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South American Gothic: A Review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion

By posted at 3:26 am on July 14, 2008 1

coverLongtime readers of this blog will know that The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is one of my favorite books. While I think it stands as a very good book by nearly any standard, it has several qualities that appeal particularly to me. To boil these down, my affinity for the book is tied to the vast geography it covers, including many exotic locales and a few mundane. I also like the book as an example of Latin American magical realism that is stylistically different from Borges or Garcia Marquez, but to me just as satisfying.

Mutis is still relatively unknown, and were it not for the NYRB’s impressive packaging of Maqroll, really a collection of seven novellas, and Edith Grossman’s typically readable translation, it’s likely that Mutis would have almost no presence among English-language readers at all. Prior to the NYRB edition of Maqroll, a pair of earlier collections had been put out, one containing three of the novellas and another containing four (those editions were also translated by Grossman). Aside from that, Mutis had published some short stories and quite a lot of poetry, much of it featuring “Maqroll the Gaviero,” who would star in Mutis’ novels.

coverAs best as I’ve been able to tell, none of Mutis’ poetry has been published in English-language editions, but in 2004, a small Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions, put out a thin collection of some of Mutis’ short fiction. Maqroll does not appear, but the book, The Mansion offers what felt to this reader, a batch of stories in which Mutis tries out the various writerly tools that he will wield to great effect in Maqroll.

The first portion of The Mansion is a novella, The Mansion of Araucaima, which supposedly was Mutis’ answer to the director Luis Bunuel who claimed that it wasn’t possible to write a gothic story set in the tropics. The idea being, I suppose, that the lushness of the region is at odds with the castles and dark mood that is emblematic of the genre. (It should be noted that the Bunuel story may be apocryphal. I read about it a few years ago, but more recent Googling hasn’t turned much up about it.)

Regardless, Mutis’ effort is fairly successful, and appropriately moody and dark. As he does in Maqroll, Mutis experiments with structure in The Mansion of Araucaima. He divides the story up into brief chapters, focusing on the different characters and on their dreams (the dreams presumably being a key gothic element) before, after much stage setting, he offers a chapter called “The Events,” during which the novella’s narrative commences.

The remaining stories also play with structure. Frame stories abound (Maqroll, of course, is a frame story which contains other frame stories). The stories in The Mansion start with sentences like “The pages you are about to read belong to a bundle of manuscripts sold at a book auction in London a few years before the end of the Second World War.” and “A few facts surrounding the death of Alar the Illyrian… came to the attention of the Church at the Council of Nicaea when it discussed the canonization of a group of a group of Christians who had been martyred at the hands of the Turks.”

While Mutis takes the reader, in this handful of stories, to many arcane places and dreams up snippets of immersive histories and mythologies, they also feel like explorations and fragments (one story is in fact subtitled “A Fragment”), as opposed to fully formed pieces. As such, it is impossible to recommend the book ahead of Maqroll, which makes, out of the threads that Mutis plays with in The Mansion, a deep and layered tapestry. Maqroll perhaps also benefits from Grossman’s translation, which seems to disappear into the narrative, whereas Beatriz Hausner’s translation of The Mansion is more workmanlike. For those who have already read Maqroll and have an interest in Mutis, The Mansion will be an instructive and brief diversion. In terms of pure reading pleasure, however, rereading Maqroll might be a better bet.

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One Response to “South American Gothic: A Review of Alvaro Mutis’ The Mansion”

  1. Anonymous
    at 5:24 pm on July 14, 2008

    Can't agree more with you about the Maqroll stories. Thanks for the write-up on The Mansion, I've been tempted to get it, but I think I will for sure now.

    Jeff Ford

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