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This item is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

Among the Latin American centenaries being marked in 2014 - including those of Borges's friend and collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, anti-poet Nicanor Parra and the fiction writer Julio Cortázar - one in particular is of great importance for PN Review : that of Octavio Paz, born on 31 March 1914. (He died in 1998.)
I sought him out when I was fifteen years old and had fallen in love with his poems. When I knocked, his wife Marie-JosŽ answered the door of their rented house in San Angel, Mexico City. She had five unlighted matches between her lips, phosphorous ends out, and mumbled that she was slicing onions and the matches kept her from lacrimating. Octavio, recently turned fifty, received me affably in a well-organised book-filled room and our dialogue, which was to continue on and off for three decades in Mexico, London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, began. He seemed not to notice that I was only a boy and treated me from the outset with great seriousness. We talked about translation and ancient Mexican poetry.

He received Poetry Nation  I and II a decade later, in 1973, and wrote, 'Your magazine is excellent.' At the time he was editor of Plural  and, when that journal was censored and closed (its obituary appeared in PN Review 2), he established Vuelta. When Poetry Nation  became the quarterly, and then the bi-monthly, PN Review  I modelled it, in a transposed, British spirit tempered by Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson, on Paz's journals, in which poetry was central but a much wider cultural debate informed and extended it. PN Review  featured Paz's poems ( PNR 19)and his essays on Solzhenitsyn (PNR 1 and 2), Ortega y Gasset (27), his memoirs of Sartre (35), Frost (41) and André Breton (42). In PNR 59 his inaugural lecture at the International Congress of Intellectuals and Artists in Valencia, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Republican Congress which he had attended, was quoted in a more general report of what was a spirited and sometimes a heated, if inconsequential, return.

The forced closure of Paz’s magazine Plural, whose title reflected the pluralism that defined his enterprise from the beginning, occurred between the first and second issues of PN Review. In the editorial to the first issue I quoted from a speech he gave as Plural editor at a literary symposium in 1975. ‘We wanted to reintroduce – against monologue and shouting, twin aberrations – the rational word, the critical word, which is always two sided because it implies an interlocutor. We know of course that criticism cannot, by itself, produce good literature. That is not, in any case, its mission. On the other hand, we know that it alone can create that space – physical, intellectual, moral – in which a literature can evolve.’

Such an earnest, and such earnestness, evoke the spirit of what seems now like another age, four decades ago. Britain then was both remote from and – in its political and cultural imperatives – analogous to the Latin American environment. It had chosen little over large virtues, collective opinion over what Donald Davie was to call the ‘dissentient voice’. That first PN Review editorial asked what Paz as editor meant by criticism. For him the word ‘culture’ included ‘not only the arts but politics, economics, education: cultural language is a language of values: culture is neither a legacy nor a luxury but a vital and informing reality. The language of culture in a society where social structures are unresponsive, inflexible, and inimical to articulacy, is a language of risks.’

‘In our society,’ we declared, ‘there are immediate obstacles to the cultural intelligence, especially when it dares to step beyond its “area of specialisation” and suggest that, by rights, it belongs not on the periphery but somewhere near the centre of activity, and that activity not only artistic. The obstacles it meets are in effect forms of non-institutional, yet efficacious censorship.’ An overstatement, of course, and yet it still has the ring of half-truth about it.

El Pais speaks of Paz and Cortázar as the ‘secret god­fathers’ of writers of the later twentieth century. This suggests that he is a formal and a moral exemplar, though in Mexico his politics and his cultural values were to come under severe and sometimes hostile scrutiny, perhaps because, with an authority exacerbated by the award of the Nobel Prize in 1990, his sense of criticism as dialogue, his pluralistic instinct, was undermined by an increasingly intense impatience with what he took to be reductive ideologies, not recognising that at times his own perspectives were narrowed by the disappointment of his early idealism. ‘What we wanted we wanted without innocence.’

He did find a vital innocence, after his early attempts at orthodoxy, and he learned to write ‘without knowing the outcome / Of what I write / I look between the lines / My image is of the lamp / Lighted / In the middle of the night’ (from Ladera este). Mexican writers, it is said, dream of debating with Paz, and of persuading him that they are right. The last time he and I met we had an argument about time: relative or absolute? I did not persuade him, but it was enough that he listened before he put me right.

This item is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

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