Death of the ‘other’ Colombian author

Alvaro Mutis

Colombia is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. It has perhaps not coincidentally produced two of the world’s great novelists – Gabriel García Márquez and his friend Álvaro Mutis. This obituary for Mutis appeared in The New York Times

Álvaro Mutis

August 25, 1923 – September 22, 2013

 - William Yardley

Álvaro Mutis, a Colombian poet and novelist who created one of Latin American literature’s more memorable characters, the rambling and ruminative Maqroll, an inadvertent explorer of jungles and his own jaded soul for whom life seemed a long and futile boat ride, mostly upriver, often running aground, died last month in Mexico City. He was 90. The cause was cardiorespiratory problems, his wife, Carmen Miracle, told news agencies in Mexico.

Mr Mutis was 19 when, in verse, he first introduced Maqroll to readers as the Gaviero, the Lookout, a label linked to his early life as a seaman whose duties included scanning the horizon for potential peril, even if he did not always recognise it. More than 40 years later — after Mr Mutis had become a widely admired poet, spent more than a year in prison on embezzlement charges that were later dropped, moved to Mexico and was a well-travelled representative for Standard Oil and two Hollywood studios — he transferred his protagonist to prose.

Beginning in the late 1980s, Maqroll appeared in a popular series of seven novellas that were eventually published as a single volume in 1997. The collection appeared in English in 2002 as The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.

In a 2003 review of the collection for The New Yorker, John Updike wrote that Maqroll’s journey in the first novella, The Snow of the Admiral, in which he hopes to reunite with a former lover, is ‘rendered so vividly as to furnish a metaphor for life as a colourful voyage to nowhere.’

Mr Mutis was well known and well-read in Latin America and Europe but received far less attention in the United States than his fellow Colombian writer and confidant, Gabriel García Márquez. They became friends in their youth and stayed close after both moved to Mexico City, reading each other’s work before it was published and sometimes sharing the same translator for their English editions, Edith Grossman.

'One of the greatest writers of our time,' Mr García Márquez called his friend. Mr Mutis received numerous awards, including the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. But Maqroll rarely got much recognition. He was a bundle of conflicts and foolish schemes, his life filled with close calls. Alternately optimistic, realistic and fatalistic, he kept going, compelled even as he lost lovers, friends, money and hope.

'I’m really intrigued: these disasters, these decisions that are wrong from the start, these dead ends that constitute the story of my life, are repeated over and over again,' he says as the narrator in The Snow of the Admiral. "A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known could be mine if it weren’t for this constant desire to fail. We’re about to re-enter the green tunnel of the menacing, watchful jungle. The stink of wretchedness, of a miserable, indifferent grave, is already in my nostrils".'

Yet Maqroll’s destiny was not death but the journey toward it. The Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas threatened to sue Mr Mutis if he ever killed off his beloved character. Mr Mutis spoke of Maqroll as if he were a living person.

Álvaro Mutis Jaramillo was born on Aug. 25, 1923, in Bogotá. His father, Santiago, was a Colombian diplomat, and Mr Mutis spent much of his early childhood in Brussels. In the summer, his family returned to Colombia by boat, and he later said his writing was rooted in his long stays at the sugar and coffee plantation his grandfather owned in Tolima Province. He never graduated from high school, but he read voraciously and widely, from Jules Verne to Marcel Proust.

Maqroll read, too, bouncing between biographies of dukes and saints. ‘In each novella, internal life is represented by the book he happens to be reading,’ Leonard Michaels wrote in a review of three novellas in The New York Times in 1992. 'One night, after a gruelling effort to carry guns up the side of a mountain, Maqroll must sleep. But first he must read…'

Full obituary in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/books/alvaro-mutis-novelist-who-created-a-rambling-ruminative-soul-dies-at-90.html?ref=books&_r=0

Wikipedia on Multis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81lvaro_Mutis

Obituary in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/23/alvaro-mutis-jaramillo-colombian-writer-dies

Obituary for Mutis on the BBC website:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-24207428

Funeral vision (Spanish) http://www.abc.es/videos-internacional/20130924/funeral-alvaro-mutis-2687533099001.html