HAVANA TIMES — Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet, essayist and thinker known to several generations of discerning Cuban readers, was born on March 31, 1914.
As a writer, he not only studied and re-thought the history of Mexico, he also exposed us to the art, traditions and the political and social evolution of this country through magnificent essays.
Using a lyrical and modern prose, Paz interpreted obscure myths and languages to lead us into the labyrinth of pre-Colombian art. Renowned muralists like Rivera, Orozco or Tamayo were devoted insightful lines in his art criticism pieces. And surrealism, an artistic and spiritual movement held in high esteem by the writer, who drew from it in his poetry, was brought closer to us in essays which followed its evolution in Europe and America.
Speaking of poetry, I still recall my excitement, back in the 1990s, when I came across a 60-cent copy of Eagle or Sun? (¿Águila o sol?), the little book that dazzled the young, daydreaming girl I was at the time with the poetic prose of The Blue Bouquet (El ramo azul) and My Life with the Wave (Mi vida con la ola).
Octavio Paz’ interests were not limited to Mexico’s past and present. The writer also explored the works of great personalities, of renowned painters, writers, bards and politicians. Paz felt he was a part of the world and would express his sincere opinions on issues he considered at once political and human.
Like many left-leaning intellectuals of his age, he initially expressed some support for the revolutionary process which began in Cuba in 1959, but, imbued with a rebellious and provocative spirit, unable to accept authoritarian or coercive practices of any sort, later criticized it severely.
It is my understanding that Pulral and Vuelta, the journals he edited, were banned by the Cuban government, for they published articles that were critical of the revolution in the 70s and 80s.
Paz opposed Cuba’s support of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia; he criticized the forced labor camps religious believers and homosexuals were sent to on the island in the 1960s; he made pronouncements against the repression of intellectuals, going as far, in 1971, as signing the letter that foreign intellectuals addressed to Fidel Castro in support of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, where they expressed their wish for the Cuban revolution to go back to what it was at the beginning.
Ten years later, in his book Cloudy Days (Tiempo Nublado), Paz would write that the Cuban revolution was like “a flagstone that had been dropped on the people.” There, he expressed his concern over the arbitrariness and lust for power shown by the country’s rulers, and the people’s unconditional, submissive obedience of a leader who did not tolerate a single criticism.
Octavio Paz was closely linked to Cuba through his works and his critical thought, and it’s a shame no Cuban bookstore carries any of his books.
To find them, one must rummage through the shelves of used-book kiosks, or ask a friend living abroad to buy them. His books aren’t published in Cuba, in part because of what Paz criticized and, as of a certain point in time, on the author’s decision – I believe Paz was approached in the 1990s (for the first and last time) with an offer to publish one of his works, which he turned down.
While it is true that two Cuban literary journals – Casa de la Americas and Revolution and Culture (Revolución y cultura) – paid tribute to Paz on the date of his death (April 14, 1998) and on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his birth, there is practically no mention of him anywhere else. Recently, a book about his literary criticisms was made available, but his works continue to await publication in Cuba.
I feel it is time to rethink our position. Official speeches continue to address the need to raise people’s cultural awareness, to integrate the countries of Latin America, to change our mentality, and important intellectuals from Cuba and abroad, who have, at one point or consistently, done more than write words of praise for the Cuban government, exercising their right to criticize this government, continue to be denied publication on the island.
Maybe next year, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Paz’ birth, a modest reading circle will be organized in honor of this restless, provocative and important man of letters that many in Cuba do not yet know.