Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Jim Christy On Álvaro Mutis

That Álvaro Mutis jumped without parachutes from one of his eternal airplanes and landed on the solid ground of lavish and well-deserved recognition, is one of the great miracles of our national literature. Eight books in six years. One has to read one page from any one of those books to understand everything about Álvaro Mutis: His entire work, his own life, are the products of a clairvoyant, one who knows with certainty that we can never recover Paradise lost.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Who is this man that Gabriel Garcia Marquez calls "the second best writer in the world?" Winner of the Queen Sofia Award for poetry, the Cervantes, the Prix Medicis, and Neustadt Prize for Literature, Alvaro Mutis, nevertheless, remains practically unknown in North America.

Mutis was not caught up in the flood of Magic Realism that deposited so many Latin American writers, willy-nilly, on American and Canadian shores. On one hand, this is perplexing because Mutis' agent in Madrid had a lot to do with removing the flood gates; on the other, it is understandable because Mutis insists he is not a magic realist. His prose works, most of them featuring Maqroll, whom some consider-me included-to be the great literary character of the age, seem to be told in a straight forward manner. And Magic Realism is anything-everything-but straightforward. Yet, Mutis' prose style is deceptive as will readily be discerned in these stories, first published in Spanish in the late-nineteen eighties. The narrative rolls along, sometimes at breakneck pace, but the prose is redolent with intimations of more. More than he's telling.

Magic Realism is praised, and denigrated, for its baroque excess, its suspension of time, the sheer improbability of events chronicled, and its folk whimsy. Back in the 1920s, Latin American authors began to, gradually, turn away from European models and to regard their own unique part of the world. They slowly acknowledged the mix of blood, the extremes of landscape, both geographical and political, a terrain where excrescence is the quotidian reality-and they forgot all about Andre Gide.

Then sometime in the Sixties, Latin American writers started to jack it up. This was sort of like Nostradmus buying a crystal ball. Who needs it? Just to exist anywhere in those countries, in Mexico or Brazil, in Colombia or Panama is to experience the meaning of Magic Realism. As a friend of mine recently wrote on a post card, "We left Bogota after shootings at the school. On the way out of town I saw a dozen yellow chickens roosting in a tree with orange blossoms. An obese mulatta was asleep in a hammock."

Mutis has never had to jack anything up, to call on folk whimsy or turn literary tricks. He is most learned of men, but no litterateur. He has lived largely, traveled widely, read extensively.

"I never earned my living from writing," he has said. "I scribbled my poems in hotel rooms before meetings or at night while having a drink at the bar."

Mutis was born in Colombia in 1923 and educated in Belgium where his father, a diplomat, was posted. Returning to his native country at the age of eighteen, he worked for Colombian National Radio, reading the news and commenting on classical music. When he was twenty, he worked in public relations for LANSA, the Colombian airline that developed into Avianca. For five years he was head of public relations for Standard Oil in Latin America, but Mutis didn't write news releases or speeches for executives. He traveled on tankers, went with prospectors and geologists into the jungle and was the press liaison in times of disaster. It was Mutis who dealt with the families of victims of explosions.

And then there was the trouble. He was found guilty of defrauding Standard Oil of Columbia and spent 15 months in Lecumberri, the notorious prison in Mexico City. "I managed a sum of money at Standard Oil, and this money was for social programs and charities. Well, I had some friends who were in trouble, trouble with the military dictatorship of Colombia, and I used the money to help them. It is true that I also spent some of the money to throw a few parties."

As William Burroughs'd put it, "Wouldn't you?"

Mutis left Colombia during the investigation and went to Mexico City where he was soon picked up by Interpol. In prison he had no privileges. His diary of those months, published only in Spanish, bolsters the contention of Beatriz Hausner that so many of the characters in The Mansion are inspired by people he encountered in that hole, known as the Black Palace.

Those characters recorded in the diary are worthy of Honore de Balzac, Feodor Dostoevsky, Henri Charriere, and Mutis' real literary hero, Charles Dickens. In 1959, after a change of government in Mexico, Mutis was released from prison, and the next year, the charges against him were annulled. He began working for Columbia Pictures as commercial director for Latin America. "I traveled throughout Central and South America, and all this time, whenever I could, I wrote."

Mutis made his literary name as a poet. He has been called the voice of his generation, and he was, in more ways than one. At about the same time that he began working for Columbia Pictures, Mutis was hired to do the Spanish voice-over narration for the original television series The Untouchables, which was wildly popular in Latin America. Beginning when he was eighteen years old, Mutis had by his side - on boats, in the jungle, in prison, at his writing desk - a companion, his great creation, the character, Maqroll.

We never learn whether that's his first name or his last; we don't know where he's from, how old he is, his nationality. He speaks several languages, including English with a vague Levantine accent. His nickname is the "gaviero." He acquired it back in the last days of sailing ships when he practically lived in the crows' nest: the lookout. "I was eighteen and I started writing about things, I knew nothing about, could, at my age, know nothing about. So I invented an alter ego."

His first book of poems, published in 1948, features Maqroll. The book that won the Queen Sofia Award, in 1997, for the best book of poetry published in the Spanish language that year, was Summa de Maqroll el Gaviero.

When, however, Mutis turned to adult fiction for the first time - he had published a children's book based on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin - Maqroll does not appear. Yet he hides between the lines and his shadow, as much as any person encountered in Lecumberri, falls across these pages.

I cannot recall another slim volume of stories with such breadth of achievement. Here Mutis offers historical fiction, religious parable and intense character study in styles that remind one, by turns, of Borges, Machado de Assis, Antoine de St. Exupery and Louis Ferdinand Celine. He employs disassociative time, the old, recently-discovered-bundle-of-manuscripts ruse and something that may best be described as jungle noir. His people are always musing and lucubrating, eating, working, making love, and seeming to defy fate while being resigned to it.

The Mansion has all the elements and is a precursor to the masterful prose Mutis would employ in the seven Maqroll novels soon to come. But most importantly it is what Mutis doesn't say, the atmosphere he creates, the silence around the notes, that makes the reader aware of the more that is always beyond our grasp. There are times with Mutis' work when he sounds like a grizzled tenor in an opera at the edge of the world, backed by a choir of dissolute angels, singing a threnody to the great beyond.

Yes, his work is death-haunted, as is only the greatest writing. But there is nothing morbid in it; rather, it is the recognition of death that worships and enhances life. Personally, I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez got the order reversed.

Jim Christy is a writer, artist and tireless traveller. His recent book of stories, Jackpots, is available from Ekstasis Editions. He currently makes his home in Toronto.