A new edition of Nobel Prize–winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz’s The Monkey Grammarian (1974) appears today from Arcade Publishing, translated by Helen R. Lane. Below is Ilan Stavans’s introduction.
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
— Henry David Thoreau
IN 1951, Octavio Paz, then a 37-year-old mid-level diplomat at the Mexican embassy in Paris, received the news of his official transfer to India. Mexico had recently established relations with the newly independent nation, which shortly before had made peace with Pakistan and Nepal. British colonialism had been brought to its knees, and the entire world was greeting the events with enthusiasm, even after the Gandhi assassination. Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister.
Paz arrived in Bombay a few months later, in 1952. He stayed in India until 1968, a total of 14 years, the last six as ambassador. He resigned from this post in protest of the student massacre in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square, a repressive response by the Mexican government to the growing dissatisfaction against its long-standing autocratic policies. By then, his seminal book The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), in which he reflected on how Mexico had half-heartedly become a modern nation, had become a classic.
The encounter with India was transformative. Paz read broadly and traveled widely. There he met his second wife, Marie José Tramini, who became his indefatigable companion. His inquisitive spirit was in constant stimulation, reinvigorating him as a poet and essayist and opening new vistas not only to the world (he had already lived in Berkeley, New York, and Paris) but to understanding his native Mexico. He also wrote profusely. Years later, already close to his death in 1998, Paz published a memoir-cum-disquisition on religion, politics, and society about that crucial period called Vislumbres de la India (1994). Fittingly, the English translation is titled In Praise of India.
One of the things he learned was that in spite of their enormous differences, India and Mexico had much in common, starting with the geographic vastness, the depth and multifacetedness of syncretic religious devotion, and the rich pantheon of deities. Paz found points in common in regards to cuisine and fashion. He was fascinated by the frantic drive toward urbanization the two countries were engaged in. In other words, it seems as if this period was an invitation to consider the qualities of his own home.
Of course, Paz came across essential differences, too. For instance, India understood time as cyclical, whereas Mexico saw it as a straight line. Likewise, Hinduism and other Eastern religions approached eroticism as liberating while the influence of Catholicism in Mexico made sexuality constraining, even stultifying.
The Monkey Grammarian (1974) might be the book by Paz that best showcases the way his worldview was reshaped. Although he completed it while he was already at Cambridge, England, a couple of years after his resignation as ambassador to India, everything in it is marked by his time on the Indian subcontinent. It was written explicitly for the series Les Sentiers de la Création (The Paths of Creation), edited in France by Swiss publisher Albert Skira and French essayist and art critic Gaëtan Picon. A meeting place for important artists and intellectuals, the series included works by influential figures like Louis Aragon, Michel Butor, Eugène Ionesco, and Henri Michaux. In a postscriptum Paz inserted in volume 11 of his own Obras Completas (1996), which includes The Monkey Grammarian, he stated that in this book he sought to use the title of the Skira and Picon series as a guiding metaphor: he wanted to produce a meditation that was as much about the impressions India had left in him as a real place as it was about the discombobulating emotions he absorbed in the treks he took while there. That is, India as a reality and an abstraction.
The result is ambitious. The plot, if The Monkey Grammarian might be said to have one, is a quest to reach a specific place: Galta, a small town — and the ruins in it — near Jaipur, the capital and largest city (with a population at the time of around 1.7 million) of the northern state of Rajasthan. As Paz goes to Galta for a visit, he discovers he is revisiting the different chambers of his self. Galta soon becomes an excuse for him to talk about the fugitiveness of time and the impossibility of seizing it. It is also about the task of language to capture the dilemma of being conscious about our own action and thought. Does that consciousness take away from the experience itself?
The style Paz uses is a hybrid. The book is neither a full-fledged poem nor a cohesive essay. Paz loved this type of experimentation. He was fond of breaking barriers. This comes from his appreciation of opposites — the proverbial yin and yang — as being promiscuous in their liaison. What we perceive, he argued, is deceptive: male and female, young and old, black and white, truth or falsehood are only superficial antipodes; in fact, each of these polarities carries in itself its own opposite. And we do too, for the Western concept of individuality is a mirage. Even when we are alone, we are always with others; and although we recognize ourselves as unique, we are, as Walt Whitman suggested, a sum of parts: a multitude.
Paz came of age in the 1930s, when the Surrealist movement in Europe, which emphasized the artificial separation between dreams and wakefulness, was at its height. His aesthetic views were influenced by it. Throughout his oeuvre, he sought to erase the border between sensorial knowledge and the life of the imagination. That, precisely, is what The Monkey Grammarian seeks to achieve: it invites the reader to look at things not as they are but as a mere steppingstone toward a greater consciousness of the universe.
My instinct is to describe The Monkey Grammarian first and foremost as a travel book. But the meaning of “travel” needs to be explained. Paz embarks on a journey: to see the ruins of Galta. That, however, is only the visible aspect of it. The journey has another side, invisible to the eye, which is about the inner thoughts contained in, and resulting from, the physical voyage. Paz regularly gives us sensorial images that accompany him: a wall in the middle of a square where “the traces of red, black, and blue paint create imaginary atlases”; children pullulating on the side of the road, begging him for money; pilgrims en route to a sanctuary and a sādhu, a mystic, in that sanctuary; and so on. He includes an assortment of photographs of these and other sites, perhaps to verify that those sensorial images are accurate.
At the core of the narrative is Hanumān, a popular monkey god featured in the epic saga Rāmāyana. He represents bravery and persistence and is a symbol of loyalty and selflessness. Paz uses it as leitmotif. He opens with a quote from John Dowson, the noted British “Indologist” who wrote about Urdu and the history of India, and who served as editor of the still-in-print A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology (1879). Dowson describes Hanumān as a hopping monkey who “tore up trees, carried away the Himalayas, seized the clouds and performed many other wonderful exploits.” He is also “the ninth author of grammar.” That double feature, the monkey’s rambunctiousness and his linguistic aptitude, fascinates Paz: objectively, Hanumān travels the universe; subjectively, he sews it together through words.
Humans do the same, Paz argues. We build and destroy our environment, then use language to describe those actions. Just as our behavior in the natural world is capricious, so is our effort at articulating it verbally. Why call the color yellow yellow? Is the essence of Galta inside the word Galta? And in what sense is the sentence The best thing to do will be to choose the path of Galta, traverse it again (invent it as I traverse it), and without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, go to the end — without being concerned with what “going to the end” means or what I meant when I wrote that sentence that serves as the opening of The Monkey Grammarian, a reasonable depiction of its intentions?
Like Hanumān, Paz, in the action recounted in the book, builds a net of signifiers that offers a portrait of his own physical odyssey. Yet that net is made of procrastinations, false starts, and countless returns. It is also made of words that lead to other words that lead to other words …
Just as Paz approaches Galta, he realizes he hasn’t moved an inch. All of us are trapped in the same place, our being, committed to the pursuit of simultaneously leaving and returning home. This makes Paz infer that time is a labyrinth made of a single straight-forward line that gives the false impression of movement. Actually, time is about fixity, about stillness, about the joyful art of rotating around the “I.” As Paz put it in Obras Completas, “rather than going forward, the text rotated on itself.” And on each rotation the text would unfold into another spin, which was at once a translation and a transposition of the original intentions: “a spiral of repetitions and reiterations than resolves around a negation of writing as a path.” To the point, he claims, that “I realized my text wasn’t going anywhere, except an encounter with itself.”
A narrative that isn’t going anywhere … Needless to say, The Monkey Grammarian is a challenging text. It might be better described as a test. Indeed, I know of countless readers who have succumbed in the process of navigating it. Then again, those who do stay for the ride are handsomely rewarded. This is a book of magical thinking and heightened awareness, one that suggests that India, just like any other place, is itself because of us: our body in it as well as our attempt to articulate in words what that body is, how it looks at the world and how the world looks at it. “Every body,” affirms Paz, “is a language that vanishes at the moment of absolute plenitude; on reaching the state of incandescence, every language reveals itself to be an unintelligible body.” He concludes: “The word is a disincarnation of the world.”
Also a native of Mexico, I have been a Paz devotee for decades. His deep-seated cosmopolitanism is one of the elements that pushed me to other landscapes. It was through reading his essays that I learned the pleasures and challenges of developing one’s own ideas in rigorous, consistent, yet jazzy and personal ways, that ideas never exist in isolation but in constant motion, coexisting with other ideas at all times, and that the free exchange of those ideas is an indispensable component in a free, healthy, and democratic society. In the end, encouraged by Paz’s travels, I left Mexico and became a writer away from home, which granted me a unique perspective on things, including my own culture.
Perhaps the most important lesson Paz taught me is that Mexican writers should not be confined thematically to Mexico in their oeuvre. Just as Shakespeare set his plays in England as well as in Italy, Denmark, Greece, France, and other places, the scope of the Mexican writer ought to be the entire world.
But my admiration for Paz isn’t without complaint. Frequently I find his writing aloof, not to say pedantic and frustratingly elusive. What made me unhappy, though (and I speak here as a member of an entire generation), is the way in which late in his career Paz embraced the very same political power he had rejected earlier on.
Having resigned his ambassadorship in India, he returned to Mexico in 1968. Two years later, he founded one of the most venerable of literary journals in the Spanish-speaking world, Plural. It confronted the excesses of Mexico’s government with civility and acumen. When the Mexican government became impatient with its critique, it ordered the magazine shot down. Paz did not despair: he continued his endeavor in another magazine he founded, Vuelta, as well as in a tireless career as a public intellectual. But slowly he became more comfortable with that government, so much so that he ended up assuming the role of its spokesperson.
That embrace felt to me like a betrayal. By then Paz’s writing style in my eyes had become complacent and self-congratulatory. In response, I stopped reading him.
Time has gone by — or, as Paz argues, it effectually hasn’t. Perhaps it is that fixity that has prompted me to reread The Monkey Grammarian, which, just as it did when I first encountered it, strikes me as a stunning and unsettling rumination on evanescence.