Alvaro Mutis: Amirbar (1990) The Fifth Adventure of Maqroll

And if you want to change your life – for the better – and have never read the Colombian novelist Alvaro Mutis, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. A collection of seven novellas that can be read at a run or singly, it features the greatest rainbow-chaser since Quixote, but a lot sexier and ravenous for both learning and love, not to mention fantastical, doomed schemes to make a pile of loot.

Alvaro Mutis is a Colombian author who lives in Mexico. He is famous for his stories about Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero is composed of seven novels and novellas which can be read as a whole or individually. Each tome is around 120 pages long and they seem to vary greatly in style and narrative technique. Some are like diary entries, others are letters, still others contain more straightforward story telling.  I’ve had  the novella Amirbar, part 5 of Maqroll’s story, on my book piles since years and never got around to reading it. Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu’s (Winstonsdad’s BlogSpanish Literature Month seemed like the perfect time.

Reading Amirbar was an amazing experience. While Mutis is compared to Conrad – although he himself calls Dickens his greatest influence – I felt he was much more like a Latin American Blaise Cendrars. Amirbar reminded me of Cendrars’ amazing book L’or – Gold but is still a very distinct book. It has also something of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights.

All the Maqroll stories are told by a narrator who works for some big corporate company and meets his friend Maqroll in different countries and cities at different times. Maqroll is a mariner and adventurer who travels the world without ever settling down for long. The sea is his chosen home and when he is at land it’s only to make business, most of it either illegal or highly adventurous. Whenever he meets his friend, the narrator, he tells him all of the stories that have happened in the meantime. When they do not meet, he writes long and winding letters all containing fantastic stories as well.

At the beginning of Amirbar, Maqroll and the narrator are in the US. Maqroll is ill and almost dying, he has contracted some tropical fever. The narrator takes care of him and sends him to live with his brother in California for a while. It is there that Maqroll tells them the story of Amirbar – a gold mine.

This is how the novel begins (translation taken from the English version)

Los dias mas insolitos de mi vida los pase en Amirbar” nos cuenta Maqroll el Gaviero. En Amirbar deje  jirones de mi alma y buena parte de la energiaque encendio mi juventud. De  alli descendi tal vez mas sereno, no se, pero cansaado ya para siempre. Lo que uno despues ha sido un sobrevivir en la terca aventura de cada dia. Poca cosa. Ni siquiera el oceano ha logrado restituirme esa vocacion de soñar despierto que agote en Amirbar a cambio de nada.

I spent the strangest days of my life in Amirbar. In Amirbar I left shreds of my soul and most of the energy that fired my youth. Perhaps I came down from there more serene, I don’t know, but I was everlasting weary too. What has happened to me since then has been a matter of simply surviving each day’s difficulties. Trivialities. Not even the ocean could give back to me my vocation for dreaming with my eyes open; I used that up in Amirbar and received nothing in return.”

Maqroll is driven by the urge to find gold, not so much because of its monetary value as we understand but because it symbolizes much more to him. It’s an obsession, a magical metal, something that calls for him from the entrails of the earth in which it is buried. The mine is in the Colombian Andes. He first discovers another one but has to flee it when they find a grave with people who have been murdered by some sort of Military Junta. Finding the skeletons puts them in grave danger. The next mine he explores is Amirbar. The wind in the tunnels systems of the mine seems to have a voice and what it is calling is the word “A-mir-bar” which has a special meaning for Maqroll.

One of the traits of Maqroll is that he has a lover wherever he is. In Amirbar it is Antonia who gets unhealthily attached to him. The relationship between Maqroll and Antonia is one of many small side stories in the book, one of many stories which turn into a desaster. Another important trait is Maqroll’s love of books. He is always reading. Most of the books he reads are obscure historical texts. He loves to immerse himself in another era and read about people who are long gone.

As fantastic as some of the stories sound they are infused with a high dose of realism. Set in a corrupt country, some of the characters are arrested, the gold is confiscated more than once and those who help Maqroll end up in prison and are tortured.

You can easily read Amirbar or any other story on its own but one thing is for sure, it will very probably make you want to read them all. I’ve read a few reviews since I started the book and it seems Amirbar isn’t even the best of the stories. In Maqroll Mutis has created some sort of alter ego, a character who feels so real that in his real life Mutis speaks about him with his friends as if he really existed.

Amirbar is a wonderful book, full of life, stories and tales. Reading it is an adventure in itself. I think it would be an excellent introduction to Latin American literature because despite of its complexity and exuberant story telling it is a very accessible, entertaining book.

Amirbar is a contribution Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

38 thoughts on “Alvaro Mutis: Amirbar (1990) The Fifth Adventure of Maqroll

    • I think this is really an author worth trying. If you like the first you know they are getting better from one novella to the next. But from what I’ve read you can pick any of them.
      I’ll continue reading them in order now.

  1. I have what I think is the first Maqroll novel somewhere here, Caroline, so I’m glad to hear that you found Amirbar so wonderful and compelling. All the reviews of Mutis I’ve ever seen make him sound so exotic but in a cool rather than in a fake way. Thanks for the tip–very intriguing!

    • It has an exotic touch but it doesn’t fell fake at all. It’s a big adventure story but much more literary than most i would say. i really liked it a lot. You should try him
      the first is called : La Nieve de Almirante – the Snow of the Admiral- I’ve read that no 3 and 4 are the best. Un bel morir and La Ultima Escala del Tramps Steamer.

        • I think none of the 7 are not good but some are even better than others. In any case I hope you will get to it rather sooner than later, even if not during this month. I’d like to know what you think of it.

  2. For Spanish Literature Month I’d considering reading the NYRB Maqroll edition (sitting on my shelf unread for several years now), but opted for a few works from Spain itself instead. However, one of those choices contains an introduction by Mutis that I found better than the work itself – I just fell in love with his narrative voice – and so I’m eager to get to the Maqroll novels as soon as time allows.

    • Scott, you will not be disappointed I’m sure. His narrative voice is incredible. It seems that the narrator of the Maqroll stories is generally considered to be Mutis himself.
      The first time he wrote about Maqroll was in his poetry. I find that interesting. Maqroll has a bit something of The Ancient Mariner. It’s interesting to see a charcater undergo so many transformations.

  3. Mutis has been on my wishlist for a while: Obooki posted about Maqroll as well a good while back and really got me interested. Sounds well worth a look, Caroline. “Something that calls for him from the entrails of the earth”….nice!

    In honour of Spanish Lit month I am about a third of the way through The Savage Detectives, and, I’m surprised to say, so far so good!

    • I cannot rememeber Obooki’s review at all. Maybe it was a long while back. I think you’d like this. I really want to read them in chronological order now.
      The way he writes aboit gold and this strange obsession it can trigger had something quite mysterious. And the way the ind keeps howling through the tunnels. Very archaic.
      I’m glad you like the Savage Detectives. I didn’t get along with them . The first part yes but then not so much anymore.

        • No, I haven’t but my parents had the book it was based on and now that you mention this, B.Traven, who was a once highly acclaimed Geran writer was another one who liked to write this type of tale.

  4. Another new to me author. Is the setting of these stories contemporary? I like the comparison to 1001 nights. My library has this one as well as another volume of novellas, so I’ll be checking him out!

    • Yes, the setting is contemporary. The whole book is like a ode to story telling and has many different angles and stories which form a framework. Despite that complexity it’s not confusing at all.
      Reading it felt like sitting there and hear someone tell one tale after the other. It’s also nice that they are all not over 120 pages. They are quite exotic as they take place in so many different countries. I hope you will like them too.

  5. Though I have not read him, based upon your commentary Mutis sounds like an author who stories are fun yet deep. The gold mind element in the plot elements do sound a little like Conrad.

    • The comparison to Conrad works, of course but Mutis himself, said he was more influenced by Dockens.
      I suppose Cendrars is not so well know in the English speaking world but there are striking similarities.
      I think the stories are indeed fun but never purely entertaining. There is something deep and also dark in them.

  6. It sounds like a very interesting structure – Maqroll has all of these exciting adventures and then recounts them to his friend who is the narrator.
    That’s a technique I remember from one or two of Twain’s short stories. You mentioned that Mutis was very influenced by Dickens. Did you feel there was any similarities in the writing style?

    • I like this type of point of view, I think it’s called first perosn peripheral. The narrator is usually under spell of the main character and is transmitted to the reader in a very immediate way.
      I was surprised by the fact that he says he’s influenced by Dickens but it was elaborated and what he meant was not so much the style as the imagination, the variety of the charcaters, the incredible tales. The inexhaustible imagination we associate with Dickens is present in the Maqroll stories.
      It’s worth reading at least one.

    • Tony, you would like it as it’s an adventure story but very literary and some of the other parts, it seesm even more so.
      I hope you will get to it some day and review it. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

    • I’m really glad I picked this. It had elements that reminded me of Almayer’s Folly which is a book that haunted me for years. I need to read more Conrad.
      I bought the whole collection after having finished Amirbar. I’ll certainly read them all sooner or later.

  7. Thanks for this excellent post. I’ll be reading “The Snow of the Admiral”, one of the novellas from an anthology called “Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction”. I hope to post on it too.

    • Thanks, Rise. I’m very curious to see what you will think of The Snow of the Admiral. It’s ithe first n the Maqroll series. If you like it you will be glad to hear that most people think while it is very good the subsequent ones are even better. Amirbar isn’t said to be the best but I thought it was excellent.

  8. These lit months from around the world are just fantastic for discovering all sorts of gems. I’ve never heard of this author or these novellas, but they do sound very intriguing. Latin American work is just the best for magical realism.

    • I think you would appreciate the story telling. It’s really fascinating. One could say he makes the most of it, uses every angle, every technique but is still entertaing and thought-provoking without getting lost in experiments. I liked it very much.
      I’m glad for these months as well.

  9. Hi Caroline! I was so excited to read your excellent review of Amirbar today. I read the entire NYRB volume of Maqroll’s adventures back in February and was completely blown away by it. I was initially drawn in by the writer’s extraordinary ability to evoke a sense of place for each of the various settings he writes about. As I read I was impressed by his talent for bringing to life the many characters that people his book and who are so outside the limits of my own ken. There is an apparent simplicity to each novella but as I read story after story I became aware of an underlying complexity that I don’t think I’m articulate enough to express here. Their impact was cumulative. I came away feeling that I had just had an encounter with one of those rare writers who bring to their writing a deep understanding of, as well as respect and compassion for humanity and all its various foibles. There! My apologies for running on so on your blog, but I couldn’t pass the opportunity to gush about one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and the kind words, Marina.
      I fell very similar and I have only just read one novella but while browsing the whole collection which I got meanwhile I saw that they all are very different. I see how you can read them individually but from what you write I think the experience might even be more intense when you read one after the other.
      I know exactly what you mean about compassion and understanding for humanity. It’s in every page. Both are wonderful main characters, the narrator because he is so nonjudgmental and Maqroll for his intensitiy and love for life and adventure.
      It’s really a rare book and I’m glad you think so too.
      I’m looking forward to read the next ones soon.

  10. I didn’t know there were seven novellas. My edition only had the first three, so I’ve only read the first three. I’m glad to hear there are more.

    The book I’m reading for Spanish Literature month at the moment is also compared to Conrad, though to be honest it’s very little like Conrad. I think a lot of Latin American novels are thus compared because so much of the history of the continent just resembles a Conrad novel. But Mutis, yes – he is more Conrad than most (The Snow of the Admiral, in particular).

    García Márquez’s The General in his Labyrinth is based on an idea by his friend Mutis, though I reckon Mutis would have made a better job of it.

    • I’ve read that they used to publish them in two tomes at first, 3 and 4 but meanwhile they are compiled in this 7 novella edition. If you’ve only read the first 3, you might have missed one of the best (no4).
      Amirbar wasn’t too Conradish, although, I think to some extent you could find a similarity.
      I also read about Marquez’ and Mutis’ friendship and how much Marquez admires him. I’m somewhat puzzled that this doesn’t mean that Mutis is better known. Maybe because people in general always prefer novels and not shorter works. Their loss.

  11. Wonderful review, Caroline! I think this is the second Latin American novel review of yours that I have loved so much! The first was that of ‘Pedro Paramo’. It is interesting that Mutis is a Columbian but lives in Mexico. The structure of this book with seven interconnected novellas is quite interesting. I found the narrative device of using a narrator to tell the story of Maqroll through their meetings, quite interesting. It makes me remember the middle part of Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ which is similar in structure, though there are many narrators in it. I loved the passage you have quoted from the book. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you get to read it. I’d be very interested to read what you think. I have a feeling you would like it.
      I like books in which a narrator tells a main character’s story.
      Pedro Paramo and these novellas are both very special but Mutis’ book is joyful despite all the dramatic events and mishaps. I like the narrative voice. the passage i quoted, the begining of the novella, is Maqroll talking. Quite hypnotic.

  12. A new writer to me. I see that in French they’re published by Grasset in the collection Les Cahiers Rouges, which is an excellent reference for me. (I enjoyed all the books I bought from that collection) The seven novels are published in one book.

    I’ll have a look at him but I’ll start with another one.

    • I’m pretty sure you would like him. I think it’s worth reading them chronologically or if yu think it’s too much, just pick those which are called the best of the series.
      I vaguely remember Les Cahiers Rouges. need to have a look at their titles.

  13. Wow… a very impressive review, Caroline!
    It trully shows how much you like the book. As you have might guessed, I have never heard of him before. The quote you have chosen is beautiful.

    • Thanks, Novroz. I’m very glad I discovered it and from the comments I see that those who knew him, like him very much. It’s an interesting mix, an adventure story, the story of a friendship, philosophical, letters, diary entries. i think after having read this I liked the other one I read later even less.

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