David's Reviews > The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis
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's review
Mar 15, 2011

bookshelves: the-overhead-bin, nyrb

I didn't want to wait until I finished all seven hundred pages of this thing before I stuck my big toe into the waters of literary criticism. That's the ostensible reason that I'm beginning this review at the half-way mark. The real reason is that I can't be expected to remember my precious thoughts and feelings about the beginning of Maqroll three hundred fifty pages hence.

* * * * *

A wise old man (who shall not presently be named) once criticized The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll for its overabundant description, particularly of nature. And this is a valid (albeit taste-specific) criticism. Álvaro Mutis has met neither flora nor fauna that he didn't give a thorough once-over with his scrupulous descriptive powers. In general, I could do without all this stuff. I have an enthnocentric aversion to untamed wilderness and third world squalor alike, so to put it under an electron microscope and tease out its banal intricacies isn't really a selling point for me. If you want to read blocks of Thoreauvian exposition on jungles and rivers and thatch-roofed villages, then please consider this book a must-read.

The book, as published by NYRB in English translation by the superb Edith Grossman (who somewhat recently enlivened Don Quixote with a new translation), is actually a compilation of seven novellas about Maqroll the Lookout, an enigmatic wanderer who, seeking the meagerest subsistence, embarks upon various careers across the globe, some legal and some not. Mutis fashions Maqroll decidedly as a self-conscious 'free spirit' (which always sort of bothers me, as readers of my ramblings probably know) who goes out of his way to reject the palliative life of the conventional workaday bourgeois drone. This kind of thing usually gets my eyes rolling. (If you're just reacting to a kind of life, reflexively casting off all its trappings, you're as determined by it—albeit inversely—as the man who numbly aspires to it.)

At any rate, the two misgivings I just described surprisingly haven't done much to diminish my enjoyment of Maqroll so far. I've read the first three novellas and a half of the fourth. I don't think I'll be in the majority when I admit that the first (The Snow of the Admiral), a woozy, feverish journey down a treacherous river, is my favorite. Not all that much happens (substantively) in this novella—and in this way it's different from the others—but it is told directly from the perspective of Maqroll (through his found journals) as a kind of languorous reverie on life, death, and fate. Maqroll has hitched a ride on a boat on a presumably South American river toward some mysterious sawmills from which he hopes to make money transporting lumber back down river. It's pretty much a nonsensical get-rich scheme, and Maqroll knows it, but he's too far invested in the mis/adventure to give up. On the way up to and back from the sawmill he survives a few brushes with death, including a delirious bout with a disease that he contracts from having sex with a smelly native woman. (She smells so bad that he vomits immediately after the act. Not exactly romantic.) But the poetry of this novella lies not in the events or the descriptions of nature (which, as always, are plentiful), but in the resigned melancholy of Maqroll's voice as he embarks upon another futile and dangerous journey. A lot like life in general, of course.

The second novella (Ilona Comes with the Rain) is a more worldly tale, in which Maqroll encounters an old lover and 'business associate' in Panama City. Awaking from an interlude of indolence and fatigue, Maqroll and his partner Ilona decide to set up shop in Panama City. Their entrepreneurial inspiration, or rather Ilona's, is to establish a high-concept brothel in which the prostitutes will pose as flight attendants from major world airlines. It's a big success, until Ilona starts getting emotionally involved with one of the prostitutes.

The third novella (Un Bel Morir) finds Maqroll in a small desolate village somewhere implicated in a dangerous gun smuggling racket. He signs up to move some large crates by mule to a difficult-to-reach outpost (under the guise of railway construction materials) ignorant of the fact that he is really supplying rebels with explosives and weapons.

All in all, I really enjoy the stories, whose poetry transcends the appeal of their narratives alone. Again, you really do need to have a stomach for windy descriptions to tolerate this seven hundred page epic, but it's worth it so far... But stay tuned. I am nothing if not mercurial.
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Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica ha! you're reading it, after all.
and you beat me to it.

brian   give it 5 stars, jerky!
don't be a jackass.

message 3: by David (new) - added it

David I'm only half-finished, Jewbacca.
Pipe down.

message 4: by Kimley (new) - added it

Kimley I find it highly suspect that you are genuinely enjoying this book.

message 5: by David (new) - added it

David You haven't even read it, Kimley!

Trust me... If I weren't enjoying it, I wouldn't have made it to page 350.

message 6: by Kimley (last edited Mar 15, 2011 01:37PM) (new) - added it

Kimley David wrote: "You haven't even read it, Kimley!"

I don't need to read it to know you shouldn't like it. It's on NYRB and it's written by a non-American/non-European writer about non-American/non-European matters. This book should have your picture on the cover with a big red circle and line through it.

FYI, I bought this book not too long ago so it's on the short list. And I'm actually glad you're enjoying it. If you can get past its David-defined deficiencies then it must be really friggin' great.

message 7: by David (last edited Mar 15, 2011 01:31PM) (new) - added it

David I can't help if it non-Americans/non-Europeans are boring and their cultures are generally worthless.

Don't shoot the messenger.

message 8: by Bram (new) - added it

Bram Kimley wrote: "David wrote: "You haven't even read it, Kimley!"

I don't need to read it to know you shouldn't like it. It's on NYRB and it's written by a non-American/non-European writer about non-American/non-E..."

Ha! Plus, David actually had this book on a short-lived "Will Never Read" shelf after a bunch of people (guilty) got excited about it from brian's review.

message 9: by David (new) - added it

David Shush, Wisp!

message 10: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica ha, I thought so!

message 11: by Weinz (new) - added it

Weinz I've had it on my short stack since said review. and you are STILL beating me to it. You must REALLY want to read what is popular.

message 12: by Michelle (new)

Michelle ^^^


I knew this book sounded familiar. Now I remember: Brian's review.

message 13: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica yeah, that was what my comment (#1) was about...

message 14: by David (new) - added it


message 15: by Michelle (new)

Michelle You don't hate us. You LOVE us.

message 16: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica Michelle, that's what he's saying in #14. It's just in DK-speak.

You know you love us, David.

message 17: by David (new) - added it

David Shut your whore-mouths.

message 18: by Weinz (new) - added it

Weinz awww, you're such a sweet talker. Stop it, you're making us blush.

Chris I was/am one of brian's followers. I don't think I ever would have stumbled across this great book if he hadn't suggested it to me.

message 20: by David (new) - added it

David @Bruenning Gee! Thanks, Bruenning!

message 21: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Did you ever finish this David? I totally agree The Snow of the Admiral is the best - after that it's downhill, first slowly and then... I'd feel vindicated if you also found the last couple of novellas mind-numbing and irritating. That said, I thought the first one was awesome.

message 22: by David (new) - added it

David Ben wrote: "Did you ever finish this David? I totally agree The Snow of the Admiral is the best - after that it's downhill, first slowly and then... I'd feel vindicated if you also found the last couple of nov..."

I hate to admit that I never got back to it...


message 23: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Ah well. You may have done the right thing.

message 24: by Rayroy (new)

Rayroy I've only read the first two and loved booth how tragic Ilona Comes with the Rain, how magical and real...

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