Published: September 28, 2013
Álvaro Mutis, a Colombian poet and novelist who created one of Latin American literature’s more memorable characters, the rambling and ruminative Maqroll, an inadvertent explorer of jungles and his own jaded soul for whom life seemed a long and futile boat ride, mostly upriver, often running aground, died on Sept. 22 in Mexico City. He was 90.
Denis Doyle/Associated Press
The cause was cardiorespiratory problems, his wife, Carmen Miracle, told news agencies in Mexico.
Mr. Mutis was 19 when, in verse, he first introduced Maqroll to readers as the “Gaviero,” the Lookout, a label linked to his early life as a seaman whose duties included scanning the horizon for potential peril, even if he did not always recognize it.
More than 40 years later — after Mr. Mutis had become a widely admired poet, spent more than a year in prison on embezzlement charges that were later dropped, moved to Mexico and was a well-traveled representative for Standard Oil and two Hollywood studios — he transferred his protagonist to prose. Beginning in the late 1980s, Maqroll appeared in a popular series of seven novellas that were eventually published as a single volume in 1997.
The collection appeared in English in 2002 as “The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.”
In a 2003 review of the collection for The New Yorker, John Updike wrote that Maqroll’s journey in the first novella, “The Snow of the Admiral,” in which he hopes to reunite with a former lover, is “rendered so vividly as to furnish a metaphor for life as a colorful voyage to nowhere.”
Mr. Mutis was well known and well read in Latin America and Europe but received far less attention in the United States than his fellow Colombian writer and confidant, Gabriel García Márquez. They became friends in their youth and stayed close after both moved to Mexico City, reading each other’s work before it was published and sometimes sharing the same translator for their English editions, Edith Grossman.
“One of the greatest writers of our time,” Mr. García Márquez called his friend. Mr. Mutis received numerous awards, including the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. But Maqroll rarely got much recognition. He was a bundle of conflicts and foolish schemes, his life filled with close calls. Alternately optimistic, realistic and fatalistic, he kept going, compelled even as he lost lovers, friends, money and hope.
“I’m really intrigued: these disasters, these decisions that are wrong from the start, these dead ends that constitute the story of my life, are repeated over and over again,” he says as the narrator in “The Snow of the Admiral.” “A passionate vocation for happiness, always betrayed and misdirected, ends in a need for total defeat; it is completely foreign to what, in my heart of hearts, I’ve always known could be mine if it weren’t for this constant desire to fail.”
He continues: “We’re about to re-enter the green tunnel of the menacing, watchful jungle. The stink of wretchedness, of a miserable, indifferent grave, is already in my nostrils.”
Yet Maqroll’s destiny was not death but the journey toward it. The Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas threatened to sue Mr. Mutis if he ever killed off his beloved character. Mr. Mutis spoke of Maqroll as if he were a living person.
“He often accompanies me, but we are no longer side by side but face to face,” he said in an interview with the writer Francisco Goldman, who wrote the introduction to the 2002 collection. “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 and actions and places that I don’t know but that he of course does.”
Álvaro Mutis Jaramillo was born on Aug. 25, 1923, in Bogotá. His father, Santiago, was a Colombian diplomat, and Mr. Mutis spent much of his early childhood in Brussels. In the summer, his family returned to Colombia by boat, and he later said his writing was rooted in his long stays at the sugar and coffee plantation his grandfather owned in Tolima Province. He never graduated from high school, but he read voraciously and widely, from Jules Verne to Marcel Proust.
Maqroll read, too, bouncing between biographies of dukes and saints. “In each novella, internal life is represented by the book he happens to be reading,” Leonard Michaels wrote in a review of three novellas in The New York Times in 1992. “One night, after a grueling effort to carry guns up the side of a mountain, Maqroll must sleep. But first he must read.”
Mr. Mutis published books of poetry in 1948 and 1953 (his early verse was praised in reviews by Octavio Paz), and he also wrote short stories and nonfiction. But he did not write full time until he began writing novels in his 60s. In the decades between, he worked in jobs whose only link to his literary interests were the experiences they provided — traveling to Latin American capitals, venturing into jungles to search for oil, riding with river captains through rain forests.
“My life became a long trip and I met thousands of people, in all different kinds of situations,” Mr. Mutis told Mr. Goldman. “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.”
Many people in Latin America also knew him for his dubbing of English-language television programs into Spanish, most notably for “The Untouchables.” Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
While he was at Standard Oil, he was accused in 1956 of spending company money on friends, including those who opposed the Colombian dictator at the time, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Warned by a friend that his arrest was imminent, Mr. Mutis fled to Mexico. He avoided immediate extradition back to Colombia but was jailed for 15 months while awaiting trial. When the Rojas Pinilla government fell in 1957, Mr. Mutis was freed. He later said the experience was more influential than any great book.
“There is one thing that I learned in prison, that I passed on to Maqroll,” he said, “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 article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 29, 2013
An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the name of a former Colombian dictator. He is Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, not Gustavo Rosas Pinilla.