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TRAVELING IN STYLE | LAST STOP

Passage To India

A Maelstrom of Sights and Sounds Greeted a Future Nobel Laureate in Bombay. He Never Forget It.

March 16, 1997|OCTAVIO PAZ | Octavio Paz is the literary patriarch of Mexico and one of its most trenchant social critics

As night fell, I returned to my hotel, exhausted. But my curiosity was greater than my fatigue: after another bath, I went out again into the city. I found many white bundles lying on the sidewalks: men and women who had no home. I took a taxi and drove through deserted districts and lively neighborhoods, streets animated by the twin fevers of vice and money. I strolled through infamous alleyways and stared at the bordellos and little shops: painted prostitutes and transvestites with glass beads and loud skirts. I wandered toward Malabar Hill and its serene gardens. I walked down a quiet street and found a dizzying vision: there, below, the black sea beat against the rocks of the coast and covered them with a rippling shawl of foam.

I sat at the foot of a huge tree, a statue of the night, and tried to make an inventory of all I had seen, heard, smelled and felt: dizziness, horror, stupor, astonishment, joy, nausea and inescapable attraction. What had attracted me? It was difficult to say: Humankind cannot bear much reality. Yes, the excess of reality became an unreality, but that unreality had turned suddenly into a balcony from which I had peered into--what? Into that which is beyond and still has no name.

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Octavio Paz is the literary patriarch of Mexico and one of its most trenchant social critics. Yet for many of his 82 years he has lived abroad. Right after World War II, he spent six years as a minor functionary at the Mexican Embassy in Paris. "My superiors had forgotten me," says Paz, "and I secretly thanked them. I was trying to write." In fact, it was while he was ostensibly working at the embassy that he wrote his celebrated essay on the soul of Mexico, "The Labyrinth of Solitude." In 1951, however, his superiors remembered him, and the "young barbarian poet" was abruptly transferred to India. His stay was brief but indelible. India captivated Paz and in 1962 he returned, this time as the Mexican ambassador. (Paz's diplomatic career ended in 1968 when he quit to protest the killings of student demonstrators in Mexico City.)

Influenced in the 1940s by France's Andre Breton, Paz developed a vivid surrealist poetic style and later gained fame as a penetrating essayist and political commentator. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. His forthcoming book, "In Light of India," includes this edited description of his first look at a country that he has held close for nearly 50 years.

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Copyright by Octavio Paz. Originally published by Editorial Seix Barral, S.A. (Barcelona). Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger. Published with permission of Harcourt Brace & Co.

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