Mi amigo Octavio Paz

<i> Carlos Fuentes is the author of numerous books, including "The Old Gringo," "Christopher Unborn" and "The Crystal Frontier." His piece was provided exclusively to Book Review by NPQ and translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam</i>

“I cannot begin this lecture without paying homage to the great Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz. His work encompasses and enriches the culture of our century. It will also survive it. A writer as great as Octavio Paz is, along with his readers, both guardian and witness of his own immortality.”

Those are the words with which I opened my speech at the Buenos Aires Book Fair, where news of Paz’s death reached me. But only last week, two distinguished Mexican friends, with whom I was having dinner in London, told me: That’s not enough. What you said in Argentina reached practically no one in Mexico. Write something more on Octavio.

Something more? I don’t think any Mexican writer has written more than I have on Octavio Paz. Lectures, prefaces, recollections, public defenses, speeches, essays. For 30 years, I was a close reader of Paz’s work. He responded in kind with essays on my books, forewords and a beautiful poem. To all this should be added my correspondence with Paz, the more than 1,000 letters we exchanged over three decades, which are deposited in the Princeton University library.


The Peruvian literary critic Julio Ortega, the only person who has read that correspondence in its entirety, describes it as “the touching document of a friendship.” Following my instructions, the letters between Paz and me will remain sealed for 50 years after my own death. By then, the intimate remarks, frank statements, quarrels, affectionate notes and insults inevitably scattered throughout an exchange of letters that is so constant and yet so intense will not wound anyone and will only wear down the patience of biographers.

I met Octavio in Paris, in April of 1950, when I was 21 and he 35. We immediately became friends. I had come from Mexico filled with an admiration for him nurtured by my reading of, first, “The Labyrinth of Solitude” and, immediately after, “Libertad bajo palabra” [“Freedom on Parole”]. Those two books were the baptismal waters of my generation. “Labyrinth” synthesized the prevailing concern about the character of “all things Mexican.” Alfonso Reyes in “La X en la frente” and Samuel Ramos in “Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico” had preceded Paz’s questioning essays; the young thinkers at the University of Mexico concerned with defining their country would follow them; the crude nationalist flag-wavers would bury them. The statement, “He who reads Proust proustitutes himself,” was actually heard one day during a lecture in the Palace of Fine Arts, where the only symbols of national identity missing were Saltillo serapes.

Paz bestowed on my generation a great vision that reconciled Mexico with the rest of the world, as had Reyes before him. Reyes: “Let us be generously universal in order to be usefully national.” Paz: “For the first time in our history, we are the contemporaries of all men.” Paz’s work presupposes that of Reyes. It fell to Octavio to propose to all parochial spirits an inclusive universality in an environment of exclusive nationalism. Don Alfonso’s incomparable work was, in sum, a translation into Spanish American terms of the totality of Western culture. His meditations on Greece or Goethe, Gongora or Mallarme stripped away the “foreignness” of those things that were rightfully part of our heritage. They were the antidote to cheap chauvinism, but they were also an indispensable complement to the revolution-as-revelation pioneered by the Orozcos, Riveras, Chavezes, Revueltas, the Martin Luis Guzmans and the Rafael Munozes.

My own relationship with Reyes was practically filial. Visiting him periodically in Cuernavaca, I learned to read the books I’d overlooked between the ages of 15 and 20. Armed by Reyes, I arrived at this other relationship, this fraternal relationship, with Paz. Don Alfonso was in the habit of saying that for him the world ended on a day in February 1913, when his father, General Bernardo Reyes, was shot to death in the Zocalo, the main square of Mexico City. In literary terms, he was more interested in the past than in the present. His taste had its limitations--Proust, Joyce and very few things beyond them. He despised my novel “Where the Air Is Clear.” I thanked him for his frankness and still keep the flame of my love and gratitude burning for the greatest prose writer in the Spanish language during the first half of this century, as he was proclaimed by none other than Jorge Luis Borges.

Was Paz the greatest prose writer of the second half? That idea may indeed take hold. Some say his poetry is not as great as his prose. Paz was not Neruda or Vallejo. And he was surpassed by other Mexican poets such as Jose Gorostiza, Xavier Villaurrutia, or Ramon Lopez Velarde. But if we didn’t have the poetic unity we find in “Freedom on Parole,” “Sunstone” and “Seeds for a Hymn,” it would be difficult to understand or even begin to contemplate a poetic discourse that is reflexive, at times metaphysical, at other times playful, furious in some great moments. The “squeal you whores” spoken to words themselves ascends into the night, which in turn “falls . . . over Teotihuacan” where “on top of the pyramid the boys smoke marijuana” and “hoarse guitars resound.” And the ash of cigarettes and volcanoes falls in turn on that table where his grandfather and father can reminisce about Benito Juarez and Emiliano Zapata. But, says Paz, who can we reminisce about?

Paz’s great achievement was to infuse thought into poetry and poetry into thought. He charged his prose with metaphorical lightning and his poetry with discursive lucidity. Perhaps that was his unique quality, being, as he was, the heir to a tradition. It may be that the modern Spanish-language poets to whom Paz was most indebted were Jorge Guillen and Emilio Prados. Both Carlos Blanco Aguinaga and Jose Miguel Oviedo owe us comparative studies of the subject.

Poetry is inherited, recast, made, unmade, but it is also lived. Paz, the young Paz I met in 1950, wanted to live poetically. He suffered under the weight of his diplomatic obligations, but he carried them out in disciplined fashion. The “What?” that punctuated his conversation was an interrogation of a missing father, a reproach and an invocation all at the same time, but above all, it was a search for filial approval. His rage against the insufficiencies of language was paralleled by his rage against the unbearable sufficiencies of money and faith. The dollar sign and the sign of the cross were objects of fury and scorn in his youthful poetry. Money, literally and physically, ate away his hands during the difficult period of his life when he worked for the Bank of Mexico counting old bank notes destined for the incinerator. Octavio physically burned money. Did money at a later time burn him?

Together we explored the Paris of our youth, a capital externally untouched by World War II but with persistent penury in the things of everyday life--heat, light, telephones, gasoline. Octavio had a beautiful apartment on Avenue Victor Hugo, from which we, with his wife Elena Garro, the Argentine writers Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Enrique Creel, Jose Bianco and other friends would go to the cabarets on St. Germain des Pres, where Juliette Greco created a second night with her own voice and her “existentialist” costumes, where Albert Camus revealed himself to be a great “boogie” dancer, and where Luis Bun~uel returned after the triumph of “Los Olvidados” in Cannes, against the stony, cowardly will of the Mexican government. Octavio, a Mexican diplomat, stood right at the doors of the Festival Palace to hand out a pamphlet he’d written in defense of Bun~uel’s beautiful and terrible film whose art exalted rather than denigrated Mexico.

The image of Paris that will always remain in me is that of a gray afternoon when Paz took me to see the first great painting of the postwar era, Max Ernst’s magnificent “Europe After the Rain,” in a gallery on Place Vendome. Ernst and Paz had intensely blue eyes, “like the wind splitting in two the curtain of clouds.” But Ernst had the profile of an eagle and white hair; the young Paz was slim, with wavy hair and was irresistibly attractive to women. Five years later, back in Mexico, we went out together a great deal to dance with beautiful girls. With them we organized “toga parties,” where the only requirement was to arrive dressed in a white sheet. We were carried away by the bohemian windstorm that was Jose Alvarado to the celebrated Casa de la Bandida--the House of the Bandit Woman--where Paz answered the rather immodest songs of Graciela Olmos with verses by Baudelaire that “the girls” thought even lewder.

Paz and Alvarado had shared a downtown garret when they were studying law at San Ildefonso, and it was in that flat they installed a dressmaker’s dummy they baptized “The Rigid Woman.” (I used her as the theme of a story, “La Desdichada” in my book of novellas “Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins,” in which the character Bernardo is an imaginary portrait of the young Octavio.) Other times, a grotesque, irresistible couple out of the Mexican night named Ambar and Estrella led us through the most secret mirrored galleries of the city, populated by beggars, transvestites, mariachis, organ grinders, women who were real he-men and fauns from the concrete forest.

Juan Soriano and Diego de Mesa were also constant companions on those nocturnal adventures in a city that had barely four million inhabitants, a city that was perfectly safe for night owls like us and even for those who went to bed early, like the celebrated group called “The Divine Ones,” who met every Saturday in a restaurant, the Bellinghausen, to dissect the events of the week and enjoy the Bogota ironies of Hugo Latorre Cabal, Jaime Garcia Terres’ spirited pessimism, the consubstantial prudence of Jose Luis Martinez, the clowning mask that hid the profoundly poetic soul of Ali Chumacero, the physical and mental elegance of Joaquin Diez Canedo, and the playful self-absorption, the unexpected humor of the Spanish refugee Max Aub. We were all Octavio’s friends.

But whenever Paz returned to Mexico he was like a hurricane and turned everything upside-down. He renewed the city’s theatrical life with the productions of the Spoken Poetry group, whose curtain opened on the scenic marvels prepared by Juan Jose Gurrola, Hector Mendoza and Jose Luis Iban~ez, but then closed because of the almost virginal shock of the university authorities. Paz inspired Emmanuel Carballo and me to create the Revista Mexicana de Literatura that seriously offended the xenophobia and nationalist sentiments of the era. Condemned as elitist and art-for-art’s-sakeist, it was nevertheless in that magazine that a political poem by Paz, “The Broken Pitcher,” caused a furor at the time with its question of stone, panting and taste of dust: “Is only the frog alive, is it only the greenish frog that glitters and shines in the Mexican night, only the fat warlord of Cempoala who is immortal?”

With that question on our lips we marched together, Octavio and I and friends like Jose de la Colina, in support of Othon Salazar and his dissident teacher movement. We passed along Avenida Juarez under the balcony of the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, from which our bosses, Padilla Nervo and Jose Gorostiza, stared down at us in shock. They never said a word to us. It was possible to be a functionary and at the same time fight for independent unions. Those really were other times. Conformism was not obligatory.

It was Paz’s personal life that became complicated and carried him abroad again, to India, to the new dimension of his thought and poetry. When I next saw him he was with his new wife, Marie Jose, in a Roman restaurant with Jose Emilio Pacheco. The partying was over, the dancing was finished, and tragedy was soon to come. In 1968, three years later, the night of Tlatelolco marked the end of Mexico’s institutional revolution and the birth of a civil society educated by the revolution for the very thing its government tried to murder that night, the new generation’s spirit of freedom. Blood stained the Plaza of the Three Cultures, and Paz resigned his diplomatic post in India.

I immediately wrote him from Paris, where I happened to be, offering him solidarity, my house, my economic support, whatever he wanted. A crowd of us went to meet him at the dock in Barcelona: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Goytisolo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Donoso. . . . Who denied Paz the honor that President Diaz Ordaz tried to deprive him of? Who in Mexico defended Octavio more against the savagery of the president of Mexico than Fernando Benitez, Carlos Monsivais, Jose Emilio Pacheco, Elena Poniatowska, Jose Luis Cuevas and myself?

He returned to Mexico when Diaz Ordaz left the presidency, returned with modesty and without heroic posturing. He lived in a small apartment in San Angel Inn that Sol Arguedas rented him. Together we marched again, this time against the murderous “hawks,” the street toughs paid by the government. Together we organized a protest meeting at the University City, met with Demetrio Vallejo and Heberto Castillo to form a socialist democratic party or movement. And we argued a lot. We were not in agreement about several political matters, but we prided ourselves on being able to differ without fighting, proving our friendship, which was strong and deep, against all differences. We gave, we wanted to give, proof of respectful coexistence between different concepts of life and society. We were almost successful. Almost.

When, as editor of the Revista Mexicana de Literatura, I received a savage attack on Octavio Paz, I refused to print it. “So you don’t believe in freedom of criticism and expression,” the author said to me. “What I believe in is friendship,” I answered. “And I’m not going to publish attacks on my friends here. Go somewhere else with your article. There are plenty of people who would be delighted to publish it. But here, against a friend, no.”

Friendship requires attention, care and love. Dr. Johnson advises us never to let a day pass without repairing our friendships. Memory is a daily renovation of friendship. And only in the heart of a friend can we really recognize ourselves and the world, “like the day that matures hour by hour until it is only an immense instant.”

I said it in Buenos Aires and repeat it now. The work of Octavio Paz encompasses and enriches the culture of our century. It will also survive it. A writer as great as Octavio Paz is, along with his readers, both guardian and witness of his own immortality.