Literary Zone

Mexican writer Octavio Paz

24 March 2024 at 21:25 | 2663 views

Octavio Paz Lozano[a] (March 31, 1914 – April 19, 1998) was a Mexican poet and diplomat. For his body of work, he was awarded the 1977 Jerusalem Prize, the 1981 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the 1982 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early life
Octavio Paz was born near Mexico City. His family was a prominent liberal political family in Mexico, with Spanish and indigenous Mexican roots. His grandfather, Ireneo Paz, the family’s patriarch, fought in the War of the Reform against conservatives, and then became a staunch supporter of liberal war hero Porfirio Díaz up until just before the 1910 outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Ireneo Paz became an intellectual and journalist, starting several newspapers, where he was publisher and printer. Ireneo’s son, Octavio Paz Solórzano, supported Emiliano Zapata during the Revolution, and published an early biography of him and the Zapatista movement. Octavio was named for him, but spent considerable time with his grandfather Ireneo, since his namesake father was active fighting in the Mexican Revolution; his father died in a violent fashion. The family experienced financial ruin after the Mexican Revolution; they briefly relocated to Los Angeles, before returning to Mexico. Paz had blue eyes and was often mistaken for a foreigner by other children—according to a biography written by his long-time associate, historian Enrique Krauze, when Zapatista revolutionary Antonio Díaz Soto y Gama met young Octavio, he said, "Caramba, you didn’t tell me you had a Visigoth for a son!" Krauze quotes Paz as saying, "I felt myself Mexican but they wouldn’t let me be one."

Paz was introduced to literature early in his life through the influence of his grandfather Ireneo’s library, filled with classic Mexican and European literature. During the 1920s, he discovered Gerardo Diego, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Antonio Machado; these Spanish writers had a great influence on his early writings.

As a teenager in 1931, Paz published his first poems, including "Cabellera". Two years later, at the age of nineteen, he published Luna Silvestre (Wild Moon), a collection of poems. In 1932, with some friends, he funded his first literary review, Barandal.

For a few years, Paz studied law and literature at National University of Mexico. During this time, he became familiar with leftist poets, such as Chilean Pablo Neruda. In 1936, Paz abandoned his law studies, and left Mexico City for Yucatán to work at a school in Mérida. The school was set up for the sons of peasants and workers. There, he began working on the first of his long, ambitious poems, "Entre la piedra y la flor" ("Between the Stone and the Flower," 1941, revised 1976); influenced by the work of T. S. Eliot, it explores the situation of the Mexican peasant under the domineering landlords of the day.

In July 1937 he attended the Second International Writers’ Congress—the purpose of which was to discuss the attitude of intellectuals to the war in Spain—held in Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid and attended by many writers, including André Malraux, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Spender, and Pablo Neruda. Paz showed his solidarity with the Republican side, and against the fascists led by Francisco Franco and supported by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. While in Europe he also visited Paris, where he encountered the surrealist movement, which left a profound impact upon him. After his return to Mexico, in 1938 Paz co-funded a literary journal, Taller (Workshop) and wrote for that magazine until 1941. In 1937 he married Elena Garro, considered to be one of Mexico’s finest writers; they had met in 1935. They had one daughter, Helena, and were divorced in 1959.

In 1943, Paz received a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to study at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States. Two years later, he entered the Mexican diplomatic service, and was assigned for a time to New York City. In 1945, he was sent to Paris, where he wrote El Laberinto de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude, English translation 1963); The New York Times later described it as "an analysis of modern Mexico and the Mexican personality in which he described his fellow countrymen as instinctive nihilists who hide behind masks of solitude and ceremoniousness." In 1952, he travelled to India for the first time, and that same year went to Tōkyō as chargé d’affaires. He next was assigned to Geneva, Switzerland. He returned to Mexico City in 1954, where he wrote his great poem "Piedra de sol" ("Sunstone") in 1957, and published Libertad bajo palabra (Liberty under Oath), a compilation of his poetry up to that time. He was again sent to Paris in 1959, and in 1962, he was named Mexico’s ambassador to India.

Later life
In New Delhi, as Ambassador of Mexico to India, Paz completed several works, including El mono gramático (The Monkey Grammarian) and Ladera este (Eastern Slope). While in India, he met numerous writers of a group known as the Hungry Generation and had a profound influence on them.

In 1965, he married Marie-José Tramini, a French woman who would be his wife for the rest of his life. That fall, he went to Cornell University and taught two courses, one in Spanish and the other in English—the magazine LIFE en Español published a piece, illustrated with several pictures, about his tenure there in their July 4, 1966 issue. He subsequently returned to Mexico.

In 1968, Paz resigned from the diplomatic service in protest against the Mexican government’s massacre of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco; after seeking refuge in Paris, he again returned to Mexico in 1969, where he founded his magazine Plural (1970–1976) with a group of liberal Mexican and Latin American writers. From 1969 to 1970, Paz was Simón Bolívar Professor at the University of Cambridge. He was also a visiting lecturer during the late 1960s, and the A. D. White Professor-at-Large from 1972 to 1974 at Cornell. In 1974, he was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University; his book Los hijos del limo (Children of the Mire) was the result of his lectures. After the Mexican government closed Plural in 1975, Paz founded Vuelta, another cultural magazine. He was editor of that until his death in 1998, when the magazine closed.

Paz won the 1977 Jerusalem Prize for literature on the theme of individual freedom. In 1980, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard, and in 1982, he won the Neustadt Prize. Once good friends with novelist Carlos Fuentes, Paz became estranged from him in the 1980s in a disagreement over the Sandinistas, whom Paz opposed and Fuentes supported.; in 1988, Paz’s magazine Vuelta published criticism of Fuentes by Enrique Krauze, resulting in the estrangement.

A collection of Paz’s poems (written between 1957 and 1987) was published in 1990, and in that year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Paz died of cancer on April 19, 1998, in Mexico City. Guillermo Sheridan, who in 1998 was named by Paz as director of the Octavio Paz Foundation, published a book, Poeta con paisaje (2004), with several biographical essays about the poet.


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