Tag Archives: octavio paz

Popocatépetl

7 May

Popcatapetl

Yesterday I came back into Mexico City from Puebla, the massive form of Popocatépetl (5,426 metres) to my left – caught fuzzily on my phone camera – passing the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. It impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the Mexican landscape, that within a few hours one can pass through prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go, including on this bus.

On Monday night in Puebla, as I was walking back to my hotel, an indigenous woman, utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and in filthy clothes came running past me, apparently chasing after a big 4×4, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street (Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . ) for an entire block, and I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a kind of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and struggle probably accounted for an additional twenty years. I can hardly imagine what her story was – or the cruel, uncaring Don Roberto’s – but it was timeless, and seemed to sum up, more than any social analysis, the discrepancy between want and privilege, the honorific ‘Don’, gasped out as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit at once implying his status and her subjugation. The image has stayed with me.

I returned to the city yesterday evening to attend a tertulia, a cross between a poetry discussion group and a workshop organised by the poet and short story writer Fabio Morábito and friends, where I was invited to read. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán, passing by Octavio Paz’s family home, before returning to the more familiar confines of Condesa and supper at Luigi’s.

But today, back on the bus, the perennial Mexican bus. The clock at the front says 7.05. It is 12.50, but who cares? We pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and back into the mist. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a kind of constant dislocation, which is not surprising considering the word means just that – a state of being displaced, an absence of locus. I never believed, as some of my generation seemed to, that travelling of itself was a kind of means of discovering oneself. I have absolutely no interest in discovering myself, nor anybody else for that matter. But I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged beauty, for the fact that it lies Under the Volcano and is the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent novel of that name, but in part at least because my late friend, Petros Prasinaki, aka Igbar Zoff, aka Peter Green came here sometime in the mid to late 197os in order to spend his inheritance, search for Lowry’s ghost and drink mescal, an example I will not be following. But I have a copy of Under the Volcano with me, just in case.

 

 

Of Dogs and Death

26 Apr

 

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

 

I wrote once before about Juan Rulfo and his novel Pedro Paramo, which has unparalleled status in Mexican literature and was a major influence on the young Gabriel García Márquez on his arrival in Mexico City in 1961.

I recently spent an evening reading Juan Rulfo’s short stories El llano en llama (translated into English both as The Plain in Flames and The Burning Plain). The stories were written in the long wake of the Mexican revolution, which coincided with Rulfo’s own childhood in an orphanage in Jalisco where, he said later, he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, “because you couldn’t go out for fear of getting shot.” These stories lead the reader into a space of silence and mystery, where reality breaks down and we enter a world that might be the antechamber to the afterlife, if the afterlife you have in mind is bleak, featureless, devoid of anything that could pass as life at all. But there are ghosts, at least.

The rhythms of Rulfo’s prose remind me of what Octavio Paz wrote about his archetypal Mexican: “his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . .” There are threats aplenty, but they are unformed, vaguely defined and usually at some distance from the place of narration – yet always getting closer. Events take place in a half-light, as characters stumble towards yet another failure, or else death.

In the first story in Rulfo’s collection, ‘They have given us land’, a group of four landless men trudge across an arid plain. They have been promised land by some government official, but the ground beneath them is dry, stony, utterly unsuitable for planting anything that might grow. There had been more than twenty in their group, and they had horses and rifles, but now there are only four, and they have nothing, apart from a hen, which one of them keeps hidden inside his coat. “After walking for so many hours without coming across even the shadow of a tree, even the seed of a tree, nor the root of anything, we heard the barking of dogs.”

In another story ‘Don’t you hear the dogs barking’, a man carries his adult son on his back to try and find a doctor in the town of Tonaya. The younger man is wounded. It is night-time and the old man cannot see where he is going. As the pair draw near to the town we learn through the father’s faltering monologue that his son is a thief and a murderer, and he is only carrying him out of respect for the boy’s dead mother.

In these two stories, the barking of dogs indicates the existence, if not of hope precisely, then of some form of life, of human dwellings at the very least. But perhaps that is a false reading. In Mesoamerican cultures dogs were considered to have the powers to guide the dead to a new life after death, which explains why dogs have frequently been found buried with people in pre-Columbian sites.

And of course, at the end of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano, a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after the dead body of the unfortunate consul.

To come full circle, I discovered today that Rulfo had a bit-part in a Spanish film based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. The film is called En este pueblo no hay ladrones (In this town there are no thieves), and is exceptional in that the cast is made up of notable writers, visual artists and film directors, including Luis Buñuel (clearly relishing his performance as the town priest), Leonora Carrington, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arao, Abel Quezada, and Gabriel García Márquez himself.

 

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masks and Death

24 Apr

day-of-the-dead-masks

 

When travelling, how do we begin to learn when someone is wearing a mask, with intent to deceive, given that we all wear masks much of the time?

We all know, as Hamlet says, that ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, and so I am thinking about how one goes about making judgements in another culture with people whose ideas about what qualifies as ‘sincerity’ is, perhaps, at a remove from one’s own culturally engendered version. And how, I wonder, do ‘I’ appear, the person who passes as myself (my own current person impersonator) with my own pretensions at ‘sincerity’, when for all my interlocutor knows, I am wearing a mask too, perhaps one more efficacious in design than his or her own.

These things trouble me. Should they? And how much does any of this matter, if, as Javier Marías reminds us in his novel The Infatuations (Los Enamoramientos), we are all novice ghosts: ‘whatever we do, we’ll only be waiting, like dead men on leave, as someone once said’.

A mask conceals, but to wear death on the outside conceals nothing, nada: it only reveals what we wear on the inside, what we carry inside us – our own eventual death – because we are ‘dead men on leave’ and one cannot conceal what can never be erased. So the mask of death, the grinning skull, is a double bluff, it is a way of anticipating our status as fragile ghosts, a way perhaps of trying to con or cheat or temporarily delay Death into thinking we are already dead, so he cannot choose us, he needn’t waste his time with us. This is not the same as the rather simplistic explanation I have read in tourist guides, namely that Mexicans like to display images of death and the skull in order to familiarise and trivialise it, to make it commonplace, to deny it real significance by flaunting it through macabre displays, even to the extent of eating chocolate skulls and skeletons. That, surely, would only constitute a bluff (a single bluff). And Death would not be fooled by that, surely?

How does a people – according to Claudio Lomnitz in his extraordinary book, Death and the Idea of Mexico – come to have death as its national icon? This question was addressed at length by Octavio Paz in his seminal study on the Mexican character, or what I am coming to think of as Mexicality, which manages to carry an almost-reference to mescal, the national liquor (usurped for many years by the Jalisco version, tequila, but making a fierce comeback among the middle classes, who previously eschewed it as a poor man’s drink). It is a view corroborated in Mexican culture by the prevalence of further imagery of death: not just in the ‘national icon’, as Lomnitz would have it, but in the extraordinarily graphic pictures (which would never be publishable in a UK newspaper) that accompany headlines of the latest narco-murder, and which, significantly, also accompany the paraphernalia of Christian death – exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross – here represented in a crucifixion scene I photographed yesterday in a Coyoacán church.

A bloodied Christ, with real hair.

None of this will be new to anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico, but for me the whole symbology of death, celebrated so vividly in fiestas such as the Day of the Dead – well, all fiestas in fact, as the essence of a fiesta is to defy death, to celebrate a momentary explosion in time, thereby provoking an attraction of opposites: the fiesta beckons death by celebrating life with fanatical and joyous hubris – is a topic definitively at odds with our Western denial of death, our sterilising and alienating distancing of everyday life from any possible contact with the unspeakable void that death represents.  But these are only preliminary thoughts on the topic, to which I may one day return.

At the Festival of the Book and the Rose, which I attended yesterday, as a guest of the Periódico de Poesía, the celebrations were adjusted at the last minute to make way for an homage to Gabriel García Márquez, pictured below, on a placard, flanked by yellow roses. I also learned that the University (UNAM) is home to 325,000 students: the same population, give or take a few dozen, as the city of Cardiff.

 

Gabo memorial

Gabo memorial

 

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence ,Jorge F. Hernández.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence, Jorge F. Hernández.

 

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mexican Masks: the ambassadorial posts

23 Apr

Octavio Paz centenary

Day 1

What is a creative ambassador? According to the blurb from the Arts Council of Wales, ‘The Creative Wales Ambassadors Awards are made by nomination and recognise . . . individual achievement in the arts along with the aim to raise the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales.’ My application was called Unfinished Journey and in it I wrote the following (forgive me reproducing this paragraph in full, but I thought it fair to present what I aim to do):

‘Modern journeys often awaken in the traveller a sense of ‘travelling without seeing’, an idea that is perhaps uniquely contemporary. The title suggests that rather than having a fixed point of departure and arrival, all travel is a continuum, and that the only valid objective is to sustain the exquisite tension of the unfinished journey. My project is to research and write an account of the process of travel as a work in progress. Reports will initially appear as journal entries, posted on the blog written by my alter ego, Ricardo Blanco, as we tour Latin America in search of its poets and its wanderers; but this will only be a part of the narrative, as the project will also take us through journeys past, as well as across a very personal Latin America of memory and the imagination. Unfinished Journey is linked to, but discrete from, preparation of my forthcoming anthology of Contemporary Latin American Poetry (Seren Books, 2016), and the Cardiff-based Fiction Fiesta, and it builds on friendships with writers, and alliances with cultural organisations across Latin America. Unfinished Journey is sponsored by Wales Literature Exchange and the Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos Aires, Argentina, with supporting partners at the Universidad Austral, in Validivia, Chile; the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, Colombia; and the Periódico de Poesía, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.’

It seems only fitting, in Octavio Paz’s Centenary year (yes, it’s not all about Dylan) that I should begin this journey in the country of, quite possibly, the 20th century’s finest ambassador for poetry. Paz, following the admirable tradition of Latin American countries in giving jobs to their poets, was also a real ambassador, to India, during which time he wrote some extraordinarily perceptive essays on Indian art and culture.

I first became interested in the literature of Mexico through the poetry of Paz and the fiction of Carlos Fuentes (I discovered years later that the two men detested each other). At a tangent, I also read the weird, apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda with great enthusiasm, until at some point I felt he had gone off somewhere I was unable to follow. But Paz, whose Labyrinth of Solitude I encountered when I was 20, and which made a lasting impression, says this: ‘The European considers Mexico to be a country on the margin of universal history, and everything that is distant from the centre of his society strikes him as strange and impenetrable.’

I am not certain this is as true today as it was when it was written half a century ago: Europe has changed too, manifesting a slow but steady willingness to embrace minority or ‘peripheral’ perspectives (although this is not to say the work does not remain to be done, not least in the unravelling of an archaic class system based on an established white male elite). Likewise, as the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon reminded me last year, the history and present of Latin America is as much based on race today as ever it was. This and other considerations, specifically those relating to Mexico, will occupy my attention, along with – I hope – more quotidian observations about the places I go and the people I meet.

So it is that today I am headed to the University in Mexico City, to meet students celebrating the festival of the book and the rose (Fiesta del libro y la rosa).

This celebration takes place on St George’s day, across the Hispanic world. I first became familiar with it during my time in Catalunya (of which St Jordi [i.e. George] is also the patron saint), a day in which lovers present each other with gifts of a book and a rose (in olden times the woman gave the man a book and the man gave the woman a rose, as women who read books were presumably not be trusted, but thankfully that part of the tradition has now been abandoned).

Later in the week, and in keeping with my brief of ‘raising the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales’, I will be giving a lecture on Dylan Thomas in Spanish (a first for me, but given his Centenary, and given the abundance of translations of his poetry – he is, I discovered with some shock, after T.S. Eliot, the most translated 20th Century English language poet – I’m prepared to give it a punt); and I will seek to bring him into some kind of historical context, alongside R.S. Thomas and David Jones in a breakneck survey of Welsh poetry in English. Otherwise, over the next 24 days, I will be giving talks and readings of my own stuff (in the meticulous translations of Jorge Fondebrider) and travelling around the central part of Mexico, finding things to Blanquiloquise about.

‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, a teacher from Yucatán told me two and a half years ago on a previous visit to Mexico, as he drove me to the high school at Zapotlanejo where he taught history (please see Blanco’s blog about that trip in the post Dog-throwing in Zapotlanejo and other rare feats). These many faces, as in any other place, frequently appear as masks. It is something to bear in mind, as Octavio Paz reminds us in his ‘Mexican Masks’ chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude, casting as harsh an eye on his own countrymen as R.S. Thomas ever did on the Welsh:

‘The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or labourer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defence: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbour, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits . . . his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . . The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.’

 

PS. I should note that in my last minute preparations for the Mexico leg of my ambassadorial journeyings, I read several essays from a collection of pieces on Art and Literature by Paz, in a book loaned to me, I realised with some horror, by Iwan Bala in 2001, and which, shamefully, I never returned (the non-return of loaned books stands out for me as a cardinal sin, so I am guilty of vile hypocrisy).  The book is covered in Iwan’s entertaining annotations, in both Welsh and English, an added bonus, to which I have now added my own (in pencil). Iwan, if you are reading this, I will get the book back to you on my return to Wales, 13 years on, but hey, better late than never.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicanor Parra at ninety-seven

17 Dec

Two weeks ago the Cervantes prize, Spain’s loftiest literary honour, was bestowed on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

Parra, at ninety-seven years of age, is without doubt the most influential of living South American poets. His career as an eminent physicist (he has been a visiting professor at Oxford and Yale) provided him with a livelihood and immunised him to some extent from the worst abuses of the Pinochet regime. A near-contemporary of Neruda, he considered his more famous compatriot’s poetry to be too flowery, too close for comfort to romantic egotism, and his own ‘antipoetry’ – a term that requires some unpacking – presents a “bleaker vision, prosier rhythms, and starker, surrealist deadpan humor”.  By the 1930s Parra was already asserting that what was needed was a vernacular poetry that related to ordinary life and which was accessible to the general public. These ideas, as manifested in Poesia y antipoesia (1954) had a huge impact on poets of a younger generation, especially those who were caught up in the politics of resistance. Parra began writing ‘antipoetry’ because, in his words “poetry wasn’t really working”; there was “a distance between poetry and life”. In a gracious twist, Neruda himself confessed to Parra’s influence on his own later work. It has been claimed, not unreasonably, that Parra’s method derived from his mathematical, relativist background, where he used minimal language and avoided metaphors and tropes in order to address his readers directly. However such assertions almost always sound reductive or cockeyed to me.

Parra’s later work is often a mesh of word association games, intentional cliché and spectacularly straightforward rants about the environment, inequality and corporate corruption. He is a ludic poet, while remaining a poet of intense seriousness. It may well be that his influence will be more lasting than either Neruda or his fellow Nobel laureate, the Mexican Octavio Paz.

Here are a few translations of his work:

 

 

 

 

OUR FATHER

Our father who art in heaven

Laden with problems of every kind

Your brow knotted

Like any common ordinary man

Don’t worry about us any more.

We understand that you suffer

Because you cannot set your house in order.

We know the Evil One doesn’t leave you in peace

Unmaking everything you make.

He laughs at you

But we weep with you:

Don’t be troubled by his diabolical laughter.

Our father who art where thou art

Surrounded by treacherous angels

Truly: do not suffer any more on our account

You must recognize

That the gods are not infallible.

And that we forgive everything.


 

(From ‘Bío Bío’)

XXII

 

CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM

 

Nineteenth-century economicrapology

Years before the Principle of Finitude

Neither capitalist nor socialist

But quite the contrary Mr Director:

Intransigent ecologist

We understand by ecology

A socioeconomic movement

Based on the idea of harmony

Of the human species with its environment

Which fights for a ludic life

Creative

egalitarian

                          pluralist

free of exploitation

And based on communication

And collaboration

Between the big guys & the little guys

 

 

 

MEMORIES OF YOUTH

What’s certain is that I kept going to and fro,

Sometimes bumping into trees,

Bumping into beggars,

I found my way through a forest of chairs and tables,

With my soul on a thread I watched big leaves fall.

But it was all in vain,

I gradually sank deeper into a kind of jelly;

People laughed at my rages,

They started in their armchairs like seaweed carried by the waves

And women looked at me with loathing

Dragging me up, dragging me down,

Making me cry and laugh against my will.

All this provoked in me a feeling of disgust,

Provoked a tempest of incoherent sentences,

Threats, insults, inconsequential curses,

Provoked some exhausting hip movements,

Those funereal dances

That left me breathless

And unable to raise my head for days

For nights.

I was going to and fro, it’s true,

My soul drifted through the streets

Begging for help, begging for a little tenderness;

With a sheet of paper and a pencil I went into cemeteries

Determined not to be tricked.

I kept on at the same matter, around and around

I observed everything close up

Or in an attack of fury I tore out my hair.

In this fashion I began my career as a teacher.

Like a man with a bullet wound I dragged myself around literary events.

I crossed the threshold of private houses,

With my razor tongue I tried to communicate with the audience;

They went on reading their newspapers

Or disappeared behind a taxi.

Where was I to go?

At that hour the shops were shut;

I thought of a slice of onion I had seen during dinner

And of the abyss that separates us from the other abysses.

 

 

 

THE CHRIST OF ELQUI RANTS AT SHAMELESS BOSSES

The bosses don’t have a clue

they want us all to work for nothing

they never put themselves in the shoes of a worker

chop me some wood kiddo

when are you going to kill those rats?

last night I couldn’t sleep again

make water gush from that rock for me

the wife has to go to the gala dance

go find me a handful of pearls

from the bottom of the sea

if you please

then there are others who are

even bigger wankers

iron me this shirt shitface

go find me a tree from the forest fuckwit

on your knees asshole

. . . go check those fuses

and what if I get electrocuted?

and what if a stone lands on my head?

and what if I meet a lion in the forest?

aw hell!

that is of no concern to us

that doesn’t matter in the least

the really important thing

is that the gentleman can read his newspaper in peace

can yawn just when he pleases

can listen to his classical music to his heart’s content

who gives a shit if the worker cracks his skull

if he takes a tumble

while soldering a steel girder

nothing to get worked up about

these half-breeds are a waste of space

let him go fuck himself

and afterwards it’s

I don’t know what happened

you can’t imagine how bad I feel Señora

give her a couple of pats on the back

and the life of a widow and her seven chicks ruined

 

 

FROM ‘NEW SERMONS AND TEACHINGS OF THE CHRIST OF ELQUI’

 

XXXII

 

Those who are my friends

the sick

the weak

the dispirited

those who don’t have a place to lie down and die

the old

the children

the single mothers

– the students, not because they are troublemakers –

the peasants because they are humble

the fishermen

because they remind me

of the holy apostles of Christ

those who did not know their father

those who, like me, lost their mother

those condemned to a perpetual queue

in so-called public offices

those humiliated by their own children

those abused by their own spouses

the Araucanian Indians

those who have been overlooked at some time or other

those who can’t even sign their names

the bakers

the gravediggers

my friends are

the dreamers, the idealists who

like Him

surrendered their lives

to the holocaust

for a better world

 

 

ROLLER COASTER

For half a century

Poetry was the paradise

Of the solemn fool.

Until I came along

And set up my roller coaster.

Go on up, if you want.

It’s not my fault if you come down

Bleeding from your mouth and nose.

 

 

Translations by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 46, No 3 Winter 2010-11.