Friday, August 10, 2012

Maqroll the Gaviero and Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships

Over the weekend, I returned yet again to Alvaro Mutis's stories of Maqroll. I've written before about Maqroll, the merchant mariner and weary world traveler, and the fact that he
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.
As with many a hero, one of Maqroll's strengths is simple knowledge: he's been everywhere, met everyone, has a memory or story for every occasion. But where James Bond, for example, takes the world as known and thus his, Maqroll takes the world as known and thus no one's, with nothing to offer but memories of what's been lost and anticipations of the losses to come. He's much more Marlow than Indiana Jones, more fatalist than flaneur:
For Maqroll, life has long ceased to have a meaning beyond one's connections to friends and lovers--who, in the face of his best efforts to keep them close, are perpetually being lost to such rivals as distance and death. Yet he continues to plod on nonetheless, driven by inertia and a curiosity, barely acknowledged as such, that continues to seek new experiences and new answers, despite knowing that every time, they will be revealed to be the same as the last, simultaneously dangerous and disappointing.
I've been slowly reading my way through the 700 pages of Maqroll stories and novels that NYRB Classics collected in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, and this time out, I read Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships, a section that's primarily focused on Bashur, the Gaviero's oldest and closest friend. In a passage early in the volume that Mutis clearly had fun writing, he sets out the differences between the two, and in the process reveals both in loving detail:
I had already heard a good deal about his friendship with Maqroll; when I met Bashur, it was easy enough to understand. It was rooted in an interplay of their ways of behaving, some contrary, others complementary or consonant, but in their totality creating an unbreakable harmony between the two men. Maqroll acted on the conviction that everything was already hopelessly lost. We are born, he would say, with a vocation for defeat. Bashur believed that everything was waiting to be done and that those who lost were the others, the irredeemable fools who undermine the world with sophistry and camouflaged ancestral weakness. From women Maqroll expected friendship without commitment or any trade in guilt, and in the end he always left them. With infallible regularity Bashur fell in love as if for the first time; he accepted, without analysis or judgment and as though it were an inestimable gift of heaven, everything that came from women. Maqroll only rarely confronted his adversaries; he preferred to leave punishment and reprisals to life and its changing fortunes. Abdul reacted immediately and brutally, not calculating the risk. Maqroll forgot offenses and therefore never thought of revenge, but Bashur cultivated vengeance as long as necessary and took it without mercy, as if the offense had just occurred. Maqroll had absolutely no money sense. Abdul was immeasurably generous, but at bottom he kept a running balance of profits and losses. Maqroll called no place on earth home. Abdul, a distant descendant of Bedouins, always yearned for the nomadic encampment where he would be welcomed with familial warmth. Maqroll was a voracious reader, especially of history and the memoirs of illustrious men, liking in this way to confirm his hopeless pessimism regarding the much vaunted human condition, concerning which he held a rather disillusioned and melancholy opinion. Abdul not only never opened a book but did not understand what possible use such a thing could have in his life. He had no faith in humans as a species but always gave each person the opportunity to prove to him that he was wrong.

That is how the two friends traveled the world together, engaging in the most outlandish enterprises, sowing both intimate and legendary memories in their wake.
If that doesn't make you want to read these books, then they're definitely not for you.

Though the pair gets into adventures, these are not books that depend upon their plots, which are often more suggestions of plot than fully worked-out mechanisms. The men embark on a scheme, things go poorly, and in the face of Maqroll's fatalism--"The Gaviero, faithful to his principle of always allowing things to happen regardless of consequences, would not intervene under any circumstances."--the strands of plot eventually just fall away, sinking quietly back into the waves. But as with Alan Furst's novels, which I love more each year as he has less and less actually happen in them, Maqroll's adventures are all the better for their gauziness. They seem to confirm the Gaviero's take on the world: whereas a plot that pops and springs and locks into place suggests a world of cause and effect, of inherent meaning, Mutis's plots remind us that in life, things happen, and then other things happen, and the waves continue to crawl up and down the sands.

Late in Abdul Bashur, when schemes have come to naught and Maqroll is once again looking for a ship, he says, "I can't hold on to anything. It all slips away between my fingers." The only plot, the only fact, is loss. I'm dreading the day I turn the last page of the last Maqroll story.

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