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Octavio Paz, Mexico's Great Idea Man

By Marie Arana-Ward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Octavio Paz For author Octavio Paz, who died on Monday at 84, poetry and politics were at the center of life. (Tom Mix/Reuters)
I saw Octavio Paz for the first time almost 20 years ago in New York City. He was moving uncertainly through the corridors of the publishing house where I'd just been hired. He was a spry sixty-something; I had not yet turned 30. He seemed somewhat disoriented; I was momentarily stunned. I had lifted my head from a rookie's tedium and found his unmistakable face looking my way.

As it turned out, the poet was lost – a condition he wasn't used to. He bowed graciously, approached my desk and in thickly accented English asked for the way to the publisher's office. I sprang up eagerly and offered to take him there. He seemed warmly surprised, even grateful, to be addressed in his own language, and to know he'd been recognized.

His was not a face Americans knew then. Nor, in fact, would it be on Monday morning, when he died. Although the man could not walk the streets of Mexico City without being stopped by every other citizen and thanked profusely, he was – in these United States – a virtual unknown even among people who buy books at Barnes & Noble, a force hardly felt in this monocultural colossus.

The publisher I worked for, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, took a chance on Paz's turbulent brilliance and issued a number of his collected works. It was a different world in those offices over which William Jovanovich presided: There was still hope that a steady rain of words, a poetic intelligence, could wedge open the arid ground. Paz's "Labyrinth of Solitude," written during his career as a diplomat, was a tour de force on the Mexican psyche. He would produce a trove of literary riches, among them "The Monkey Grammarian," "The Bow and the Lyre" and his forthcoming book, "An Erotic Beyond: Sade."

Paz's books were generated in this country mostly under the care of his editor, Drenka Willen, who labored tirelessly to see that his thoughts were not lost in the way stations of translation, that his ideas sailed into American heads intact. But there were precious few American heads to sail into. Poetry and literary criticism were rare enough vessels. Latin American poetry and essays in this country were more of a shaky ship. When Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990 – almost a decade after he began to be published in the States – his face began to appear in American newspapers, his name floated about on the streets, but his works continued to thrive only in the margins of American consciousness, and his publisher had to rationalize commerce with something approaching love.

This is not just a matter of North Americans not listening to what the South is saying. There has always been a basic disjuncture in what Spanish-speaking and English-speaking audiences want to hear. Octavio Paz was good at putting his finger on it. "The explanation lies in the very origins of the North American nation," he once wrote. "The Founding Fathers wanted to build a utopia outside of history. . . . History is a responsibility Americans would rather not have." Latin Americans, on the other hand, live in history with a gusto. Family loyalties are everything. Ideas and hypotheticals rule.

"Americans detest not just ideologies," wrote Paz, "but ideas, which is a very serious illness. When Americans want to have ideas they confuse them with morals, which are not the same thing." Since colonial days, the Hispanic intelligentsia has been tied to ideas and ideologies. The obsession is very European and inimical to the free way of American life.

Paz was the quintessential man of ideas, a persistent gadfly to left-leaning Latin American intellectuals and a staunch critic of magical realism, contending that realities are interesting enough without outlandish embroideries. He sneered at Cuba, despised the Soviet Union and found the U.S. government highly suspect to say the least.

Poetry and politics were at the center of his life. "If love is in bad shape now," he once wrote, "it's because politics is in bad shape – because the notion of human beings has been degraded. We're told that the important thing is to make love well. But that is technique. Love is more than technique. Imagination plays a very important part in love and politics, and without imagination in both, we have this catastrophe of modern life."

If Octavio Paz stood for any one idea, it was that the life of the mind is not very far from the life of the body. Knowledge, politics, the erotic body to him were all one and the same thing. This is a downright un-American, unpuritanical concept – very Latin – in which the language of sex is one step away from the language of the brain. If the Latin American literary boom that gave Octavio Paz his Nobel Prize has taught Americans anything, it is that passion is at the core of the ways we mortals move. Think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Mario Vargas Llosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" or this little gem from Paz's verses on India:

After Rikishesh
the Ganges is still green,
The glass horizon
breaks among the peaks.
We walk upon crystals.
Above and below
great gulps of calm.
In the blue spaces
white rocks, black clouds.
You said: This country is full of springs.
That night I dipped my hands in
your breasts.

About a year ago, I called Octavio Paz to ask him to write an essay for this newspaper. He was too tired to do anything like that, he said. He was not well even then. I told him that it was not the first time we had chatted, that we'd met one morning when he was lost in the offices of a publishing house. He listened to my story, heard it out, then cleared his throat politely. "So you took me where I had to go?" he said.

"Yes," I answered. "But it was a very long time ago. There's no reason why you should remember it."

"Maybe not with this old brain," he said. "But for one brief moment, señora, my fate was entirely in your hands. I would have recorded such a thing in my heart."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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