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Melancholy, mysterious, slow-moving, yet gripping and unforgettable,
This review is from: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
This book by the great Colombian novelist and poet Alvaro Mutis, and translated by the wonderful Edith Grossman (author of WHY TRANSLATION MATTERS and one of the best translators of Spanish-language literature of our time) is actually a collection of seven novels (the last being in turn a collection of three stories) about the msyterious sailor known as Maqroll el Gaviero (the Lookout). Maqroll has no well-defined point of origin or national identity; he usually travels with either expired papers or with forged papers; he skates close to the law's edge and sometimes goes over the edge; and none of his ventures, whether romantic or business, ever seems to prosper. He views his life and the human beings around him with fatalistic serenity bordering on pessimism, finding solace in reading one or another obscure historical or biograp[hical work about some doomed souls in the European past. He has friends who care about him, some who join his dubious enterprises and some (like the author) who simply bear witness. Some of the novels are in Maqroll's first-person voice; others are narrated by Mutis as Maqroll's friend.
These are slow-paced, ruminative novels -- anyone looking for a thriller should find something else to read. Nonetheless, they are gripping and entertaining, and after you have finished reading them, they stay with you forever. Readers would be best advised to read one novel at a time, and let time pass from novel to novel. Mutis's works remind me of the more serious writings (not the "entertainments") of Graham Greene and the works of Joseph Conrad.
THE SNOW OF THE ADMIRAL, the first novel about Maqroll, is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS in that the core of the novel is Maqroll's journey up a tropical river in pursuit of a goal that, though superficially clear and well-defined, becomes as mysterious and hopeless as the incidents that happen to him.
ILONA COMES WITH THE RAIN features a woman who is brainy, beautiful, sexually venturesome, occasionally larcenous, a fit match for Maqroll. She almost steals the novel from him (why not, given that she's the title character?), and yet.... This may have been my favorite among the novels collected here.
UN BEL MORIR (A Good or Beautiful Death) is a grim and sad book in which Maqroll yet again is pulled into a venture of questionable morality. Some (including Francisco Goldman, who wrote the introduction to this collection) say that it's the best book in the collection; I disagree, but not because UN BEL MORIR is a bad book -- far from it.
THE TRAMP STEAMER'S LAST PORT OF CALL manages to make a rusty tramp steamer as important a character in the book as Maqroll himself.
AMIRBAR is a tale reminiscent of THE SNOW OF THE ADMIRAL, except that it takes place nearly completely on land, with Maqroll engaging in an attempt to revive an old mine and falling under its spell.
ABDUL BASHUR, DREAMER OF SHIPS introduces us to a character who is mentioned in all the earlier books, Maqroll's closest and most trusted friend, Abdul Bashur, a Levantine who is obsessed with finding the perfect tramp steamer, yet who also is Maqroll's partner in may of his most ethically-questionable ventures.
TRIPTYCH ON SEA AND LAND, as noted, is actually a collection of three shorter pieces, which somehow hold together and have the effect of turning Maqroll in the light like a gem, illuminating some and now other facets of his character and personality.
I repeat: don't try to read these all at one go. Read them in order, but be prepared to read one novel and then lay the book aside for a while, and then return to it. That is the way that I read it, and you won't be disappointed.
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Initial post: Apr 23, 2012 10:43:41 AM PDT
S. Henderson says:
Thanks for the illuminating review; I've had this book on my shelf for almost 10 years and have glimpsed thru it many times but seem not to be able to take the plunge. Thanks for the advice of reading each novel and then putting it down for awhile. I think I can handle it in small gulps. Your short descrips hit the mark. The first novel's next up on my long reading list...
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