Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Publications < Essays & Articles < Book Reviews <

Book Review by C.M. Mayo

by Ilan Stavans
University of Arizona Press, 2003
Review originally published in The Hyde Park Review of Books, 2002

Poet, essayist, critic, translator, and editor, Octavio Paz was, writes Stavans, "the quintessential surveyor, a Dante's Virgil, a Renaissance man [p.3]... and a believer in reason and dreams and poetic invention as our only salvation. [p.4]" Born in 1914 in Mexico City, Paz lived past the age of eighty, having written over forty books of poetry and essays, among the latter, the classic Labyrinth of Solitude, in which, writes Stavans, "he articulated, in lucid, erudite, nonacademic prose, and with Olympian authority, the key to the question he nurtured in his heart for years: What does it mean to be a Mexican in today's world?" [p.30]

Stavans' small book is not hagiography; rather, a series of personal reflections and explorations on Paz's influence both on the Mexican cultural scene and on Stavans' own development as writer and editor. Stavans, who was also born in Mexico City, is the author of books spanning genres as diverse as fiction, cultural criticism, and personal memoir; he is also a translator, a professor, and the founding editor of Hopscotch: A Cultural Review. In other words, this is a meditation on an intellectual by an intellectual, who is by Stavans' spot-on definition, "[an] enlightened mind capable of exploring the nature and place of ideas," with "[no] duty to any power other than themselves." [p.9]

Since first encountering Paz's work, Stavans has been a "devotee and an incessant reader," [p.4] especially of Paz's prose, which he lauds as a "metronome for our times," "terse, effulgent, never short of enthralling." [p.7] Paz's poetry, however, Stavans dismisses as "too loose, too mystical for my taste."[p.5] No matter, the question that engrosses both Paz and Stavans is the authenticity of the Americas, and the duality of its heritage— pre-Columbian and European, so violently clashed yet never entirely melded.

Stavans considers Paz's adolescence, his student years when he "would fervently discuss politics in the streets, loved Dostoyevsky, and joined a student strike in 1929" [p.13] ; his service in the Yucatán as a school teacher, his adventures in Paris and the Spanish Civil War— in short, the chronology of Paz's escape from the intellectually suffocating bosom of then-provincial Mexico City.

A pattern was set for his life— as it was set for Stavans' when he, too, left Mexico City— of openness and cosmopolitanism. Paz, all his life, struggled against the rigidities of provincialism and ideology.

Spiraling like a labyrinth itself, Stavans' meditation then curves back to Paz's poetry. He explains Paz's view that poetry, "although elitist and apparently unimportant when it comes to historical and scientific progress, is the only true habitation of the human soul— that one can measure the sensibility of an epoch through its most mature verses even if they are unread by the masses." [pp.27-28] It is, as Stavans quotes Paz, "the bridge suspended between history and truth... it is to see the stillness within movement."[pp.28-29]

Throughout his life Paz spoke the truth as he saw it. He broke with the ideological left— and thus many of his fellow Latin American writers— over Castro's Cuba; in 1968, Paz resigned his ambassadorship to India in protest over the government massacre at Tlatelolco. After 1976, when the army closed down Excelsior (the home for his literary supplement, Plural), Paz went on to found the monthly literary journal, Vuelta.

From its beginnings to its demise shortly after Paz's death in1998, writes Stavans, "Vuelta was a pleasure to read: carefully edited, and almost all of its contributors... consummate stylists and literary devotees". [p. 61] It juxtaposed poetry, fiction and prose by both Mexican writers and an international bouillabaisse of writers from Susan Sontag to Mario Vargas Llosa to Derek Wolcott. At the same time, however, Vuelta "served as a temple of adoration with Paz on its supreme altar". [p.61]

Paz, according to Stavans, had become a dictator— not necessarily a bad thing in a literary journal editor— but, given the enormous influence Vuelta exerted over the Mexican literary scene, it was troubling. As Stavans points out, Vuelta depended for a substantial part of its revenue on advertising by the government and Televisa, the ruling party-allied entertainment conglomerate. The ruling party was the PRI, a corporativist behemoth that controlled Mexico until two years after Paz's death, when, for the first time in over seventy years, the PRI conceded the presidential election to an opposition party.

In Paz's last years, Stavans had come to think of him as a "‘philanthropic ogre'— the very expression [Paz] had used to describe Mexico's government in the sixties, a benign yet suffocating presence, a know-it-all and do-it-all." [p. 82] Nonetheless, when Paz died in 1998, for Stavans, as for many in Mexico, Latin America and indeed the world, "the world felt suddenly empty... empty of a voice whose echoes I reckon with day and night." [p.82]

Elegant, heartfelt and enormously perceptive, Stavans' meditation may be a slim volume, an essay stretched to fill— just barely— 90 pages, but it is essential reading for anyone who would attempt to comprehend the 20th century Mexican literary scene and the legacy of its greatest light.