Three books by Álvaro Mutis.

In the picture are two volumes of prose and one of poetry by the Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis (1923-2013). The two hardbacks collect between them seven novellas written in the ’80s and ’90s, all revolving around the character of Maqroll, also known as el Gaviero (the lookout). Maqroll is a rootless mariner of indeterminate nationality; an aimless wanderer into dubious and not necessarily legal schemes; and, for all his intelligence and experience, a hapless victim of frequent misfortune. Despite many setbacks, however, he remains stoical, thoughtful, and steadfastly loyal to his friends.

I happened upon an on-line recommendation of Mutis' work twenty years ago, whereupon I bought the NYRB paperback edition of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, combining all seven novellas in a single volume. This provided me with one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my life. With that copy’s spine three-quarters bleached by years of sunlight, and looking in a sorry state, I replaced it a couple of years ago with the mismatched hardbacks, one of them the UK edition, the other from the US. Too much time has elapsed since I read the novellas for me to give any worthwile account of the books: this article by Matt Seidel at The Millions does a good job of that.

Last month the venerable Complete Review alerted me to the existence of a volume of Mutis' poetry in English translation: Maqroll’s Prayer and Other Poems. This I read with no less delight than his prose had brought me. Mutis had first made his name as a poet, and Maqroll had made his debut in verse. ‘The Snow of the Admiral’, for example – the first of the novellas – was fleshed out from an earlier prose poem of the same title. Only a few of the poems explicitly relate to el Gaviero, but they are all cut from a similar sort of sailcloth as his prose Adventures & Misadventures.