Sunday, March 27, 2016

Journeying with Maqroll

The past week has seemed determined to demonstrate all the fickleness of Chicago spring weather: from a visually impressive but ultimately ineffective snowstorm Thursday night to bright sun and shirtsleeve weather this morning . . . which was overtaken midday by drizzly rains that, in a reverse of the cold rains of autumn, brought up from the pavements and easements not the smell of must and decay but of dirt in its richness. Chaucer was right:
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
I will be doing just that soon, heading off on an intercontinental voyage. And the combination of the unsettled weather and the impending trip sent me today to a book I'd long kept in reserve: the last novella by Alvaro Mutis relating the adventures of Maqroll the Gaviero. I've read 600 pages of stories about Maqroll, and I would gladly read 600, or even 6,000, more. Alas, all that is left unread is this final story, 100 pages of world-weary, fatalistic, foredoomed, yet beautiful, engaging, even magical travels. I've written about Maqroll before--if you've not read him, this post is probably the closest I've come to a good introduction. Here's how I put it on first reading Mutis's stories nearly eight years ago:
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down.
Tonight's story, Triptych on Sea and Land, begins promisingly, with the narrator running into a friend who has recently run into Maqroll (whom he knew of from the narrator's books):
With the first glass of rum the conversation began to flow between these two old veterans of life's adventures and narrow escapes, and the ancient craft of human tenderness.
Maqroll starts to talk of the cats of Istanbul (which, as any visitor to that city can tell you, are one of its most distinctive features):
"The cats of Istanbul," explained the Gaviero, "possess absolute wisdom. They exercise complete control over the life of the city, but they are so prudent and secretive that the inhabitants are still not aware of the fact."
Maqroll tells of two cats he sees every time he arrives in Istanbul, who answer to the names he has given them:
It would take too long to enumerate all the hidden corners these two friends have revealed to me, but each is intimately related to the history of Byzantium. I can tell you some of them: the place where Andronicus Commnenus was tortured, where the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, fell dead; the house in which Empress Zoe was possessed by a Saxon who had been ordered to put out her eyes; the site where the monks of the Holy Trinity defined the doctrine that cannot be named and cut out one another's tongues so the secret would never be revealed; where Constantine Copronymus spent a night of penance for having harbored impure desires for his mother's body; where German mercenaries took the secret vow that bound them to their gods; the mooring of the first Venetian trireme that brought the algid plagues. And I could list many other places that shelter the hidden soul of the city and were shown to me by my two feline companions.
That passage hints at one of the essential pleasures of the Maqroll stories: the Gaviero and his companions tell their stories in such a way as to suggest that for every story we hear, there are countless more still to be told. Everything and every person in Mutis's world is worn and hard-traveled; each of those miles would offer up a story if only we had time to listen to them all.

I was thinking along those lines after reading the passage above, so I was pleased to find an echo of it later when I flipped to Francisco Goldman's introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Mutis's tales, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Goldman writes:
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. "He accompanies me," Mutis told me last year, "but we are no longer side by side, but face to face. So Maqroll doesn't surprise me too much, but he does torment me and keep me company. He is more and more himself, and less my creation, because of course, as I write novels, I load him up with experiences of actions and places which I don't know but which he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious."
What better companion could I have for the final days before a long journey?

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