Of the two, Alvaro Mutis's three novellas based around the life of his eponymous hero Maqroll are the more absorbing. Mutis comes recommended by his friend Garcia Marquez, and has been compared to another Latin American writer, Isabel Allende, but thankfully has a voice of his own which sets him apart from both.
Maqroll is the eternal wanderer, always roaming the edges of the known and settled world. His voyages take him upstream through jungles, to the tops of freezing mountains, down impassable rivers. He involves himself in the most improbable schemes, searching for an absolute he knows in his heart of hearts does not really exist. His travels bring him into contact with desperate men and he finds fleeting moments of joy with bittersweet women. Though this may sound like too many cliches for one book, Mutis fleshes out his hero's adventures and conflicts with enough telling observation and reflection to give the novellas a vivid glow.
As much as any other book, Maqroll reminds me of Lermontov's Hero of Our Time, where the disabused hero restlessly pursues his own death, knowing that this was the only reason he was born. Mutis's hero is a similar Romantic misfit, whose philosophy is often distilled in diary passages:
'Living in a time completely alien to my interests and tastes, intimacy with the gradual dying that is each day's essential task, and the universe of eroticism always implicit for me in that task, my constant turning to the past in a search for the place and time when my life would have made sense, and a peculiar habit of always consulting the natural world in its presences, transformations, pitfalls, and secret voices, on which I still rely for the solution to my dilemmas and the final judgement on my actions, apparently so gratuitous but always obedient to their call.'
Death is even more explicit in Camilo Jose Cela's novel, in which the author returns to his native Galicia to tell the story of an imaginary village during the years of the Civil War in his country. The book opens with the murder of a soldier while he is trying to summon up his own past fantasies by masturbating under a fig tree, and closes with the horrific revenge exacted on his killer, when dogs rip him apart like wolves. Homo lupus homini - man is a wolf to man - one of the characters in the book reminds us, and this is the underlying spirit of the book.
As well as murder, there is incessant rain, and in general Mazurka for Two Dead Men presents a side of Spain so sodden and gloomy it seems more like the bogs of Ireland. Forty years ago in his novel The Family of Pascal Duarte, Cela almost single-handedly founded a literary school of grim rural realism which stripped away all rosy-tinted notions of Spanish peasant life, showing it instead to be steeped in ignorance and violence. Over the years, Cela has continued to reflect this bleak view of life in his many works, counterbalanced only by brief flashes of humour, the shared animal warmth of a sexual companion and the power of language to invent stories that will keep the weather at bay:
'It rains mercilessly, perhaps it rains mercifully, upon all that is left of the world, between the blotted-out line of the mountain and here; beyond that we neither know, nor do we care, what happens. It drizzles upon this earth and falls on the ear like the sound of growing flesh, or a budding flower, and through the air flits a soul in distress, seeking shelter in some heart or other. You go to bed with a woman and when a son, or maybe a daughter, is born - only to run off on you 15 years down the line with some tramp from Leon - the rain still falls upon the mountain as if nothing had happened.'
The inhabitants of this damp landscape are grotesque characters whose intimate details are gradually revealed as the narrative weaves in and out of different passages like a musical composition. Cela tends to spit out their stories like someone thumped on the back in the middle of a meal. For the reader on the receiving end, the experience can be confusing, before coming to seem rewarding in the end.