Alvaro Mutis, celebrated Colombian-born poet and novelist, dies in Mexico at 90


Alvaro Mutis shown here in 2003. (Jorge Uzon /AFP/Getty Images)
September 24, 2013

Alvaro Mutis, a celebrated Colombian-born writer who drew on his lifelong wanderings to create the character of Maqroll the Lookout, a modern-day philosophizing, seafaring adventurer, died Sept. 22 in Mexico City. He was 90.

His wife, Carmen Miracle, told the Mexican media that the cause was a cardiorespiratory ailment. An expatriate not unlike his fictional hero, Mr. Mutis had lived for more than five decades in Mexico.

In the Spanish-speaking world, he was considered a towering figure of Latin American letters. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author, once described his friend Mr. Mutis as “one of the greatest writers of our time.”

Mr. Mutis was credited with imbuing his poetry and fiction with the evocative sensuality, mysticism and imagination that characterized many of the most lauded works in Spanish-language literature.

By the end of his life, Mr. Mutis had received prestigious literary honors including the Prince of Asturias Award and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize. But for years he had gone undernoticed in Latin America — and almost entirely unnoticed elsewhere — as he pursued a workaday, if successful, business career.

He worked in Colombia as a public relations manager for Standard Oil and later in Mexico as a sales manager with 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures. Among other curiosities, he provided the voice-over for the Spanish-language version of the TV crime drama “The Untouchables.”

Mr. Mutis sold re-run broadcast rights in Latin America to programs such as “Punky Brewster,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Fantasy Island.”

He once remarked that he wrote his early works “under the most absurd circumstances — hotels, airports, bars” — until he retired from Columbia Pictures at 60.

“Without this rambling career,” the novelist John Updike wrote in the New Yorker magazine, “how could he have supplied the eerie wealth of maritime and dockside details, the delirious abundance of geographic and culinary specifics, that give fascination and global resonance to his novella-length tales of Maqroll?”

Maqroll — whose name was intended to reveal no particular nationality — was born in one of Mr. Mutis’s early poems. The character grew into a full-fledged literary hero through his appearances in novellas: tales that included such escapades as a jaunt through a Peruvian gold mine, management of a brothel and an encounter with a tramp steamer.

His works were known to English-language readers mainly through the translations of Edith Grossman and most notably “The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll,” which was published by the New York Review of Books in 2002.

That volume contained seven novellas, translated as “The Snow of the Admiral,” “Ilona Comes With the Rain,” “Un Bel Morir,” “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” “Amirbar,” “Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships” and “Triptych on Sea and Land.”

Writing in the publication World Literature Today, Grossman described Maqroll as “a knight errant with a duffel bag over his shoulder and a watch cap on his head, whose only home is the road he travels.”

Mr. Mutis said that he dubbed Maqroll “El Gaviero,” or “the Lookout,” in homage to the maritime works of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.

“For me, a lookout at sea embodies the image of the poet,” he told the publication Americas in 2004. “He is the one who sees farther. After all, what is poetry? It is that hidden part of man that the poet reveals to the reader. I believe that each poet who completely surrenders to his work is a lookout.”

Alvaro Mutis Jaramillo was born on Aug. 25, 1923, in Bogota. His father was a Colombian diplomat who served as ambassador to Belgium, and many times the family sailed between Europe and Colombia.

The younger Mr. Mutis often visited the coffee and sugar plantation founded by his maternal grandfather and said he was as affected by the land as he was by the sea.

“All that I have written,” Mr. Mutis wrote in World Literature Today, “is destined to celebrate and perpetuate that corner of the tierra caliente from which emanates the very substance of my dreams, my nostalgias, my terrors, and my fortunes.”

Mr. Mutis became involved in literary circles in part through the invitation of the Colombian poet Leon de Greiff. By 1948, Mr. Mutis and a friend had written a chapbook of poetry, titled “The Balance.”

Mr. Mutis wrote that all copies of his debut book were destroyed that year in what became known as El Bogotazo, the rioting that followed the assassination of Colombian politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. His next volume of poetry, “The Elements of the Disaster,” followed in 1953.

In 1956, Mr. Mutis left for Mexico after becoming entangled in legal trouble stemming from his alleged mismanagement of funds at Standard Oil. At the behest of Colombian dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, Mr. Mutis was jailed near Mexico City for 15 months at the notorious Lecumberri prison until the Rojas Pinilla regime fell.

One of Mr. Mutis’s most noted early works was “Diary of Lecumberri” (1959), a memoir of that period.

“That experience was truly an influence, much more than Conrad or anyone else they care to name,” Mr. Mutis told an interviewer. “Because, of course, in a place like that, one experiences situations which are extreme and absolute. In there the density of human relations is absolute.

“And there is one thing you learn in prison, and I passed it on to Maqroll, and that is that you don’t judge, you don’t say, that guy committed a terrible crime against his family, so I can’t be his friend. No, in a place like that one coexists. The judging is done by the judges on the outside.”

His first work of fiction, “The Manor of Araucaima,” was published in 1973. Jaime Manrique, a noted Colombian writer and lecturer at the City College of New York, described Mr. Mutis’s voice as both “picaresque and profound.”

A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.

Mr. Mutis said that several times he had tried to end Maqroll’s life during the course of his fictional adventures. The author explained that he could not bring himself to do it: “A French writer said to me once, “Don’t keep trying to kill Maqroll, he’s going to die with you.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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