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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Snow of the Admiral

Álvaro Mutis

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To purchase The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll

Title: The Snow of the Admiral
Author: Álvaro Mutis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 97 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: in: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll - US
in: Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero - US
in: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll - UK
in: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll - Canada
La neige de l'amiral - France
Der Schnee des Admirals - Deutschland
La neve dell'ammiraglio - Italia
in: Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero - España
  • Spanish title: La Nieve del Almirante
  • Translated by Edith Grossman
  • First published in Maqroll: Three Novellas (1992)
  • Now published in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, with an Introduction by Francisco Goldman

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Our Assessment:

B+ : evocative dark and sultry passage; fine introduction to the character

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/11/1992 Leonard Michaels
The New Yorker . 5/1/2003 John Updike
Sunday Times . 20/6/1993 Stephen Amidon
TLS . 11/6/1993 Jean McNeil
The Washington Post . 27/12/1992 James Polk

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Snow of the Admiral is indeed poemlike, and of these novellas the most intense and surreal in its atmospherics. (...) (T)he particulars of this useless voyage -- the river currents, the encircling jungle, the stultifying heat, the grimy details of the barge's operation, the repulsive personality tics of those aboard -- are rendered so vividly as to furnish a metaphor for life, as a colorful voyage to nowhere." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Mutis is a dazzling stylist. His prose, gracefully translated by Edith Grossman, renders scenes of often jarring violence and carnality with hypnotic elegance. (...) What makes his writing so memorable is not just its reckless adventurousness, but also the way Maqroll serves as an avatar of modern alienation." - Stephen Amidon, Sunday Times

  • "Maqroll resonates with the echoes of superior books. (...) The journey is familiarly surreal, populated by Anglo-Saxons who go mad in the heat, plenty of soul-rotting, elemental sexuality (supplied by the natives and the depraved Europeans) and the rueful voice of Maqroll, the lonely rover." - Jean McNeil, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Though lacking an omnipresent sense of dread, the novella carries its own cargo of angst. Mutis conveys a world of doubt and uncertainty, where ends are as clouded as means and where the achievement of either is almost beside the point." - James Polk, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Álvaro Mutis' introduced his character Maqroll the Gaviero in his poetry decades earlier, but only with the 1986 publication of The Snow of the Admiral -- itself initially conceived as a prose-poem -- did he begin to feature him in his fiction, leading to the septet of novellas, written over less than a decade, that present The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (as the (handy one-volume) collected edition is titled).
       The Snow of the Admiral begins with an editor's note, the anonymous author beginning by explaining how:

     I thought that the writings, letters, documents, tales, and memoirs of Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) had all passed through my hands, and that those who knew of my interest in the events of his life had exhausted their search for written traces of his unfortunate wanderings, but fate held in store a curious surprise just when it was least expected.
       The Snow of the Admiral is thus introduced as a sort of final story, the author presenting himself as familiar with the whole Maqroll history and this just one more adventure that he's learned about to add to the lot -- even as, of course, the character is essentially a new one to the reader. So The Snow of the Admiral -- with the bulk of the novel presented as entries from Maqroll's diary -- flings the reader right into an episode from somewhere well into his clearly storied life, with backstory and apparently very colorful personal history mostly barely more than hinted at and only occasionally described in somewhat greater detail. Yet it's not a bad way to introduce the reader to Maqroll, a character defined by, as the author already notes, a life of 'unfortunate wanderings' -- an eternal seeker of sorts. True, we only get some sense of the man here -- but it is the essence.
       As to the details -- well, as Maqroll soon enough admits about this particular adventure in his diary:
It's always the same: I embark on enterprises that are branded with the mark of uncertainty, cursed by deceit and cunning. And here I am, sailing upriver like a fool, knowing ahead of time how everything will end, going into the jungle where nothing waits for me.
       The author reports finding this diary in the back pocket of an antiquarian book he had long been looking for and finally come across. [The book is Paul Raymond's Enquête du prévôt de Paris sur l'assassinat de Louis, duc d'Orléans , described by Mutis as having been: "published by the Bibliothèque de l'Ecole des Chartres in 1865"; in fact, Raymond's is simply an article -- of just over thirty pages -- in an issue the periodical, Bibliothèque de l'École des Chartes ('chartes', not 'Chartres', too). Maqroll describes reading the work in his diary, even taking issue with Raymond's handling of it, and Mutis certainly makes it sound as though it were a heftier work, at the very least misleading readers about its scope.]
       Maqroll had had a better, safer option -- sailing a freighter to Antwerp -- but instead opted for the hopeless journey he chronicles in this diary. He heard about this would-be opportunity from Flor Estévez, who ran The Snow of the Admiral, a place deep in the mountains where he spent several months recuperating from an injury. She had money to invest, and heard of this potentially incredibly profitable venture, of sawmills deep, deep in the jungle, and Maqroll hopes to negotiate a timber deal to cash in. He sets off on a barge and travels up the sometimes treacherous (fictional) Xurandó, and his diary chronicles the long journey to those hidden, mysterious sawmills.
       There are only a few people on the boat, and barely anyone manages to stay in it for the long haul. Occasionally, additional passengers are taken on, or take it on themselves to join the trip for a stretch -- a native couple with two young children; two soldiers -- while on the return journey even Maqroll abandons the ship, taking up a generous offer of easier transport, leaving the barge and the only ones remaining on it to their fate (which he learns of, and which is hardly surprising ...). The captain -- whose life-story has also taken him far and wide, as Maqroll eventually learns -- is long in a state of constant semi-inebriation, steady drinking the only thing that keeps him going; Maqroll is warned to make sure the captain always has enough on hand to stave off sobriety -- but when the captain does stop drinking the consequences aren't quite the ones Maqroll (or likely the reader) will have expected, in one of the book's very nicely done turning points.
       Maqroll's trip is long and uncomfortable, and even though the reader knows to expect the predictably stifling heat and hardships Mutis evokes all this very well. From very basic carnal encounters with the natives who are briefly on the ship to the fate of some of those picked up by the major who takes an interest in the boat and its passengers and arrests two of those aboard, to Maqroll being gripped by a sickness that sees him briefly close to death (and out of commission for a while), Mutis impressively describes a torrid and drawn-out journey -- with Maqroll never managing to work up much enthusiasm even about the potential gain that he reminds himself he's going through all this trouble for. Indeed, Maqroll's fundamental attitude seems to be one of fatalism -- plowing always ahead, but with few hopes:
The best thing is to let everything happen as it must. That's right. It's not a question of resignation. Far from it. It's something else, something to do with the distance that separates us from everything and everybody.
       And, indeed, Maqroll seems always isolated -- far from civilization on his long voyage deep into the countryside, and hardly close to any of the people he does come in contact with over the course of it. The major is a helpful and even protective figure, but also a threatening one -- and though he is supportive of Maqroll's efforts along the way, coming and going, he leaves Maqroll to make his own discoveries.
       The destination turns out to be different than expected, both more impressive and worse. Unsurprisingly, regardless, there's nothing for Maqroll there -- and he's not the type to make his case or stake any claim: fatalistic, he accepts the situation as he finds it and moves on from there. Even if that means, essentially, failure. But then, he's used to that.
       The Snow of the Admiral is a compelling portrait of a character who, himself, actually does very little. He's a passenger -- literally for much of the novel, but even beyond that, in life in general --, and most of what happens happens to him. In part, that's because this is a world in which it is difficult to assert oneself; nature, in particular, easily overwhelms the individual -- and it does many here. The major and, in a very different way, the captain are the only ones who actively take steps to affect their (and other) lives; Maqroll largely simply goes along with the options he's presented, and while there are occasionally choices he can make, there's often only really one option. Yet he's not entirely passive, and certainly not a lifeless character; typically, at one point, he finds himself having: "fallen into a state of marginal indifference bordering on muffled panic", as he doesn't fight his fate but is always keenly aware of it.
       The bulk of the novel presents Maqroll's diary -- that is the story, essentially -- but the author who found the diary mentions in his introductory section that he thought:
readers might be interested in having access to information related, in one way or another, to the events and people Maqroll describes in the Diary. I have therefore appended several accounts that appeared in earlier publications but now occupy what I believe is their proper place.
       So after the story proper is brought to some conclusion in the diary, there are several short pieces that make a sort of appendix -- including one briefly describing Maqroll's time in The Snow of the Admiral. Practically fragments, they do add a bit to the picture -- and certainly reïnforce the feel -- of Maqroll that Mutis has been building here; still, they are also a bit of an after- or other-thought.
       A short novella, not quite to nowhere, The Snow of the Admiral is a fine, dark tale and a good introduction to this character.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 June 2019

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The Snow of the Admiral: Reviews: Álvaro Mutis: Other books by Álvaro Mutis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Álvaro Mutis (1923-2013) was awarded both the Cervantes Prize and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

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© 2019-2024 the complete review

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