Literary Wanderings

On Reading Fiction for Pleasure

The article "Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman should be required reading for everyone, especially parents of young children.

Gaiman argues that reading fiction is one of the most important things we can do. And he goes further, saying we have an obligation to read fiction for pleasure, to support libraries, to read aloud to our children, to use the language, to imagine, and to daydream.

He quotes Albert Einstein, who, when asked how we could make our children intelligent, said, "Read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."

Reading fiction is how we communicate with those who are no longer with us and how we imagine what we might become.

Alvaro Mutis

One of my favorite authors, Alvaro Mutis, passed away recently at the age of ninety. Mutis was primarily a poet, but was best known for his works about a single character: Maqroll, the Gaviero ("The Lookout"). A modern-day Don Quixote, Maqroll traveled the world, often by boat, having adventures that were often of a clandestine nature. Mutis wrote seven novellas that involved Maqroll. The first was entitled The Snow of the Admiral and was published when Mutis was sixty-three.

The adventures themselves are fascinating, but what distinguishes these works for me is the beauty of the writing. I can do no better than quote from one of them (The Snow of the Admiral).

While Maqroll journeys down the Xurando River in a diesel-powered, flat-keeled barge, he reflects on life:

Thinking about time, trying to find out if past and future are valid and, in fact, exist, leads us into a labyrinth that is no less incomprehensible for being familiar.

Every day we're different, but we always forget that the same is true for others as well. Perhaps this is what people call solitude. If not it's solemn imbecility.

A caravan doesn't symbolize or represent anything. Our mistake is to think it's going somewhere. The caravan exhausts its meaning merely by moving from place to place. The animals in the caravan know this, but the drivers don't. It will always be this way.

Everything we can say about death, everything we try to embroider around the subject is sterile, entirely fruitless labor. Wouldn't it be better just to be quiet and wait? Don't ask that of humans. They must have a profound need for doom; perhaps they belong exclusively to its kingdom.

Is it true that we forget most of what has happened to us? Isn't it more likely that a portion of the past serves as a seed, an unnamed incentive for setting out again toward a destiny we had foolishly abandoned? A crude consolation. Yes, we do forget. And it's just as well.

And of his death, which is recounted in the novella Un Bel Morir, on his final voyage, traveling with a woman down an unnamed river:

Some days later a customs launch found the barge run aground among the mangroves. The woman, deformed by extraordinary swelling, gave off an unbearable stench that spread like the limitless swamp. The Gaviero lay curled up beside the tiller, his body dried and sere like a pile of roots withered by the sun. His wide-open eyes were fixed on that nothingness, immediate and anonymous, where the dead find the rest that was denied them during their wanderings while they were alive.

Mutis was born in Columbia in 1923 and spent the first eleven years of his life there. He emigrated to Mexico where he lived from 1956 until his death. He was a close friend of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called him "one of the greatest writers of our time."

Though sometimes labeled a magical realist, Mutis really didn't fit into that category. His writing, like Maqroll himself, is hard to categorize. The writing is rich, vivid, and philosophical. Maqroll is lonely, naive, and adventurous (much, Mutis once said, like his author). Both will be dearly missed.