Mutis was born in Bogotá and lived in Brussels from the age of two until eleven, where his father, Santiago Mutis Dávila, held a post as a diplomat. They would return to Colombia by ship for summer holidays. During this time Mutis’ family stayed at his grandfather’s coffee and sugar cane plantation, Coello. For Álvaro Mutis, the impressions of these early years, his reading of Jules Verne and of Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra, and, especially, contact with “el trópico” (the tropics), are the mainspring of his work. Mutis studied high school in Bogotá under the tutelage of the Colombian poet Eduardo Carranza. Although he never finished school, he entered the literary world in Bogotá as a poet, a member of the Cántico group that emerged in 1940s. In 1948 Mutis and Carlos Patiño published a chapbook of poems called La balanza. He lived in Mexico City since 1956, gaining renown there as the result of Octavio Paz’s positive reviews of his work.
Mutis’ poetry was first published in 1948 and his first short stories in 1978. His first novella featuring Maqroll, La nieve del Almirante (The Snow of the Admiral) was published in 1986 and gained him popular and critical acclaim. He has received many literary awards, including the Prix Médicis (France, 1989), Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras (Spain, 1997), Premio Miguel de Cervantes (Spain, 2001), and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (United States, 2002), for The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, a volume collecting all seven novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero.
Mutis has combined his career as a writer of poetry and prose with a diverse set of non-literary occupations. Like his protagonist Maqroll, Mutis traveled widely in his professional roles including five years as Standard Oil’s public relations director and over 20 years as sales manager for Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures in their Latin American television divisions. Latin Americans first became familiar with his voice when he did the narration for the Spanish-language television version of The Untouchables. The late Octavio Paz was a champion of Mutis’ early poetry. In the 1950s, Mutis spent 15 months in a Mexican prison as a consequence of his handling of money intended for charitable use by Standard Oil. His experience in prison had a lasting influence on his life and work, and is chronicled in the book Diario de Lecumberri.
Mutis’ close friend, Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez, called him “one of the greatest writers of our time.” Mutis’ works are most widely read in Latin America and Europe. Mutis is not well known in the anglophone world, probably because he is not easy to categorize. His literary work is not part of what is commonly understood in the American academy as “Latin American Literature”. Maqroll, his most well-known character, is of indeterminate origin, nationality, age and physiognomy. He is not evidently from Latin America and does not represent anything particularly Latin American in character. Maqroll is a solitary traveler who brings a stranger’s detachment to his encounters and his lovers; he searches for meaning in a time of violence and inhumanity. In this sense some literary critics has compared Maqroll to Sophocles’ Oedipus.
- August, 25, 1923
- Bogotá, Colombia
- September, 22, 2013
- Mexico City, Mexico