That Last Afternoon with Octavio Paz


Mexican author, diplomat and Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz. Photo: Google


“What will become of Mexico?” internationally renowned Mexican poet, diplomat and Nobel Prize laureate Octavio Paz asked me a few days before he died, 25 years ago. We were chatting in the living room of his last home, the Casa de Alvarado in Mexico City’s Colonia Coyoacán.

Like a lion caged in his own body and tethered to his wheelchair, covered by a Mexican blanket, Paz inquired with anguish as to the fate of his beloved nation, but without waiting for an answer.

I remained silent. What could I possibly say?

I would have liked to convey my optimism to him. “Everything is fine in Mexico, Octavio,” I would have told him, which would have been to say that although nothing was in fact fine, it could improve because our dream of freedom and democracy was finally on its way to being fulfilled. Wasn’t that what we had fought for in Mexican literary magazine Vuelta, where we both had worked for so many years?

Of course, that wouldn’t have reassured him. He had recognized for some time that the then-all-powerful centralist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country as a one-party state for more than seven decades, had served its time. And already in the 1970s, harassed by ideological hatred, Paz had written: “Without freedom, democracy is just a majority tyranny; without democracy, freedom unleashes the universal war of individuals and groups. Their union produces tolerance: a civilized life.”

But Paz feared that that union would not take hold, creating a terrifying void that would otherwise be filled. Poet and prophet, like a sturdy oak born from the rebellious seed of his grandfather and father, he seemed to sense that something very serious was brewing in the subsoil of Mexico, an instinctive eruption of ambition and violence like the ones that periodically — in a punctual appointment of every century — break into our historical surface to fulfill the phrase that writer, politician and educator José Vasconcelos, Mexico’s first secretary of public education, heard from then-Provisional President Eulalio Gutiérrez in 1915: “The Mexican landscape reeks of blood.”

Paz’s uncertainty was natural. On the one hand, within the framework of unprecedented freedom of expression and criticism, the country was advancing in its democratic structure: The Mexican republic was acquiring shape and meaning with a self-limited presidency, an autonomous judiciary, an independent Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and a deliberative and plural Congress. But at the same time, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a small band of armed revolutionists who demanded land reform, had persisted, seducing a broad sector of the left under a paradigm banner of revolution.

Paz himself was not entirely oblivious to that latest romantic seduction, but I am sure of one thing: He always believed in freedom as a cardinal value. And he always mistrusted absolute power: “It is the source of much harm and little good,” he would say.

The fate of Mexico was only one of his many concerns, but I think the fate of his works was not among them. He was certain that both the Círculo de Lectores in Spain and the Economic Culture Fund in Mexico (FCE) would take care of the validity of the “Complete Works” that he assembled with such care, and that their individual books would continue to appear in a timely manner, in accordance with international copyright laws. Nor did he worry that by-then-discontinued Vuelta magazine would ever be forgotten or the foundation that bore his name, which would go on to house his personal library, ever be consigned to oblivion. And for the record, his literary legacy was officially transferred to the Colegio Nacional 25 years after his death.

Paz’s tortures were physical, and he endured them stoically. And they were intimate. I don’t think I’m committing any act of betrayal if I mention what I could perceive because these concerns ennobled him: the quiet solitude that he would expect from his wife, and the home, health and the well-being of his daughter Helena, who he always cared for and who, in that final stage of transition, he tried at all costs to protect. Did Paz entrust himself to God, as his mother would have wanted? I don’t know. The taking of communion was the way out of the labyrinth of solitude.

The other way out, or perhaps the same one, was love, the central motif of his poetry. Paz’s love for his wife, Marie Jo, clung to him until the end. To celebrate it, he wrote the erotic essay “The Double Flame,” which was published in 1993, three years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And on that farewell afternoon, I heard him say, “Marie Jo, you are my Valley of Mexico.”

So what has happened to Mexico? The Mexican landscape has once again begun to reek of blood. Under new pretenses — not revolutionary, but criminal and populist — the atrocious duality of violence and power once again threatens democracy and freedom.

And what has happened to the legacy of Paz? The Círculo de Lectores has gone bankrupt and discontinued its work; the FCE has other priorities and many of its books are now out of print; the Octavio Paz Foundation has been mangled and manipulated; his daughter Helena died on her father’s centenary and his wife Marie Jo five years ago; and Paz’s entire patrimony has passed to the Mexico City government’s Integral Family Development (DIF), including all copyrights (which it manages at its discretion). The Colegio Nacional is waiting to receive his library.

Notwithstanding, as long as Mexico survives, so too will the fame and glory of Octavio Paz endure forever.

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