Orwell plus poems

Octavio Paz, who died in April, was the great poet-critic of Latin America. Michael Schmidt, a friend and translator of his work, recalls his journey from Marxist to maestro
June 19, 1998

It was in Valencia in 1987 that I first heard Octavio Paz speak of George Orwell. Of course! It was Orwell's words and deeds that Paz's own so often called to mind: a politics of unillusion, the courage to confront and affront the Protean ideological ogres of the day.

Writers had gathered in the Catalan city to mark the 50th anniversary of the legendary Republican writers' congress. Only three of the original delegates were still alive: Stephen Spender, Rafael Alberti and Paz. Paz, then in his 70s, was at the heart of things. He did not invite veneration: he was an emphatic participant. In argument with Mario Vargas Llosa, he attacked the politician-writer's dream of Latin American liberal democracy. Historian, anthropologist and critic, Paz analysed harshly his nation and continent. Democracy depends on a critical culture and an educated electorate; Latin America possessed neither, having avoided the rigours of the Enlightenment under Iberian domination. Ingrained traditions of caciquismo, hierarchy and corruption could not be swept away by European or American political models. Transformations specific to each culture were required.

As a young Marxist, Paz went to Spain in 1937, sponsored by Pablo Neruda. Spain began to unravel his illusions. He was formidable in 1987. His younger sparring partners from the academy played politics. Nicaragua was a counter in their game, whereas for Paz Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala and Argentina, were distinct histories and peoples on whom political ideas had taken a terrible toll.

He made contrary marks on history. He acted against the excesses of his own government in 1968, at the time of the Olympic massacre in Mexico City, renouncing his ambassadorship in New Delhi to become a focus of opposition. Twenty years before, he had insisted on publishing news of the Soviet labour camps, turning left-wing Latin American writers-Neruda among them-against him. He did not consult his own interests: a critic's task is to clear space for truthful, disinterested dialogue which might lead to action. This is what he did. In the 1930s he went to the Yucat?to help organise education for workers' children. His family had links with the Zapatistas; he remembered as a boy the moustached officers of Zapata's army at his grandfather's house, seeking legal help and bringing gifts.

Paz found it impossible not to tell the truth as he saw it; it changed as his history changed. He was immensely popular and immensely unpopular by turns. The award of the Nobel prize for literature in 1990 came late in the day: in his last decade his views became formulaic. But his poetry continued to develop. He is indisputably the great poet-critic of Latin America, bringing an abundance of philosophical and literary resource into a coarsely uncritical tradition.

His imagination was European. Reading poems from his collection Pasado en Claro, I asked about what seemed vestiges of Val?. They were, he showed me, 18th-century echoes: embedded in the lines were phrases and closures from Pope. Wordsworth affected his personal poems. He brought unanticipated forms and tonalities into Spanish. He could write a poetry of argument when he wished, although his most popular work is enactive. He was Voltaire and de Sade. A disciple of Breton, he came to relish the work of Philip Larkin, CH Sisson and Donald Davie.

Until his late years of tiresome celebrity, he was the most accessible of men. Each generation of Mexican poets owed him debts, although many turned on him when fashion turned. His enthusiasms were decisive, but he could be harsh. His judgements were just and unexpected.

I sought him out in my mid-teens. He was on leave from India, and with his wife Marie Jose had rented an airy modern house in San Angel. I remember jacaranda blossom. Marie Jose came out of the kitchen with matches, head-out, clenched between her teeth. She was peeling onions and explained that phosphorous kept her from crying. Octavio's manner was easy: he needed to know what I wrote and who I was. He was a beguiling gossip, with tales of writers I then admired-Ortega, Borges, Cioran. I became one of his translators.

When he died, Mexico lost a tribe of writers. He was many poets, from the surrealist to the experimentalist, autobiographer and confessional writer. Unlike Orwell, he had a highly developed interest in the erotic and devised verse and prose styles for dealing with it. He was urgently alive to his time.

On his last visit to London a couple of years ago he gave a reading at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a capacity audience. Age and the crushing weight of celebrity made people see him diffidently. He was maestro not only to the young women from the embassy but to the ambassador himself. They set him on the pedestal he refused to occupy in Valencia in 1987. He never stood, or wished to stand, on his dignity, and that was his authentic dignity.