Monday, October 11, 2010

Book 26, Mexico: "El laberinto de la soledad" by Octavio Paz

Gracias a Dios! After half a month, I’ve finally finished this damned book – Paz’s essay El laberinto de la soledad, his postscript including the beautiful Crítica de la pirámide, and his interview with Calude Fell, Vuelta a “El laberinto de la soledad”. (I spared myself the lengthy intro and the essays on Mexico and the United States that had been added on, though. Not quite part of the same set of documents.)

I’ve read Paz’s poems before – didn’t find them too memorable – but I chose him because I feel like I’ve read a number of canonical Mexican texts and authors already: Sor Juana, Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and Carmen Boullosa – plus I had this volume lying around in my library, bought during my student days when I was sure I was going to carry on with Latin American studies in a private capacity.

(As you can see, my copy has suffered under my care.)

But really, this is an odd book. It was tough going for me, with my rusty Spanish: Paz psychoanalyses the whole of Mexican culture and history, pre-Colombian, colonial and revolutionary, specifically outlining why he feels the intelligentsia has been inadequate, why the ideology of positivism was oppressive and the Zapatista movement was revolutionary by dint of its return to the roots of pre-Hispanic culture, and why there needs to be more international cooperation between the countries of the third world.

Jésucristo. And all I’d heard about the text before was its identification of La Malinche (Cortés’s translator-cum-lover) as La Chingada, the “fucked” or “raped” one, as well as the affirmation of Mexican identity as based in Euro-indigenous syncretism.

Y’know, it starts out very comprehensibly, and with a whole lotta poetry: a contrast between Mexicans (including Mexican-Americans) with white North Americans, settling on the image of the brutish pachuco as their iconic representative; then a dwelling on the nature of the unending festivals of the land and the notion of the ever-present Mexican mask (who knew that Mexicans were inscrutable?). A little heavy-handed with its constant reiterations of the condition of solitude, and kinda Mexicentric (seriously, women all over the world are oppressed by the virgin-whore binary, not just mexicanas), but still very beautifully written.

It’s when Paz starts tackling the subject formally through a chronological survey that things get wearisome. Still, it’s fascinating the little insights and stories you get even here: his clear respect for the Baroque writing of the 17th century nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the last of the Spanish Golden Age writers, superior even to the poet Luís de Góngora because she plainly found it joyous to seek for knowledge. Also his concern for the naming of Mexico after the capital of the Aztec empire, México-Tenochtitlán – for the Aztecs were cruel and oppressive towards all the other indigenous cultures; they didn’t even represent Mesoamerican civilization at its peak (that was the 10th century theocracies, e.g. the Maya) – yet they’re now venerated as victims and evidence of the glory of pre-European Mexico. And also his insight that each of the dictators of Mexican history seem to be incarnations of the triumphant conqueror Tezcatlipoca, from Cortés to Porfirio Diáz…

It occurs to me that this will mean nothing to the vast majority of my readers, since they’re mostly from Singapore. Beg pardon. Still, I recommend this book: just read it in your own mother tongue, so you’ll have an easier time than I did. Paz calls it an “exercise of the critical imagination” rather than a philosophical essay, noting that criticism is a compromise for him between poetry and activism. Pretty trenchant thought there.

And then there’s the universality of it: the intellectuals of all the developing world are usually lost in a similar labyrinth of solitude, searching for communion. From what I understand, the remedy is either a revolution or a street festival. Singapore government, please take note: we need more parties.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote: El mexicano se esconde bajo muchas máscaras, que luego arroja un día de fiesta o de duelo, del mismo modo que la nación ha desgarrado todas las formas que la asfixiaban. Pero no hemos encontrado aún esa que reconcilie nuestra libertad con el orden, la palabra con el acto y ambos con una evidencia que ya no será sobrenatural, sino humana: la de nuestros mismos.

Next book: Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana! Yep, I'm finally venturing forth into the Caribbean!

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