Homero Aridjis is a highly respected and awarded Mexican poet, novelist, environmental activist and diplomat. With forty-eight books of poetry and prose published, he was th youngest writer to receive the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, “1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezón of Castile” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the Prix Roger Caillois was awarded in France and Serbia’s highest literary honour, the Smederevo Golden Key Prize, for his poetry. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands and Switzerland and to UNESCO in Paris as well as being the President of PEN International from 1997 to 2003.
How’s that for a resume? And I’ve left out a raft of other awards, honorary doctorates, visiting professorships and editorial contributions to Mexican newspapers.
I could write thousands of words about his environmental activism, needless to say they have been extensive, including the founding of the “Group of 100”, an association of prominent artists and intellectuals, including Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Rufino Tamayo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alvaro Mutis, Augusto Monterroso, Francisco Toledo, Leonora Carrington, Mathias Goeritz, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Elena Poniatowska devoted to environmental protection and the defense of biodiversity in Mexico and Latin America. Their achievements are too numerous to mention. Wikipedia has a nice summary at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homero_Aridjis#Environmental_activism
His latest work to be translated into English is “The Child Poet”, translated by his own daughter, Chloe Aridjis and comes to us courtesy of the US not-for-profit independent publisher Archipelago Books and is due for release on 16 February 2016.
The book opens with a “translators” note with Chloe giving us a beautiful expose of her relationship with her father’s writing, her own writing and the background that brought this work into being:
The structure of the book – vignettes – remains faithful to the method of composition, a sequence of loosely related dreams. Many of the passages stand on their own but they also form part of the larger mosaic of childhood reverie. After all, the language of the child, as Gaston Bachelard has described at length, is a language of images that acquire an oneiric quality when returned to later in life. “We dream while remembering. We remember while dreaming.”
As a ten-year-old Homero Aridjis had a severe accident when playing with a shotgun left in his brother’s bedroom, almost dying this is a revisit to the more innocent times, before his accident and before he was forced to leave the small village of Contepec in Michoacán, Mexico, to take up a scholarship at the Rockerfeller Foundation supported Mexico City Writing Centre (Centro Mexicano de Escritores), becoming the youngest writer to have received the award in the Centre’s 55-year history.
Our book opens with Homero suckling at his mother’s breast, “the punctual breast, which would transmit me, like a cornucopia, life itself.” And moves onto his father’s reassurances to help him sleep. From the opening vignettes we can tell that this is a story of an introverted shy young boy;
I did not want to speak. An immense shyness hid the words from me. Moreover, I would think and rethink a sentence so many times that the moment for saying it passed, or it lost its meaning after so much repetition.
I felt fine within myself, and to explain or discuss anything implied a certain decanting of that self and was as tiring as taking a lengthy walk without water. I didn’t need to convince or be admired. I was happy as I was, keeping quiet, watching the sun illuminate the grainy, whitewashed walls and the frayed broom in the backyard.
Although this is a short work, it takes until page 65 before poetry itself comes into play, although the title of the work would imply poetry throughout, it is not the feature of this book and the title may put off a few readers who may believe it is a poetry collection, or see the word “poet” and immediately think “I won’t like that”. Although poetic in style it is a simple narrative, with childlike language and imagery, reflecting the thoughts of a young boy. The vignettes appearing like a linear jigsaw puzzle and slowly the whole is revealed:
“To watch someone wash a glass, handling it carefully to feel its shape, and in its shape its fragility and in its fragility the glass of which it is made, and in the glass its transparency…To hold the glass between your hands, feeling its substance, its availability, its fate depending on your wish, which can be to smash it or to make it shine…To treat things well, insignificant as they may seem, reveals a spirit in harmony with that which surrounds it, in a relationship of love.”
Prominent throughout is the theme of light, dark and shadows, a shadow something you cannot catch, always elusive:
In our game of tag, Ricardo el Negro ran the most.
Over the benches and across the fields he’d chase my brother, the only one left to be tagged. Watching them from my window run around the square, I wondered if there wasn’t some way to suspend the instant that was disappearing with its beings and their shadows; and whether the light that was starting to fade from the wall couldn’t be charmed by some magic word; and whether the poet, like some solitary enchanter, when he spoke of what took place in time, wasn’t saving it from oblivion.
The game ended at nightfall, with my brother tagged by Ricardo el Negro. The boys scattered toward their homes. No more rays of light on the window, and Ricardo el Negro, the winner, faded from my eyes, swallowed by the uniform blackness.
Late in the book we learn of our narrator’s near death experience after his accident with a gun in his brother’s bedroom, in the section “The Road to Toluca”:
Days followed the rhythm of sleep. During my absence I was sometimes on the verge of death, at other times out of danger. Slumber was interrupted by injections and the serum drip and by chance awakenings, which I’m going to talk about now.
Lying in bed with my eyes closed, I would hear the nurse open the door, move around the room, rummage for something in a drawer in the bedside chest, walk over to me, uncover me, give me an injection, cover me, walk away, close the door.
This is a deft novella, a moving journey through childhood in rural Mexico told in simple poetic language. Another welcome Mexican edition to my collection of writers from that region, and, quite possibly, a great place to start to begin a wonderful journey through Homero Aridjis’ work, it has been for myself and I am pretty sure I will be revisiting him as a writer in the years ahead.
Source – review copy from Archipelago Books (although I will get another copy as part of my subscription when it is released in February)