In my recent review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion, I noted the paucity of Mutis’ writing available in English. Basically, there is Maqroll and not much else. From what I understand, much of what would remain of Mutis’ writing to be published in an English-language edition would be his poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero.”But there is also Mutis’ account of his time in Lecumberri, a Mexico City prison, after being accused of fraud by his employer Standard Oil in Columbia. Mutis would write, “I never would have managed to write a single line about Maqroll el Gaviero, who has accompanied me here and there in my poetry, had I not lived those fifteen months in the place they call, with singular precision, ‘the Black Palace.'”Mutis’ account, The Diary of Lecumberri, was published in 1959 by the Universidad Veracruzana and reprinted by Alfaguara in 1997.In 1999, a journal called Hopscotch translated and published a substantial excerpt of The Diary of Lecumberri, which is available as a PDF. Also included are a petition to the President for Mutis’ release penned by Octavio Paz and several letters that Mutis wrote to the journalist Elena Poniatowska from prison.When things go bad in jail, when someone or something manages to break the closed procession of days and shuffles and tumbles them in a disorder coming from outside, when this happens, there are certain infallible symptoms, certain preliminary signs that announce the imminence of bad days. In the morning, at the first roll, a thick taste of rag dries the mouth and keeps us from saying hello to our cellmates. Everyone sits himself as well as he can, waiting for the sergeant to come and sign the report. Then comes the food. The cooks don’t yell their usual “Anyone who takes bread!” to announce their arrival, or their “Anyone who wants atole,” with which they break the mild spell left over from the dreams of those staggering around, never able to quite convince themselves that they are prisoners, that they are in jail. The meal arrives in silence and everyone approaches with his plate and his bowl to receive his allotted ration, and nobody protests, or asks for more, or says a word.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is one of my favorite books. While I think it stands as a very good book by nearly any standard, it has several qualities that appeal particularly to me. To boil these down, my affinity for the book is tied to the vast geography it covers, including many exotic locales and a few mundane. I also like the book as an example of Latin American magical realism that is stylistically different from Borges or Garcia Marquez, but to me just as satisfying.Mutis is still relatively unknown, and were it not for the NYRB’s impressive packaging of Maqroll, really a collection of seven novellas, and Edith Grossman’s typically readable translation, it’s likely that Mutis would have almost no presence among English-language readers at all. Prior to the NYRB edition of Maqroll, a pair of earlier collections had been put out, one containing three of the novellas and another containing four (those editions were also translated by Grossman). Aside from that, Mutis had published some short stories and quite a lot of poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero,” who would star in Mutis’ novels.As best as I’ve been able to tell, none of Mutis’ poetry has been published in English-language editions, but in 2004, a small Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions, put out a thin collection of some of Mutis’ short fiction. Maqroll does not appear, but the book, The Mansion offers what felt to this reader, a batch of stories in which Mutis tries out the various writerly tools that he will wield to great effect in Maqroll.The first portion of The Mansion is a novella, The Mansion of Araucaima, which supposedly was Mutis’ answer to the director Luis Bunuel who claimed that it wasn’t possible to write a gothic story set in the tropics. The idea being, I suppose, that the lushness of the region is at odds with the castles and dark mood that is emblematic of the genre. (It should be noted that the Bunuel story may be apocryphal. I read about it a few years ago, but more recent Googling hasn’t turned much up about it.)Regardless, Mutis’ effort is fairly successful, and appropriately moody and dark. As he does in Maqroll, Mutis experiments with structure in The Mansion of Araucaima. He divides the story up into brief chapters, focusing on the different characters and on their dreams (the dreams presumably being a key gothic element) before, after much stage setting, he offers a chapter called “The Events,” during which the novella’s narrative commences.The remaining stories also play with structure. Frame stories abound (Maqroll, of course, is a frame story which contains other frame stories). The stories in The Mansion start with sentences like “The pages you are about to read belong to a bundle of manuscripts sold at a book auction in London a few years before the end of the Second World War.” and “A few facts surrounding the death of Alar the Illyrian… came to the attention of the Church at the Council of Nicaea when it discussed the canonization of a group of a group of Christians who had been martyred at the hands of the Turks.”While Mutis takes the reader, in this handful of stories, to many arcane places and dreams up snippets of immersive histories and mythologies, they also feel like explorations and fragments (one story is in fact subtitled “A Fragment”), as opposed to fully formed pieces. As such, it is impossible to recommend the book ahead of Maqroll, which makes, out of the threads that Mutis plays with in The Mansion, a deep and layered tapestry. Maqroll perhaps also benefits from Grossman’s translation, which seems to disappear into the narrative, whereas Beatriz Hausner’s translation of The Mansion is more workmanlike. For those who have already read Maqroll and have an interest in Mutis, The Mansion will be an instructive and brief diversion. In terms of pure reading pleasure, however, rereading Maqroll might be a better bet.
I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene’s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Brian needs our help: max – the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez [Living to Tell the Tale] and Alvaro Mutis [The Mansion & Other Stories] books have gotten me interested in Spanish-speaking writers… throw the question up on your blog re: which is the best mario vargas llosa novel, which is the best one to start with, etc… also, julio cortazar… any recommendations?So, my experience with Spanish speaking writers is pretty much limited to Garcia Marquez, Mutis, and Borges. My question that I would add to Brian’s question is: are there any other literary masters that come from the Latin American or Spanish tradition. For myself, I am just glad that I have saved a couple of Garcia Marquez’s books to read so that I can forestall the inevitable sense of loss that I will feel once I have read everything he has written. As a side note, until now, I hadn’t ever really thought about just how bittersweet it is reading everything by a beloved author. But anyway, folks, anyone out there who can help on this… please chime in and give us some advice by using the comments below.
Heather wrote in with a great question about life after Harry Potter:Recently I have devoured the series of books by Philip Pullman called “His Dark Materials” (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). While the shelf at the bookstore I found them in was young adult and science fiction/fantasy, I felt they went far beyond the scope of what a young person would appreciate. Much like the fascination with the Harry Potter series by both young and older, but far more compelling in my opinion. Can you recommend any other authors/books similar to Pullman other than the more familiar Tolkien and Lewis?Harry Potter, as everyone knows, has dominated the world of young adult and fantasy fiction of late. J. K. Rowling’s greatest asset is her boundless imagination, but she can be lacking in her mastery of language and form. So what else is there? As you suggest, Philip Pullman has emerged with an incredible series of books (which I, too, devoured about a year ago). They exceed Harry Potter in nearly every sense, and Pullman manages to strike the perfect balance, appealing to children (and clearly adults, as well) with thrilling adventures, characters, and a seamless world, while never ever dumbing down for his young readers. It’s really a great series, one of the highlights in books from the last few years, if you ask me. But you already know this. My other favorite children’s fantasy series is Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. The world he creates has a medival, Tolkeinesque feel to it, though instead of knights and princesses or hobbits and orcs, this world is populated by tribes of animals, mice and ferrets and stoats and many others. I started reading these when I was very young and I made my way through at least six or seven, so I can vouch that these are great books. The series begins with Redwall, Mossflower, and Mattimeo with many beyond those. Having said that, I don’t think that anything out there is as good as C. S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series or J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. They are the masters that preside over the genre. Another thought: try revisiting (or making your acquaintance with) some classic books. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne or The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Great books one and all. Anybody else have thoughts on though this one. Hit the comment link below and let us know.Mucho Mutis!!!My buddy Brian who is a fellow follower of the travels of Maqroll the Gaviero notified me of two recent developments concerning the head Maqroll-watcher himself, Alvaro Mutis. First, and most exciting, it appears as though a new book by Mutis will appear in English for the first time ever this fall. It’s called The Mansion & Other Stories, and it will be released by the Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions. I have so many questions: will there be stories about Maqroll, will this edition be well-translated, will the stories bear any resemblence to the novellas that I know and love? I can’t wait to find out. So far all I know is this. In the early 1970s, Mutis got into an argument with his friend, the director Luis Bunuel. Bunuel felt that a “gothic” story could not be set in the tropics because that sort of story required the ambient chill of higher latitudes. Mutis strenuously disagreed, and in order to prove him wrong penned the story, The Mansion of Araucaima, the title story of this collection. Bunuel loved the story and expressed his desire to make it into a film, but he died before he was able to carry it out. My friend Brian also alerted me to the fact that the current issue of World Literature Today is devoted to Mutis. If you’re interested, you can find on the site: ten poems by Mutis, Mutis on Mutis, and several more academic papers on this fantastic writer.The Return of PolidoriThe Robert Polidori book that I mentioned a few days ago has hit bookstores. It’s called Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl. Polidori is one of the most skilled and sought after architectural photographers in the world, and in this capacity he is often called upon to capture the sleek and the new. But anyone who has seen his book Havana knows that architectural decay is his true calling. At Chernobyl and in Pripyat he presents the shattered world of nuclear disaster, both frozen in time and abandoned to a new and dangerous mutant form of nature. As always, he lets color do all the work in these photographs, seemingly luring the most poignant hues to the foreground of the compositions. But I have to say, this collection, due to the nature of the subject matter, exudes a cold and souless sort of beauty while the aching, crumbling beauty of Havana is more suited to his particular skills.A note of things to comeI finished Jonathan Lethem’s new novel The Fortress of Solitude, a week or so ago, and I intend to put some more elaborate comments on the book up here once it comes out, but I will make few comments now, too. Look for this book to be huge this fall. There will be a big push from Random House, and along the book distribution pipeline, big numbers are being anticipated. The book is very good in the same way that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon is very good. The books are similar in structure and theme, both are very ambitious and largely succeed in their grand scope. Pehaps most interestingly, the careers of Chabon and Lethem are parallel. Lethem has several books under his belt each more widely read and more favorably recieved than the last, and now this latest book will be a best-seller and will make him more of a household name. The same thing happened to Chabon. Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that The Fortress of Solitude will win the Pulitzer Prize, (or at the very least will be a finalist) like Kavalier & Clay did a few years back.