Prisoner in the Black Palace: Alvaro Mutis

If it exists at all, the pity of the gods is indecipherable or comes to us when we breathe our last, says the narrator at the end of Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. The Colombian-Mexican novelist and poet died Sunday in Mexico City at 90. Last March, Letras Libres published this essay on his dark year jailed for ambiguous reasons in Mexico City.

For fifteen months Alvaro Mutis was imprisoned in Mexico City’s famous Black Palace of Lecumberri, awaiting the outcome of a Kafkaesque process of extradition to Colombia for supposed crimes against literature and gastronomy: among them a grand banquet in Bogota held with his poet friends in memory of the French chef Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste.

The young poet had already published The Elements of the Disaster in 1953. In Mexico, he had been the heart of every party, as Elena Poniatowska tells it, with a cackling laugh that could quicken the dead and a geniality that quickened the hearts of the girls. A friend of men in high places in Colombia, public relations man for multinational companies, he nevertheless tumbled into this dark pit, where “your eyes will be tunnels for the fetid wind, still, compliant, colorless,” down there where “your meager, shriveled sex now yields up only the rosy distillation of your glands, first to be touched by the signs of decomposition.”

When he was freed on December 22 of 1959, some months early, he was 36 years old. A nightmare that had changed his life forever had come to an end; it had given even further depth to his already proven poetic intuitions, and pointed him down the literary path that would carry him to the 2001 Cervantes Prize. He said himself that if he hadn’t been ‘sent up the river’ in Lecumberri, neither the books of the Maqroll saga nor most of the later poetry would ever have come to exist.

Born in 1923 in Bogota, he spent most the years between the ages of 2 to 11 in various boarding schools in Paris or Brussels, where his father Santiago was a diplomat. When the latter died, at the very young age of 33, the younger Mutis returned to Colombia with his mother, where he was sent to boarding school in chilly Bogota. School terms were fortunately interspersed with unforgettable visits to the wild liberty of the maternal finca in the tropical lowlands. Abandoning high school for poetry and billiards, he married and had children very young: taking jobs as a broadcaster on cultural programs, working for airlines and multinationals like Standard Oil and Esso. A life of unceasing travel, on an unstable but opulent railway.

All of this derailed suddenly, when he fell into the disgrace of imprisonment. The solitude of the tiny cell, the helplessness before the lies of the vindictive politicians and personalities who had launched the judicial process during the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship, the changed gaze of the others on this plague victim, the misery of the endless unconsoled nights, the friends who turned their backs and fled, the yearning for life outside, the sound of airliners landing at the neighboring airport bringing with them the memory of voyages past, of grand hotels in the outside world. All of these bitter sensations piled up during those endless ominous hopeless hours.

In prison, his poetic obsessions were reaffirmed; the certainty that there was nowhere to go, that sickness and death are already present in a body whose decline cannot be stopped, the ardor of desire in doorways and flophouses, the solitude of the wandering traveler fleeing nameless and launching absurd projects to hurry away the poisonous sensation of stagnant hours, the meek eternity of the suicides and the drowned, the hubbub of brothels, the friendship and loyalty of outlaws and lovers; all of this interrupted into those dark chambers and cells and corridors, filled up with the wretched and calling to mind ancient tramp steamers stinking of diesel and rust.

Besides his activities as amateur jailhouse playwright and host of such figures as Luis Bunuel and Seki Sano, Mutis spent those bitter defeated hours reading in the prison library, where he found such excellent books as the Letters of the Prince of Ligne, the Memoirs From Beyond the Grave of Chateaubriand and the works of Marcel Proust. He also wrote long typed letters on rolls of paper. poems and stories, some of which would be included in his Diary of Lecumberri, published by the University of Veracruz.

In other words, he came out of Lecumberri, which had imprisoned such others as the murderer of Trotsky, Ramon Mercader, the painter David Alfaro Siquieros, the writer Jose Revueltas, the novelist Jose Agustin, and William Burroughs, a different man, convinced that ‘we may not judge our fellow man,’ an essential certainty that guided the voyages and efforts of his literary alter ego Maqroll the Gaviero.

Eduardo Garcia Aguilar