obregón, the expansive artist who seeks to paint the wind that Gaviero the Lookout has “so often watched as it comes toward the sails and then changes direction and never arrives.”
There are schemes aplenty: counterfeit rugs, arms running, gold mining, a timber operation run from the middle of a rain forest, a Panama City brothel staffed by fake airline stewardesses, signal flags to facilitate pirate communications and a Quixotic quest to buy the perfect tramp steamer of one’s dreams. Moreover, casual references to past adventures and doomed schemes, some eventually recounted, some destined to remain untold, are dropped like loose debris from a speeding flatbed truck.
Yet throughout the series, there is an ever-present tension between the limitless fund of stories accreting around Maqroll and his realization that all of his projects “empty into the same mudhole of ennui and bad luck.” Indeed, the serial production of the novellas works in some way to support Maqroll’s fatalistic contention that it’s all one story, that all men act the same, from the grand machinations of petty criminals to the petty machinations of the grand historical figures whom he reads about. (Maqroll’s journal in The Snow of the Admiral is discovered tucked away in a copy of Paul Raymond’s investigation into the assassination of Louis Duc d’Orléans in 1407.)
The recurring character needs to be both sharply delineated and a bit of a blank. The weary but charismatic Maqroll develops a cult of personality even as he refuses to impose his will on the adventures in which he becomes embroiled with “suspicious ease”:
The presence of danger, unspecified but obvious, plunged him into an all too familiar state of mind: ennui, a weary tedium that invited him to admit defeat, to halt the passage of his days, for they were all marked by a kind of venture in which someone else always profited, took the initiative, forced him into the role of the innocent dupe who served other people’s purposes without realizing it.
That word innocent stands out in regard to a man, however duped, is nonetheless so experienced, so thoughtful about life and so well read in history. But as his painter friend clarifies in a different adventure, Maqroll is an innocent in the Russian sense of the word, “which means vigilant servants of truth. And that’s the most dubious state there is for people.”
This “dubious state” perhaps explains Maqroll’s love affair with the past. Maqroll is a historical character, not in the sense of having actually lived but in his near Quixotic belief that he belongs to another, nobler age: “Maqroll’s ability to enter fully into another time, a world so foreign to the present, had often saved him from succumbing to the tribulations brought on by his nomadic calling.” Arrested after a brawl in Canada and asked what he does for a living, he tells that police only that he is “a Chouan lost in the twentieth century.” (A Chouan is a member of the 18th century, pro-royalist reaction to the French Revolution.) He gets a day in the cooler for his impertinence, though his curious admission is in some ways more revealing than the information on his forged Cypriot passport.
Maqroll’s sense of historical displacement, of “living in a time completely alien to [his] interests and tastes,” takes another form in Mutis’ nostalgia for tramp steamers, particularly those pieces of “nomadic sea trash” whose obsolescence only heighten their mythic allure. In The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, the narrator encounters such a ship in Helsinki, the first of several encounters all over the world with the dilapidated yet dignified vessel. He immediately feels a
…warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world’s seas.
As with Maqroll’s adventures, the tramp steamer’s demise is evident from the start; it is so covered in grime that its name, Halycon, must be inferred from the few visible letters. That end, when it does come during a storm, is memorable and violent, “like watching a prehistoric beast being torn to pieces by a voracious, inescapable enemy.”
Mutis could never bring himself to finish his hero off so definitively. Death, the one experience exotic enough to rescue Maqroll form his “mudhole of ennui,” is the Gaviero’s constant, tantalizing companion. In The Snow of the Admiral, Maqroll muses: “Perhaps my own death is beginning now. I don’t dare think about this too much.” And over the next six adventures, he is half in love with easeful death; his “nomadic mania” is an extended trial, less a series of discrete tests than a lifelong readying for the right death:
Each of us is cultivating, selecting, watering, pruning, shaping our own death. When it comes, it takes many forms, but its origin, the moral and even aesthetic circumstances that ought to shape it, is what really matters and makes it not tolerable, which is very rare, but at least harmonious with certain secret, profound conditions, certain requirements that have been forged by our being during the time of its existence and outlined by transcendent, ineluctable powers.
Maqroll’s is an “irredeemable odyssey” precisely because it will be redeemed in a different sense — not via a homecoming or a spectacular success, but through a lifelong, moral, and aesthetic commitment to “reckless wandering.” Now does the meaning of Maqroll’s “vocation for defeat” become clear; his is a vocation in the earliest sense, a spiritual calling, the resistance to becoming a protagonist in the “old, tired story of the men who try to beat life.” In a way, Maqroll lives to die.
And “die” he does throughout the novellas, multiple times, in multiple ways, his supposed end recounted by multiple sources of varying trustworthiness (including an account by Garcia Marquez, a good friend of Mutis’s). But a definitive notice proves elusive and he keeps coming back:
Artists and adventurers tend to plan their end so it can never be clearly deciphered by others. It is a privilege that has been theirs since the days of Orpheus the thaumaturge and the ingenious Ulysses…
It is no wonder then that on the scraps of paper collected by his chronicler on which Maqroll writes his adventures, his handwriting resembles Dracula’s Transylvanian scrawl. Like the famed vampire, Gaviero is immortal, and everyone around him knows it: “‘It doesn’t matter that you’ll die one day like the rest of us. That doesn’t change anything. You’re immortal for as long as you live.’”