Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Given that the world didn't, as predicted, end, let's celebrate its shopworn beauty.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In April, I visited Hawaii for the first time, spending a wonderful week on Maui with my in-laws, and, for all the tourist-trap nonsense, what I found myself thinking about most was the lure of the port, and the wrack and ruin of sailors, adventurers, layabouts, rummies, and ne'er-do-wells that the sea has always attracted. Even I, a land-lubbing lover of routine, born as far from a coast as you can get, felt the draw; it was all too easy to imagine a life of beachfront days and barroom nights.

Which led me to Alvaro Mutis's stories of Maqroll el Gaviero, and their wonderful evocations of the shabby, bypassed ports of the world. I've written about Maqroll before, and, returning to him, I was pleased to find the same mixture of the exotic and the tedious, adventure and ennui, a portrait of a spavined world that, in these forgotten harbors, is slowly winding down. Maqroll doesn't so much have adventures and love affairs as that they have him; the reverse would require a bit too much active desire, too much engagement with this decrepit dinosaur of a world.

This passage, from early in The Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call, is representative of Mutis's style and outlook:
The tramp steamer entered my field of vision as slowly as a wounded saurian. I could not believe my eyes. With the wondrous splendour of Saint Petersburg in the background, the poor ship intruded on the scene, its sides covered with dirty streaks of rust and refuse that reached all the way to the waterline. The captain's bridge, and the row of cabins on the deck for crew members and occasional passengers, had been painted white a long time before. Now a coat of grime, oil, and urine gave them an indefinite color, the color of misery, of irreparable decadence, of desperate, incessant use. The chimerical freighter slipped through the water to the agonized gasp of its machinery and the irregular rhythm of driving rods that threatened at any moment to fall silent forever. Now it occupied the foreground of the serene, dreamlike spectacle that had held all my attention, and my astonished wonder turned into something extremely difficult to define. This nomadic piece of sea trash bore a kind of witness to our destiny on earth, a pulvis eris that seemed truer and more eloquent in these polished metal waters with the gold and white vision of the capital of the last czars behind them. The sleek outline of the buildings and wharves on the Finnish coast rose at my side. At that moment I felt the stirrings of a warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world's seas.
I remember a particular recurring moment from childhood: the end of a day in which you've played and played and played, and now you're being called away to bed, but you have a feeling--as strong as any feeling about anything--that if you could just have another few minutes, you could really get something done, you could in some important sense finish what you're doing, make this day of play complete and even perfect. But the call, parental, is irresistible, and the chance is lost. I remember thinking that as an adult, I'd be able to take that extra time, that I'd be able to do what I wanted until it was done, finish things off properly.

But one of the lessons of adulthood, learned slowly, is that you never get it all done, that life--so seemingly manageable from a child's point of view--is simply too crowded and overflowing to ever be fully set in order and instead must be lived in some more or less tolerable state of half-completion. We make our peace with that, of course, to the point that we essentially forget the idea of an alternative. But reading Mutis, with his world of endlessly deferred maintenance and improvements, jury-rigged machines and dreamily static lives, its universe that could use a good paint job, brings the sensation back in all its childhood force.


  1. Splendid! Mutis remains an unexpected delight for me.

  2. Glad to learn you're also a Mutis fan, Jon. I had lent my copy to a friend a good while back, and I was sort of amazed at how pleased I was to have it back when he returned it recently: I sat down and immediately sank into Mutis's distinct worldview.

  3. Levi, what you said in the last 2 paras is so very true. Life is like that.
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  4. Nice post, and beeyoootiful pictures by R. Lass.