Brief Thoughts on Alvaro Mutis’s “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port Of Call”


There is a line of James Wright I have always loved: “Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness of the Midwest?”

Re-reading one of the great modern sea stories, “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” by the Colombian writer Alvaro Mutis, I thought of this line of Wright’s. As if loneliness were a problem to be solved. And yet this is the ultimate truth isn’t it? Aren’t we perpetually trying to solve this problem?

“The Tramp Steamer” is a sea story. It is the story of an old dilapidated wandering boat that the narrator – an oil company executive who travels around the world – coincidentally sees limping into various harbors at different times in his life. Helsinki, Costa Rica, Kingston, Jamaica. He becomes, for years, haunted by the image of this tramp steamer. “This nomadic piece of sea trash bore a kind of witness to our destiny on earth….” A sea story, but also, like any great story maybe, it is a love story. Years after his last encounter with that strange, memorable boat, the narrator (again coincidentally, but as Mutis suggests, our lives are made up of these sorts of coincidences) meets the captain of it and becomes privy to the story behind the image.

“Life often renders its accounts,” Mutis writes. “And it is advisable not to ignore them.”

The story within the story is about a middle-aged Basque ship-captain-man named Jon Iturri who falls for a beautiful young Lebanese woman named Warda. As the captain begins to talk – on the deck of a different boat, long after the love affair that has come to characterize his life has ended – he says, “This is the first and last time I’m talking about this. You can repeat it to anyone you like later on. That isn’t important; it doesn’t concern me. Jon Iturri has really ceased to exist. Nothing can affect the shadow that walks the world now and bears his name.”

And he proceeds to recount the single most important event in his life. A simple story really. In the course of wandering from port to port, love is found, love is lost. But what is more calamitous?

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →