Álvaro Mutis and his literary mariner reach the end of their voyage

Prize-winning Colombian poet and writer passes away at 90 in Mexico City

Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis, pictured in 2003.
Colombian writer Álvaro Mutis, pictured in 2003. JORGE UZON (AFP)

"We know nothing about death," Álvaro Mutis said. "It's useless to speak about it, but it is good to invoke it so as to keep it under control."

On Sunday the Colombian writer and poet finally faced that mystery for himself. He died at the age of 90 after suffering heart failure in Mexico City, the capital of the country where he had lived since 1956. Mutis had been in hospital since September 16, his wife Carmen Miracle confirmed.

The literary world bade farewell to the creator of the Maqroll el Gaviero (Maqroll the Topman) saga of novels as one of the great poets of the Spanish language, even when he wrote in prose. A poet of despair, in his work the natural world of the tropics becomes a metaphor for the deteriorating impact of time on human nature. His main character Maqroll, his alter ego, is a wandering traveler who survives, as if on an eternally rocking boat, among ephemera and past glories in shabby ports and endless hotels.

"Neruda and Borges found a perfect conversation in Álvaro's verses," said writer Juan Villoro, who was among those paying tribute at his chapel of rest.

Born in Bogota in 1923 to a diplomat father, Mutis first studied in Paris and Brussels boarding schools. After the death of his father, he returned to Colombia where he dropped out of high school for poetry and the pool halls, finding work at a radio station and various multinational companies, which required him to travel non-stop.

El Gaviero comes from my readings of Conrad and Melville"

From a young age Mutis began writing verses, of which now hardly a line survives: "A forgotten god watches the grass grow." He decided not to publish them, but was encouraged to carry on by the critic Casimiro Eiger: "Alvarito, stop putting things away in drawers where they rot. Either burn them or publish them." That spur led to the release of his first collection of poetry, La Balanza, in 1948. And from there began a career that was sometimes prolific, sometimes silent, because for Mutis writing was a natural thing, not a duty: "Something that happens and stops happening."

Linked to the young poets associated with the magazine Mito as well as a contributor to various newspapers, in 1953 he published Los elementos de desastre, where Maqroll appeared for the first time. "El Gaviero comes from my readings of Conrad, of Melville (above all Moby Dick); he is the guy who is up there, in the topsail, which is the most beautiful job on a ship, among the seagulls, facing the immensity and the absolute loneliness," he said of the main character in seven of his nine narrative works.

In 1956 he settled in Mexico where he arrived with several recommendation letters, one of which was addressed to filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who got him a job in advertising. It was in those years that he met two of his great friends, the writers Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes. Three years later, he was sentenced to 15 months in the Palacio Negro de Lecumberri prison for embezzling funds at oil company Esso. His time in jail, which he chronicled in El diario de Lecumberri (1960), changed his life, to the point that without that experience, neither his later Maqroll novels nor his poetry would have existed.

"In prison," he said, "we are before the absolute truth. I remember it as a great lesson."

There in prison he met writer Elena Poniatowska. "I was going to the jail to visit political prisoners," she remembers. "He asked me for Proust's Á la recherche du temps perdu, and I took him the Gallimard editions. He was a cheerful man, the soul of the party. He did great impressions of writers, above all Neruda, and all the women were in love with him."

In 1986 he published the first novel in the Maqroll series, The Snow of the Admiral, which was followed by Ilona Comes with the Rain and The Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call. The literary prizes came soon afterwards. In 1997 he received the Prince of Asturias Award and in 2001 the Cervantes Prize. Two years later he was made a member of the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration awarded by the French government.

An existential mariner, Mutis's last years were spent in tranquil retirement. He had been unwell in recent months and on more than one occasion courteously declined EL PAÍS's requests for an interview. A native of Bogota, he carried the Colombian region of Tolima in his heart, the founding homeland of his work. On the Coello ranch of his maternal grandmother he experienced such happy moments as a child that he said he would feel cheated if, invited into Paradise, he didn't find there the smell of oranges and the sound of the two rivers that crossed that farm in the middle of the coffee plants.

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