Álvaro Mutis by Francisco Goldman

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Álvaro Mutis. Photo by Graciela Iturbide. Courtesy of the artist.

This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

Álvaro Mutis, one of the most beloved and esteemed of Latin American authors in the Spanish-speaking countries and throughout Europe, is not as well known here in the United States.

That’s probably because he isn’t easy to categorize: neither magic realist nor political novelist nor regionalist nor confectioner of folkloric whimsies. For most of his writing life, his reputation has been as a poet—one forced to earn his living at a variety of professions while making his home in Mexico rather than his native Colombia. The Mexican writer Juan Villoro once remarked that his Latin American generation grew up with the voice of Álvaro Mutis: for years Mutis did the voice-over narration for the Spanish-language version of The Untouchables. In an astonishing burst, from 1986 to 1993, Mutis wrote seven novellas that have been published all over the world, winning major prizes everywhere, including two of Spain’s most important literary honors, the Príncipe de Asturias and Reina Sofia (for poetry), in 1997. In the United States, the novellas were published in two collections, Maqroll and TheAdventures of Maqroll. Essentially, the novellas follow the enigmatic, eccentrically learned, seductive, eternally transient seaman-adventurer Maqroll, “el Gaviero” (the lookout), and his friends on their tangled exploits, usually outside the margin of the law, through seedy ports and tropical backwaters. The world of Maqroll—though not confined to any one place—is as unique and whole a creation, as much a region of the imagination, as the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez.

Mutis’s life has been almost indescribably rich in experiences and friendships. He is legendary for his generosity, humor, cocktail recipes and passion for literature. Supposedly, he has for many years been the first person to whom his longtime friend Gabriel García Márquez shows his novels. Mutis and I have friends in common, including my friend Gonzalo Garcia, who is the son of one of his contemporaries. Gonzalo remembers Mutis, during a week long vacation in Cuernavaca, sitting practically immobile in the garden day after day, reading Dickens in a perennial trance. Mutis lives with his formidable and brilliant Catalan wife Carmen and their intimidating cats in a beautiful, rambling house in the peripheral San Géronimo district of Mexico City. Without a doubt, some of the happiest afternoons of my life have been spent there, always beginning with some excellent, obscure tequila in Mutis’s photograph-decorated (Conrad, Proust on his deathbed), book-crammed study, and then on to one of Carmen’s fabulous Italian lunches and good wine, and then more tequila and usually more visitors, on into the evening…

Francisco Goldman Álvaro, I have always had the impression that if I were to tell you a story about Maqroll, one I heard, say, from a ship captain in Veracruz, who’d supposedly been with Maqroll last year, you would believe it. In other words, sometimes it seems to me that you are as surprised and curious about the fortunes of Maqroll as any of his fictional friends. How have you developed this wonderful character over time?

Álvaro Mutis Well, Maqroll has been with me since I wrote my first poems, when I was 19, and I’ll tell you what happened. I had written a series of poems and all of them had the voice of a person who had lived and had experienced things that I had not experienced at 19; I hadn’t experienced anything then, you see. So I thought that this character would be very useful for my poetry. And during the 40 years in which I wrote poetry he did turn out to be quite useful and he came with me when I started writing novels, which wasn’t my original intention. My intention was to continue to explore the same themes in narrative prose that I had developed in my poetry, to talk about the landscapes of sensation and about my notion of man and of the world. I wanted to translate all of this into a narrative rhythm. And Maqroll helped me do this; he accompanies me. However, 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 as I write novels, I load him up with experiences and actions and places that I don’t know but that he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious. I’ll give you an example: The other day, in the novel that I’m working on now, I thought, I’ll have him board a ship in Morocco that is carrying phosphates, which are highly explosive and very dangerous. Would you believe I could actually hear Maqroll saying to me, “Hold on—don’t be a fool! I can’t be in Morocco! In Morocco, I’m wanted by the police for that business with the rugs in Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships.” “So, where should he board the ship then?” “In Tunisia.” “All right then, Tunisia.” This is my relationship with Maqroll. And I’ll tell you something else, The Snow of the Admiral as well as several of my other books have come out in Turkish, a language Maqroll speaks fluently. I swear that sometimes when I hold that Turkish edition in my hand, I think, I have to show this to Maqroll. (laughter) So this is my relationship with him. In my poetry, he no longer appears, because my poetry has gone in other directions, on other paths where I don’t need his help.

FG You’ve written eight novellas about Maqroll in less than a decade. When you wrote the first one, did you know there would be others?

AM No, no. I was editing a text that I thought was a prose poem entitled The Snow of the Admiral and then one day I read it in a French translation about to be published and I said to myself, This isn’t a prose poem, this is a piece of a novel I’m going to write. With a great sense of fatigue I said, I’m going to finish this story. I sat down and started to tell more, and more, and more, and when I had about 300 pages, I edited it. I sent it to Carmen Balcells, my literary agent. I said to her, “Here. I don’t know what the hell this is.” And she called me three days later and said, “It’s going to be published by Alianza Editorial. It’s a wonderful novel and I love it.” My response was, “But wait a minute, it’s not a novel.” And she said, “That’s not up to you, it’s up to me and your readers,” and that was that.

FG Something very important in your novels is the sense of place. It’s clear that you love the ocean, the desert, the jungle, especially as spaces to be traveled through. What do these settings mean to you?

AM Well, this is really something that comes out of my own life. I traveled with my family from the age of two. We went to Brussels. My father was in the Colombian diplomatic service and we were there for nine years. We traveled to Colombia by sea for vacations. Those trips were wonderful for me. They were like an extended holiday, because on a ship you are not responsible for anything. All you have to do is coexist with the sea and its life and watch it all go by. And again, when I worked for Standard Oil as Colombian head of public relations for five years, I traveled on oil tankers and had interesting experiences and met extremely curious people, many of whom appear in my novellas. So I loved traveling and moving around. And interestingly, without actively trying, I have always had jobs that forced me to move around. For over 23 years, I worked for Twentieth Century Fox and then Columbia Pictures as sales manager for the television division in Latin America, selling sitcoms and specials and made-for-TV movies. And I went from capital to capital to capital: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, to Chile and back through Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and then back to Los Angeles. So my life became a long trip and I met thousands of people, in all different kinds of situations. And this was like a continuation of what I had experienced as a child. In this way I lost the sense of belonging to a particular country. I know that I am Colombian and will be until I die, and there are landscapes in Colombia that I love and am fascinated by, and they appear in my poetry, but I don’t feel a commitment to any one country because, after all, I’m just passing through.

FG And that’s why there’s a real sense of the experience of the working life in your books, something that is rare in contemporary literature.

AM That’s because of a reality that I think is important: I have never lived from my literary vocation. I have always worked in fields that have nothing to do with the literary life. I have never worked at a newspaper or at a magazine. It’s not that I am against it, it’s simply the way my life has been. So, I started studying poetry, then fiction, and meanwhile my work was completely unrelated to that. But the reason why I know the jungle, for example, is that I accompanied geologists from Standard Oil who were searching for oil—which does exist in the jungle, although it’s complicated and expensive to extract; I was there in case they had problems with the army, among other things.

FG The Belgian engineer in Un Bel Morir is such a sinister and odd character. The reader gets the feeling that you must have known and worked with people like him.

AM Absolutely; that was when I was working in aviation; I was the public relations person for the airline that later became Avianca. I had to go to accident sites and even help remove bodies from the wreckage and be present when the bodies were identified. And then face the press and the families, and—well, you can imagine. These were very difficult, hard things. And I have made my life doing them. Now I am retired and I have a pension from Columbia Pictures.

FG When people talk about Maqroll, they think of hopelessness. Is this his existential condition, or is it political, or psychological?

AM No, that is something that comes from me. Remember—something you, as a novelist, know as well as I: all of the characters created by a writer contain bits and pieces and moments of the writer. I’ve never been involved in politics. I’ve never voted. I have never believed and have no faith in the intentions of a man who wants to make life better for all men. I think this just leads to concentration camps and Stalinist purges, the Inquisition and all of that horror. I believe that man is a species one should be very suspicious of. Now, I have no bitterness, but I am not going to change things, and I don’t want to change them. I accept them as they are, and that is how I live. So, it is natural that Maqroll, without being my exact reflection—which he is not at all—should have my hopeless view of the world.

FG On the other hand, not only I but other people have noted that Maqroll is like your opposite; you have such love for life, and you are known for your radiant disposition and your generosity.

AM (laughter) Well, people have said that to me before, but of course, I never meant to create a character that was my reflection. I am interested in a man with a tendency to dismantle formulas—not a revolutionary, but someone who breaks down established, conventional formulas. A man who is capable at times of great violence, and who pushes this violence to its full, brutal, tragic end. This is not me, but I can imagine that someone who thinks the way I do about the world could be this way. Maqroll lives by a rule that is stated in one of the novels, I can’t remember which; it is his dictum: never try to change or modify what destiny puts in your path, and never try to judge things.

FG A fascinating aspect of Maqroll is the strange books that he’s always reading: the memoirs and biographies of kings, of Saint Francis of Assisi and so on. Can you tell me a little bit about this?

AM Maqroll exhibits something which, in part, could have happened to me. I read almost as much history as literature, maybe more, and I always have since I was a child. The first books I read in my father’s library, in French, were history books. So, what happens? I think that when a man like Maqroll reads Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe, or the memoirs of the Cardinal de Retz, he puts himself in their places and asks himself what he would have done if, and oh yes, that’s how it was, yes I see. His curiosity about the past helps him to live the present. And why? Because the present becomes not something that just crashes over you, but rather when he hears about the terrible things happening in Kosovo he says, “Hold on, this same thing happened in Spain, in Granada, at the end of the Reconquista.”

FG Maqroll has a very poetic sense of the past.

AM Because what the past says to us is that humans do not change. And this is a very good thing to know. Through his reading, Maqroll realizes that we remain the same.

FG Speaking of Saint Francis, there is a sense of renunciation about Maqroll.

AM Yes, radical renunciation. But he, unlike Saint Francis, does not want to make this renunciation into a regimen for others or for a community. He says no to things precisely because of his philosophy of not trying to change anyone—each person is the way he is and that’s it. Now, if I were to load up on—as Maqroll would say—luxury items and objects, and these objects were to define me, I would be forced to stay still, not move. This doesn’t suit me; I don’t need anything.

FG Maqroll and his friends always have schemes that are supposed to make them lots of money and always fail. If one of these schemes had made him rich, what would have happened to him?

AM But Frank, he already made Ilona so angry when they won all that money in the business about the rugs. And all Maqroll wants to do is give his check to Abdul so he can buy the tramp steamer he has been dreaming of. So, money never stays in his hands, it always slips through his fingers.

FG Another important theme in your books is love. In Un Bel Morir you say that love has many faces and many masks, and that we use that word to describe many different things. The last stop of the tramp steamer is that rare thing: a novel of romantic love between two mature adults. Do these late loves happen in real life?

AM They do happen. Maqroll demonstrates this in his love affair with Amparo Maria and then with the other woman, the one who works at a café, Doña Estela. He has a great admiration for women and he realizes that they see much more deeply than we men do, and know much more than we do, and that the best thing is to listen to them and do as they say. He always creates a sense of complicity with the person he loves. He thinks, We are together, but with no obligations—we won’t get married or enter into a bourgeois lifestyle. I love you deeply, and whenever we meet we will be together, because it is wonderful to have a relationship with someone who is my accomplice, and someone who feels no sense of obligation towards me. So that is his attitude, and if women sustain him and love him, why is that? Because he is not obliging them to do anything—he’s leaving the next day, or will be arriving the day after. He is their friend, their accomplice. There is a basic friendship in love that I do believe exists.

FG Is there anything in this world as beautiful as a tramp steamer?

AM (laughter) No, there isn’t … well, not anymore. You know, when I see one, and I see them often when I travel, it brings tears to my eyes. The other day my wife and I saw a tramp steamer on a beach in Miami. There was no one around, and they were just letting it go to pieces on a part of the beach where it didn’t matter. It made me want to raise some money and get the poor thing out of there, so it could live.

FG Flannery O’Connor once said that for her it was impossible to read a page of Conrad without feeling an urge to write, though, of course, there are no boats in her books. It is a commonplace to say that you are influenced by Conrad because you both write about boats. What do we mean when we talk about influences?

AM Well, a real influence. You know who is my greatest literary influence? Charles Dickens. Why? A real influence is an author who communicates an energy and a great desire to tell a story, and it isn’t that you want to write like Dickens, but rather that when you read Dickens, you feel an imaginative energy that you use to your own ends. In other words, you’re not going to write Oliver Twist. Dickens has an impressive imagination for situations, characters, places, corners. There are corners of his Dombey that I swear I’ve been to. I have read all of Conrad. I admire him enormously, and it has never occurred to me in the seven novels that I have written to do anything that bears any relation to Conrad. So people tell me, as if it went without saying, that The Snow of the Admiral is like Heart of Darkness, because a boat travels up a river. Well, I’ve traveled up that river, not in a beat-up boat, but in a nice one with engineers and such over the course of 15 or 20 days, and I know what it’s like. So, I put Maqroll there, not thinking of Conrad, but of myself. If someone like Dickens, or someone completely different, such as Proust, who gives you an impression of the interior of life, helps you when you are sitting in front of the typewriter and gives you a kind of compass in your writing, then you can use that influence to write whatever you want to.

FG I have to ask you this, warning you in advance that in the United States people have no sense of humor about political issues and that you have to be careful with these subjects, but you have a reputation for responding to political questions with impertinence, often hilariously. Some people even say that you are a monarchist, and at times you’ve been very hard on democracy. So, are you really a monarchist?

AM Look, people think that when I say that I am monarchic I mean that what I want is a kingdom of Nicaragua, a kingdom of Honduras, a kingdom of Paraguay. Monarchy is a thing of the past, and a government with divine right and absolute power like that of Louis XIV or Charlemagne is the last thing I would want. In this day and age, something like that is impossible. The kind of monarchy that I am dreaming of does not exist. I agree with Borges when he said that democracy is “a deception of statistics,” I think that it is something that does not work, and we see it failing all the time. Something that we must keep in mind is that one of the most sinister characters, the most sick and diabolical murderers, Adolf Hitler, was voted chancellor of the German Reich by a majority. So, I say, like Ortega y Gassett, that when a lot of people agree about something, it’s either a stupid idea or a beautiful woman. Dictatorships, which I detest, especially these military dictatorships in Latin America, have had enormous popular support. I saw the Plaza de Mayo full of people yelling “Perón! Perón!” and it filled me with disgust, but that’s how it was. So, one must be careful with the application of the formula. But I don’t mean to frighten anyone. As I don’t follow politics, I have never voted, and the most recent political event that really preoccupies me and which I am still struggling to accept is the fall of Byzantium at the hand of the Turks in 1453.

FG Even so, you have had close friends among the Latin American writers, who tend to be very politicized.

AM With my closest friends who belong solidly to the Left, we never discuss such things. We talk about literature and life and our friends, and furthermore, it does not interest me to talk about politics.

FG And with your friends on the Right?

AM Well, with the people on the Right, I have greater reservations, I am more careful. The Right is quite sinister. The power of money is terrible.

FG Although you are thought of as apolitical, in your works there is a great sense of the lives of poor people, the vulnerability of poverty, and you portray the arbitrary and corrupt violence of the military.

AM Which is horrible and infernal.

FG Even though you’ve lived in Mexico for 43 years, Mexico never appears in your novels.

AM (laughter)That’s strange, isn’t it? Well, you know, it’s not planned, it’s not that I don’t want Mexico to appear.

FG Sometimes, you need to make the place where you live into a kind of neutral zone.

AM Yes, that’s true. I’ve lived here for 43 years. No print or radio journalist has ever asked me to speak or write about Mexico in any particular way. I have always said what I wanted, and here I am.

FG How did you come to Mexico?

AM I came here because of a terrible problem. When I was working for Standard Oil, I managed a sum of money that was destined for charity and social programs, and I used that money to help some friends who were in danger under the military dictatorship and I also spent the money on parties for journalists and friends. There was an investigation, and a lawyer friend of mine told me, “You have to leave—if possible, today or tomorrow.” So I flew to Panama, and from there I decided to go to Mexico. I had been in Mexico in ‘53 and loved it, so I settled down there. Then there was a trial, and the Colombian military government asked the Mexican government to extradite me. The Mexican government, in accordance with an international agreement to monitor people whose extradition has been requested, put me in a jail in Lecumberri for 15 months. And then the government of Rojas Pinilla fell, my trial was dropped, and I was set free. And now I’ve gone back to Colombia several times.

FG And your time in Lecumberri was a tremendous experience.

AM Yes. That experience was truly an influence, much more so than Conrad or anyone else they care to name! (laughter) Because in a place such as that, one experiences situations that are extreme and absolute.

FG You were not a privileged prisoner.

AM No, not at all. I worked like everyone else. In those days, the jail was managed by the prisoners, who were divided into wards. I was the head of a ward, which was a huge responsibility—but not a privilege. There is one thing that I learned in prison, that I passed on to Maqroll, and that is that you don’t judge others, you don’t say, “That guy committed a terrible crime against his family, so I can’t be his friend.” In a place like that one coexists because the judging is done on the outside. This is vital, because in there, the density of human relations is absolute.

FG After you left, did you have any contact with the other prisoners?

AM Yes, in fact the other day I had an experience that is worth recounting here. I went into a big department store here, a very famous one, and one of the security guards came up to me and said, “Hello boss, how are you doing?” He had been a thief. He broke into people’s houses and assaulted and robbed them. He said, “I changed my name and came over here to offer my services.” And I said to him, “They were smart to hire you, because no one is going to get away with stealing even a bottle of talcum powder with you around!”

FG Is it true that Luis Buñuel would bring you bread when he came to visit you in prison?

AM He didn’t bring me bread, I gave him bread when he came, because in the prison we had a bakery that made baguettes like in France, really delicious. Because that jail was founded by Don Porfirio Díaz (president of Mexico in the late 19th century), who was a real Francophile, it had certain French norms for food and other things. The bakery was very good, and Luis, who was a close friend, would come and visit and I would give him a croissant or a baguette and he would leave impressed. He said to me once, “You know, my friend, I think the real reason I come here is for the bread.”

FG In those days your friends in Mexico included Botero, Gabriel García Márquez, Paz and Carlos Fuentes, right?

AM When I came to Mexico, the first thing I did was look for Octavio Paz, who had said some very generous things about my poetry. I met him, and he was working with Fuentes in foreign relations. We became friends. Then, Botero was living here; we had been good friends in Colombia and I had helped him come to Mexico for family reasons. It was an interesting time. We were all young. Gabriel García Márquez and I have known each other for 51 years. We met in Barranquilla and our friendship has been very solid, without any cracks or fissures. I feel a great fondness for him, and we have shared wonderful and also difficult times. We love each other and have never had a disagreement. There is not the slightest shadow in our friendship; it is pure affection and love.

FG You told me a story once that I think is brilliant, about the friendship between you and Gabriel García Márquez. It dates from the time when he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Do you remember it?

AM The amazing thing with Gabo is that Gabo, when I met him, was 21 or 22, but he was already a fully formed writer. Gabo has never lived an instant without his typewriter; writing is his destiny. What happened was that he would tell me about the book, and he would tell me about things that he was thinking about, but didn’t end up in the book. I would tell our friends, “Listen, Gabo is writing a novel in which a man does this, this, and this.” And then, when I read the book, it was a completely different book than the one we’d been talking about.

FG When you turned 74 they honored you in the Bella Artes opera house. It was really moving, especially when Gabo spoke. He said that the reason your friendship has survived is because you once made a pact never to speak about one another to the press. But that he was there because you’d broken that pact by announcing publicly that you didn’t like the barber he’d recommended to you.

AM Yes, that’s right. (laughter) That was when I turned 60, and President Betancourt decided to give a dinner in my honor at the president’s palace. My hair was a mess, and I needed a hairdresser fast. Gabo told me he had a wonderful barber, and so I went to him but he left my hair looking like yours [nearly a crewcut]. So then, when I had to speak, I talked about Gabo, and said, “And regarding this haircut, I would like you all to know that I am not responsible, but the one who is is right here: my friend García Márquez, who recommended the barber.” This was broadcast on television. And the barber complained to García Márquez.

FG That’s how you planned it. I remember the day I met you and you were already saying that he was aboard a ship carrying phosphates and everyone was saying “no, don’t do it!”

AM But I know how to get him off the ship before it blows up.

FG And coming back to Maqroll … are you working on another novel?

AM Yes. I just keep working and thinking, I don’t take notes or make outlines, and then one day I just sit down and start to write. So, one of these days I’ll sit down and write this one. I need to be careful because this time Maqroll’s life will be in danger. I have already tried to kill him three times and I just haven’t been able to do it. A French writer said to me once, “Don’t keep trying to kill Maqroll, he’s going to die with you.”

FG What is your opinion of so-called magic realism?

AM What happens is that critics invent these words, if you know what I mean. Authentic magic realism is José Saramago’s El memorial del convento, or the work of German Romantics like E. T. A. Hoffmann. But basically, magic realism is just an easy way for critics in the United States and Europe to think about Latin American literature. My books have been described this way and there’s nothing magic realist about them. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work that presents an extraordinary universe made up of magic and truth and horror and sadness … one can just simplify all of that and call it magical realism.

FG If you could travel with Maqroll to any period, which would it be?

AM The 18th century. Casanova and I would have been friends. I would have been friends with the Prince de Ligne and I would have lived in Paris and Venice. I’d take the elegant life, the brilliant prose, like Voltaire—each time you read him you realize that he’s the real thing. And that is where my interest in the 18th century ends; once they get to the French Revolution and the horror and saving of mankind, that’s where I exit.

Translated from the Spanish by Marina Harss.

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Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state. Yet, considering its antiquity, the overall condition is good; one might even say excellent.

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“The tragedy of imperialism is that its dehumanizing machinery disrupts the cultures of the colonized. That’s why after imperial powers conquer a nation it sometimes takes centuries for the conquered to create cohesive civilizations again and to regain their identity.”

Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

Read the issue
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