In attendance, behind an untidy heap of books and maps that he was cataloguing in an exquisite, old fashioned hand, was a young man with the heavy black beard of a Levantine Jew, an ivory complexion, and melancholy black eyes fixed in an expression of mild astonishment. He gave me a thin smile and, like any good bookseller, allowed me to peruse the shelves while he attempted to remain as unobtrusive as possible.
I have put off writing this, as if by writing my review I am closing the book on Maqroll, a book I almost flipped back to the front to read all over again, so not ready am I to end my association with him.
While I can’t say that this book has changed my life, it has awakened something in me. Maqroll, the endless wanderer, and one of the most perfect yet flawed characters ever laid down on paper, has nurtured and grown my own inescapable wanderlust and his adventures have come at at time when I have been able to nudge my own life down a channel different from the one I was travelling before.
In Maqroll I see a different version of myself, someone with the same outlook as me but without the fear or bonds to the family home. So complete is the Gaviero that you want to meet him, indeed even the author believes he has crafted a flesh and blood man from ink and paper
“All of Alvaro’s friends know that he speaks of Maqroll the Gaviero as of a living person, whom he sometimes has news of, sometimes not”
But it’s not just the Gaviero that captured me, the world Maqroll wanders (which is pretty much all of it) is richly and sumptuously described by Mutis, describing cities, ports, and characters with enough detail that, were you a painter, you could paint the scene in glorious detail. In the Snow of the Admiral, the intoxicating revulsion of his coupling with the Indian woman on the barge leaves you feeling as horrified after reading it as if you had taken part in the act yourself. Characters appear, disappear and re-appear in Maqroll’s life until you welcome them like old friends, particularly his closest companions, the incomparable Ilona from Trieste and Abdul Bashur, dreamer of ships.
The king of the flock, a beautiful jet-black bird with an orange ruff and an opulent crown of pink feathers, had already settled on the frame work supporting the canvas in the stern. A sky-blue membrane blinked down over his eyes as regularly as a camera shutter. We knew the others would never approach until he’d had his first peck at the corpse. When we dug the grave where the beach meets the jungle, he watched from his vantage point with dignity not free of a certain disdain.
Maqroll accepts his role as a pawn, while maintaining his free will to endless wander and take part in adventures, riding the waves of his life, knowing from the moment it rises and sweeps him off that it will crash onto the shore and wash over him. What sets Maqroll apart from others, such as Abdul Bashur, who dreams of owning the perfect tramp steamer, is that he has no such ambition or dream. He has no permanence, and by his own acknowledgement everything and everyone slips through his fingers. After one adventure he holds a cheque for a six figure sum and casually hands it over to Abdul, knowing he will just squander it, and that it will not, in the end, have any material difference to his life. Despite his own pragmatism, his letter to Flor Estevez and his interactions with women, and his friends reveal a weary tender side that is not always apparent.
Others appreciate the role he plays in their own lives, aware of his endless destiny, as if he brings life down the back waters, and when he leaves, life follows him, a role that Maqroll is aware of, but accepts with resignation. There is however a motor inside him, that continually propels him from one adventure to the next, and even in his darkest, most introspective days either following a period on land, away from the expansive freedom of the oceans, or another disappointing end to his last enterprise, it only takes the start of the next adventure to notch the motor up a gear, and the Gaviero is off again.
This volume is all of his collected tales, and I loved every one of the seven hundred pages. Hopefully the Gaviero will show up on Alvaro Mutis’s doorstep soon with another tale to spin.
Like everything that had to do with him, the narration of his past depended on a complex alchemy of humors, climates, and correspondences and only when it had been fully achieved would the floodgates oh his memory open, launching him into long recollections that did not take into account either time or the disposition of his listeners.