THIS PAST APRIL 6, Homero Aridjis, one of the Spanish-speaking world’s greatest living writers, celebrated his 80th birthday with a timely yet timeless poem. “Self-Portrait at Age Eighty” begins with words that would have bewildered a year ago, but which have become painfully unambiguous nowadays:
I never thought I’d spend my eightieth
In a year of plague and populists.
But here I am, confined to my house
in Mexico City, accompanied by Betty,
my wife — all life long,
and by three feral cats that came in off the street;
and oh, by the Virgin of the Apocalypse’s image
lit day and night on the stairway wall.
(Tr. George McWhirter and Betty Ferber)
For Aridjis, a writer of rare humanism seldom encountered in modern-day literature who has created a poetics of nature and explored our relationship with the planet, the current global crisis must have arrived unexpectedly but wearing a familiar face. In his vast oeuvre — 19 collections of poetry, 17 novels, as well as 15 volumes of short stories, plays, essays, and books for children — he has produced works that can confront apocalyptic times. As Luis Buñuel wrote about Aridjis’s 1986 drama El último Adán [The Last Adam]:
The Apocalypse will be the work of man and not of God, which in my opinion is an absolute truth. That is the great difference between the apocalyptic delirium of The Last Adam and Saint John’s mediocre apocalyptic description. Without a doubt, the human imagination has been enriched over the centuries.
Aridjis has often said that he was born twice, and to two survivors. During the Mexican Revolution, his eight-year-old mother, Josefina Fuentes, escaped abduction by a mounted bandit; in 1922, his father, Nicias Aridjis, a captain in the Greek army, was one of the last soldiers to leave Smyrna shortly before the massacre of Greeks and Armenians and the burning of the city by Turkish forces. Aridjis’s first birth, in 1940, to Josefina and Nicias, was in Contepec, a small town in Michoacán nestled against the 10,000-foot-high Cerro Altamirano. His second came 10 years later, when one Saturday afternoon in January 1951 he returned from playing soccer to find a shotgun lent to one of his four older brothers propped against his bedroom wall. After grabbing the gun and climbing up a pile of bricks to scan the sky, he accidently shot himself in the belly.
“Contepec’s only doctor was not a surgeon,” he recalls. “It took my parents a harrowing eight hours to get me to Toluca and into the general hospital. I nearly died on the operating table but awoke the next day in a hospital room to find my parents looking at me as if I’d been resurrected.” This near-death experience marked a new beginning:
My life took a new turn one morning in the hospital when my father brought me two books from the only bookstore in town, Sandokan by Emilio Salgari and King Grisly-Beard and Godfather Death by the Brothers Grimm. Nineteen days later we returned to Contepec, but I was someone else. The boy I had been remained on the other side of the accident. Soccer was forbidden, and I learned to play chess, read voraciously and began to write poetry. […] I think of my accident as a contradictory gift from Providence.
In homage to their father’s Greek origins, his eldest brother gave him the Iliad and the Odyssey. Readings of Dickens, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky soon resulted in his earliest incursions into writing, with a novel about Napoleon’s daughter, a play, short stories, and poems, opening the path that would lead him to win, at age 19, a scholarship from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City. At age 13, Aridjis had tied Michoacán’s chess champion in a tournament, and Juan José Arreola, his mentor at the Centro, wanted him to train to become a chess grandmaster, with Arreola acting as his manager.
But poetry prevailed, and five years later, in 1964, he won the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for his sensuous prose poem Mirándola dormir [Watching Her Sleep], making him its youngest ever recipient. Octavio Paz, who as a member of the jury voted for Aridjis over Carlos Fuentes, had written about Aridjis’s 1961 book La tumba de Filidor (named for a famous chess opening, the Philidor Defense): “In the poetry of Homero Aridjis there is the gaze, the pulse of the poet, the discontinuous time of practical and rational life and the continuity of desire and death: there is the poet’s primal truth.”
Aridjis is also the inheritor of two traditions:
I have always seen myself as the child of two mythologies. Apollo and Aphrodite, Dionysus and Pallas Athena speak to me from the Greece of my father, while Quetzalcóatl and Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue and the Virgin of Guadalupe (an invention of the Catholic clergy and Aztec converts) reach me through my Mexican mother.
A sense of the mythical pervades his poetry and prose, and there is a constant dialogue with the past, particularly with classical and pre-Columbian antiquity. About Perséfone (1967), his contemporary retelling of the myth of Persephone, André Pieyre de Mandiargues wrote, “The power of this poem, and its scandalous and fascinating illumination, is incomparable.”
In his writings, landscapes often acquire mythical status, and seem to have a consciousness of their own. The return of the Aztec gods (sometimes in the guise of drug traffickers), human sacrifice, solar myths, indigenous beliefs, and futurist fantasies feature as leitmotifs in novels such as La leyenda de los soles [The Legend of the Suns] (1993), La zona del silencio [The Zone of Silence] (2002), El hombre que amaba el sol [The Man Who Loved the Sun] (2005), Sicarios [Hit Men] (2007), Los perros del fin del mundo [Dogs at the End of the World] (2012), and Ciudad de Zombis [Zombie City] (2014), or his story “La Santa Muerte” (2004), a vivid enactment of the present-day cult of Saint Death. María Sabina, the Mazatec poet and priestess of hallucinogenic mushrooms (whom Aridjis brought to Mexico City in 1983 when she was ailing), is the protagonist of his 2015 novel Carne de Dios [Flesh of the Gods], while Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Juan Rulfo, and Che Guevara also put in appearances.
In the historical novels 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile (1985) and The Lord of the Last Days: Visions of the Year 1000 (1994), Aridjis magisterially reimagines the mindsets of the medieval and early Renaissance periods. With uncanny authenticity, these novels evoke the worldviews and behaviors prevalent in multicultural Spain at the tumultuous end of the first millennium, during the Inquisition in the 15th century, and among the Spaniards who sailed to the New World and the inhabitants of the territories they invaded. Having exhaustively researched contemporary accounts and physical locations, he neither resets nor distorts history using the “advantage” of hindsight. The New York Times Book Review said that 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile “cannot fail to remind us of classics like Cervantes’ Don Quixote or of certain canvases by Velázquez or El Greco,” and the novel received prestigious prizes in Mexico and Italy. Aridjis wrote in his heartrending poem about exile, “Sepharad, 1492”: “There are centuries where nothing happens and years in which whole centuries pass.”
Aridjis’s work does not rely on the irony and metafiction so prevalent in contemporary Latin American literature. His humor is not playfully self-referential but dark, linked with the social, political, and visual excesses of the cultural tradition from which it emerges. Although he engages with many themes from the present, there is a timelessness to his work, a plenitude that often displays an element of the baroque. His novels and plays can be read as philosophical explorations, through which run a current of mysticism and existential questioning.
Writing about Aridjis’s 2010 novel Los invisibles [The Invisible Ones], Alberto Manguel observed,
Three types of invisibility interest him: the magical one, inspired in the rites of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood and in the mystic texts of Jewish lore; the “scientific” invisibility that H. G. Wells (among others) explored in their science fiction; and finally the existential invisibility, that of the homme moyen sensuel lost in a society that increasingly ignores individual features.
He adds: “Aridjis can use all kinds of voice, showing absolute mastery in all, and an astonishing narrative virtuosity.”
As one of a substantial group of Latin American writers that included Pablo Neruda, Aridjis attended the 34th International PEN Congress in New York in June 1966, which was chaired by Arthur Miller. July and August were spent at Harvard, taking part in Henry Kissinger’s International Seminar for Politics and Humanities. Upon arrival in Cambridge, he called Juan Marichal, chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department and member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s Fellowship Committee for Latin America, who told him that he had won a fellowship — not to translate the Divine Comedy into Spanish, as he had proposed, but to concentrate on his own poetry, leaving Dante for his old age, when he would have nothing more to write. “That day has yet to come,” Aridjis says.
In October 1966, Aridjis and his wife, the translator and environmental activist-to-be Betty Ferber, set sail from New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth, headed for Le Havre. According to the author:
Three poets I hoped to meet were Henri Michaux, Ezra Pound, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. Someone gave us Henri Michaux’s address and one day we rang his bell. He invited us in, and it went much better than I had imagined, given Michaux’s fame for being misanthropic and intensely private. […] We shared our passion for the medieval Flemish mystic Ruysbroeck l’Admirable and St John of the Cross. Betty and I happened to be in Paris in October 1968, and it was Michaux who came to our hotel the morning of October 3 to give us the news of the Mexican government’s massacre of hundreds of peacefully protesting students the previous day in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. Our friendship continued until he died, in October 1984.
Aridjis eventually met Pound during an intermission of Don Giovanni at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto in 1967, where he mentioned knowing Pound’s old friend Gerhart Münch, a pianist and composer living in Mexico, to whom Canto LXXV was dedicated; Pound raised his eyes and gave him a basilisk stare. Aridjis’s meeting with Ungaretti, also at the Festival, was less dramatic.
Aridjis first visited Greece in the summer of 1967, a few months after the military coup. Thanks to a widespread tourism boycott called for by Melina Mercouri, there were few foreigners visiting. Traveling through the Peloponnesus, the Aridjises had Agamemnon’s Tomb at Mycenae to themselves, and climbed Mt. Taygetas unaccompanied to visit the ruins of Mystras. They also encountered few tourists in Delphi, Delos, Santorini, Bassae, and elsewhere. Half a dozen subsequent trips to Greece would follow.
On his sole visit to Turkey, in 1998, invited by the Istanbul International Book Fair to present the translation into Turkish of The Lord of the Last Days, he and his wife traveled to Cappadocia, Didyma, Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Smyrna, and Tire, where Aridjis’s grandfather Theologos had brought his family from Athens in 1908 to grow tobacco, grapes, figs, and olives on a large plot of land. Aridjis says he was unable to locate the house his family had built in the center of Tire, where they also set up a clothing and tailoring business, as no one in Tire knew anything about Greeks ever having lived there. His father, Nicias, came to Mexico in 1926, as part of the Greek diaspora. Aridjis has written that,
All through my childhood, my father often spoke to us about the catastrophe of Asia Minor and the massacre of Greeks and Armenians in 1922. Many of the details in Esmirna en llamas [Smyrna in Flames, his 2013 novel] were taken from the memoirs my father wrote for his children, and from his conversation.
After two years in Europe, Aridjis spent a semester teaching at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, followed by two years at New York University, when he wrote the haunting and profound El poeta niño [The Child Poet] (1971). Continuing the centuries-long transatlantic dialogue that has shaped modernity, the novel mingles poetry and prose while illuminating the frontier that separates dream from reality. Aridjis has often found in dreams a space of inspiration and remembrance.
I wrote The Child Poet in New York in 1971, prompted by the birth of Chloe, my first daughter, herself a novelist who has translated the book into English. I began to dream about my early childhood, sensory dreams of breastfeeding and finding my tiny self in an enormous bed. I would write down my dreams when I woke up, and from there grew a kind of oneiric autobiography, and when I tried hard enough to remember, I could build memory bridges between dreams. Ever since then I’ve made a habit of writing down my dreams when I wake up during the night, often turning them into poems. Many of these poems are gathered in Diario de sueños [A Diary of Dreams] (2011).
Aridjis has also written deeply arresting poems that conjure distinct selves, among them “Fray Gaspar de Carbajal Remembers the Amazon,” “An Anonymous Conquistador Recalls His Passing Through the New Land,” “Levitations” (about Saint Teresa of Ávila), and his sequence of self-portraits, thus far from age six to 80, many to be found in Ojos de otro mirar [Eyes to See Otherwise] (2002) and Las poemas solares [Solar Poems] (2005).
Ever since stepping into Swedenborg House in London in 1967, his interest in Emanuel Swedenborg has been constant, and Aridjis has been president of the Swedenborg Society since 2015. Swedenborg famously spoke with angels, and Aridjis has created his own heavenly host in Tiempo de ángeles [A Time of Angels] (1994), which J. M. G. Le Clézio described as “a book filled with grace and as light as the air […] doubtless one of the most important books in this body of work, for it also bears the weight of anger and the bitterness of experience.”
In keeping with Mexico’s tradition of appointing writers to diplomatic posts, Aridjis spent four years, starting in 1972, as cultural attaché to the Netherlands and one year in Bern as ambassador to Switzerland, returning to the Netherlands to serve as ambassador until 1979. A few days after Aridjis, his wife, and his infant daughter Chloe arrived in The Hague, he attended the third Poetry International Rotterdam, returning frequently, reading his poetry at five different festivals, and meeting and befriending contemporary poets from around the world. During the 1980s, he invited many of these poets, including Tomas Tranströmer, Seamus Heaney, Günter Grass, Kazuko Shiraishi, Andrei Voznesensky, Yehuda Amichai, and Breyten Breytenbach, to Mexico to read in three poetry festivals of which he was the mastermind, after incoming governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas entrusted him with the founding of the Michoacán Institute of Culture. The undoubted star of the first festival, in 1981, was Jorge Luis Borges, whom Aridjis had come to know in New York in 1971, where he recalls giving the blind writer a small pre-Columbian obsidian mirror.
One acutely smoggy day in February 1985, prompted by a friend’s letter to a newspaper, Aridjis had the idea to write a statement calling on the government to do something about the air pollution in Mexico City. He collected signatures from 100 prominent artists and intellectuals, including Juan Rulfo, Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez, Elena Poniatowska, Rufino Tamayo, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo; when the declaration was made public on March 1, the Group of 100 was born. Powered by the international weight of its signatories, the letter had an immediate impact, soon to be magnified by the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.
As Aridjis has written about that catastrophe:
Many things changed after the devastating September 19, 1985 earthquake, measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale, struck Mexico City. […] The monolith that was the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) began to crumble, along with tens of thousands of buildings, while the phantom of systemic corruption rose up among the ghosts of many thousand dead.
In the earthquake’s aftermath, Aridjis declared to the media that
Now more than ever it’s glaringly obvious that corruption is a disastrous builder. The number of public buildings, including government offices, public housing, schools and hospitals, that were destroyed in the earthquake is alarming. However, it’s not by chance that the Historic Center in downtown Mexico City, built to last, survived both earthquakes.
The Group of 100 quickly evolved into an association of artists, writers, and scientists devoted to protecting the environment. The group’s activism led to official protection for Mexico’s monarch butterflies and sea turtles, as well as its gray whale nursery habitat in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja; it also prevented the distribution in Mexico of powdered milk contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. In September 1991, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, the Group held an international meeting of writers, scientists, and environmentalists, The Morelia Symposium: Approaching the Year 2000. The Morelia Declaration, a statement on the environment that was signed by 1,000 writers, scientists, and environmentalists from 66 countries, was presented at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Over the years, Aridjis was joined in his activism by international figures such as Lincoln Brower, Amory Lovins, Petra Kelly, Sherwood Rowland, Peter Matthiessen, Rita Dove, Kjell Espmark, Margaret Atwood, Lester Brown, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kenzaburō Ōe, and Pierre Alechinsky.
Aridjis has always been outspoken, fearless, and independent. In 1997, shortly after being elected president of PEN International and during a time when journalists were being murdered throughout Latin America, he received death threats. He and his family lived with government bodyguards for a year. As a pioneer of environmental awareness, he has been resolute and courageous in advocating for measures that might check our ongoing climate emergency. The International Environmental Leadership Award, bestowed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Global Green USA, is one of many environmental honors he has received, and during his three years as Mexico’s ambassador to UNESCO, he endeavored to convince the organization to endorse environmental education at all levels.
Indeed, Aridjis has become one of the great contemporary spokesmen for an abused and silenced nature. As he elegantly states in his extraordinary News of the Earth, a translated collection of his environmental writings published in 2017:
I have often felt like Sisyphus, confronting the same environmental problems over and over again, or Cassandra, prophesying disaster, or Don Quijote, because we sometimes seem like madmen tilting at windmills. Although the plant and animal species we defend, or the rivers and forests, will never know we defended them, often at risk to our lives, “in dreams begin responsibility,” as William Butler Yeats wrote, and for me there is nothing more tyrannical than a dream.
For a poet who has spent his life defending the rights of nature from the greed of men, the current crisis has only underlined what has always been at stake. Aridjis is unwavering in his defense of what he refers to as “the spheres of life,” since he believes that “Nature can survive without man, but man cannot survive without Nature.” He is now engaged in a campaign against the government-sponsored “Mayan Train,” which he describes as “a social, environmental and cultural disaster in the making […] that will result in fragmentation and destruction of one of Mesoamerica’s remaining pristine rainforests. It will divide communities, and bring insecurity and crime.”
When asked about his childhood memories, the poet recalls mornings in Contepec looking up toward Cerro Altamirano, where his passion for poetry found its first inspiration.
The mountain’s splendid spectacle began at the end of October, when millions of monarch butterflies arrived to the Plain of the Mules at its summit. The butterflies would swoop down the slopes, turning the town’s streets into aerial rivers. Our yearly elementary school excursion was always a climb to the summit to visit the monarchs in the oyamel fir-pine forests.
The monarch butterfly, with its tigerish orange wings and its ability to fly up to 100 miles a day during its 3,000-mile migration to central Mexico, has become Aridjis’s emblem, featured in numerous poems, in his 2000 novel La montaña de las mariposas [Butterfly Mountain], and in his 2015 children’s book María la monarca [Maria the Monarch], as well as in dozens of articles denouncing the destruction of forests by loggers protected by government officials. In a 2016 letter addressed to US President Barack Obama, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Aridjis urged these leaders to protect monarch butterfly migration from the destruction of forests by loggers protected by government officials and the massive use of glyphosate herbicides on land in the US Corn Belt planted with genetically modified, herbicide-resistant soybean and corn crops.
As powerfully conveyed in his poem “To a Monarch Butterfly,” the creature has been his guiding light through a world that has become increasingly nightmarish:
You who go through the day
like a wingèd tiger
burning as you fly
tell me what supernatural life
is painted on your wings
so that after this life
I may see you in my night
(Tr. George McWhirter)
Since March of this year, Aridjis and his wife have been sheltering in their house in Mexico City, along with 10,000 books, several hundred CDs, and a clutch of cats, Skyping daily with their daughters, novelist Chloe in London and filmmaker Eva in New York, and their six-year-old granddaughter, Josephine. During the grueling months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has written many poems and is bringing to a close several years’ work on a novel. He describes it as a Bildungsroman and an autofiction, a personal narrative of his formative days in Mexico City during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the present and future of the Mexican cultural world were being staged by the likes of Octavio Paz, Elena Garro, Gabriel García Márquez, Luis Buñuel, Juan Rulfo, Juan José Arreola, Francisco Toledo, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and others who frequented the city’s streets and cafés.
Embarking on his ninth decade in a world that is steadily eroding and where humankind and nature often find themselves at violent odds, Homero Aridjis reminds us, in his life and in his work, of the redemptive power of words, and of a humanistic embrace of existence. And so, his “Self-Portrait at Age Eighty” concludes:
Surrounded by light and the warbling of birds,
I live in a state of poetry,
because being, for me, and making poetry are the same.
For that I would want, in these final days,
like Titian, to depict the human body one more time,
Dust I shall be, but dust in love.
The author thanks Ellen Jones for the translation of some of the quotes by Homero Aridjis.
Carlos Fonseca is the author of the novels Colonel Lágrimas (2014) and Natural History (2017), and of the book of essays La lucidez del miope (2017), which won the National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London.