The Labyrinth of Solitude – Ocatvio Paz (various translators)


Octavio Paz, Nobel laureate in 1990, winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 1981 and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1982, a writer and diplomat and my first stop in a journey I intend to take through Mexican literature.

‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ is not a book you “review”, just like you don’t review an encyclopedia, it is a monumental work, revered for almost sixty years.

I need hardly warn readers that my opinions are a series of reflection, not a consistent theory. (P 381)

 My edition, published in 1985 by Grove Press, contains a translation of the original 1961 book length essay ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ (translated by Lysander Kemp), an essay “Critique of the Pyramid” written after the student uprisings in October 1968, which forms part of an extended section titled ‘The New Mexico’ (translated by Lysander Kemp) that “develop and amplify the Hackett Memorial Lecture…delivered at the University of  Texas at Austin on October 30, 1969.” There is also  a conversation with Claude Fell, titled “Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude” (translated by Yara Milos), a reprint of an article that appeared in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine on 17 September 1979, titled “Mexico and the United States” (translated by Rachel Phillips Belash) and a reprint of “The Philanthropic Ogre” (also translated by Rachel Phillips Belash) which appeared in ‘Dissent’ magazine in the Winter 1979 edition.

‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ was an exercise of the critical imagination: a vision and, simultaneously, a revision – something very different from an essay on Mexican-ness or a search for our supposed being. (P215)

 A monumental work, that addresses Mexican identity, culture and character, I chose to read this as a precursor to a longer reading journey through Mexican literature. If Octavio Paz could reveal something of the hidden character it may lead to a deeper understanding of other literary works.

…the Mexican does not want or does not dare to be himself. (P73)

The journey through Paz’s essays was more enlightening than I had originally imagined, their depth, strong arguments and simple explanations. Covering major historical events from the time of the Aztecs, through to Colonisation, Independence (1810), the Revolution (1910-20), student uprisings of 1968 the book is a masterful reference tool. Looking at politics, the explosiveness of fiestas, architecture, and of course the relationship with the USA, there is a plethora of information to digest.

On economists and their statistical models:

For example, wheat and corn have been chosen as two of the indices of development: the eating of wheat bread is among the signs that one has crossed the line between underdeveloped and the developed; the eating of corn tortillas indicates that one has not. Two reasons are put forward to justify the inclusion of wheat among the signs of development: it has greater nutritive value and it is a product whose consumption reveals that the leap from a traditional to a modern society has been made. This criterion condemns Japan to eternal underdevelopment, for rice is less nutritive than wheat and is no less “traditional” than corn. Besides, wheat is not really “modern” either, since little distinguished it from rice and corn except its belonging to a different cultural tradition, that of the West (although the Hindu chapati is made of wheat)! So actually the intended meaning is that in all ways, including even diet and cuisine, Western civilization is superior to others and that, within it, the North American version is the most nearly perfect. (P285)

Every page throws up another point to ruminate, even as an outsider who is ignorant of Mexican society and culture, parallels can be drawn to other societies who have undergone colonialization.

The colonial order was imposed from above and its social, economic, judicial and religious forms were immutable. It was a society rules by divine right and an absolute monarchy, having been created in all its aspects as an immense, complicated artifact designed to endure but not to change. (P110)

A work to be revisited again and again and as I start my reading journey through a number of Mexican literary works it will be a book that I will reference many times. For anybody who is interested in the Mexican psyche this is mandatory reading, for readers of Mexican literature I cannot recommend this highly enough and for readers who are simply interested in essays that explore a nation’s culture you should pick this up. An invaluable book for any collection.

Here is my current intended reading list of Mexican literary works (hopefully I will write up my thoughts on these here as I finish them). I have intentionally left off recent writers such as Mario Bellatin, Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel & Yuri Herrera, writers I have read a lot of, as they are more contemporary and the start of my journey is for texts taking in the Mexican Revolution, maybe at some later stage I’ll move to more contemporary concerns:

Augustin Yáñez – The Edge of the Storm
Elena Garro – Recollections of Things to Come
Mariano Azuela – The Underdogs
Juan Rulfo – Pedro Paramo
Rosario Castellanos – Short Fiction
Elena Poniatowska – Here’s To You, Jesusa
Ignacio Padilla – Shadow Without A Name
Carlos Fuentes – The Death of Artemio Cruz & Terra Nostra

I own a few other texts that may make their way onto this list as I dedicate a few months to Mexican fare. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “The Labyrinth of Solitude – Ocatvio Paz (various translators)

    • Yes I will be looking at his Sor Juana book, it’s not on the list at present as I’m focusing on a few writers from 1940’s onwards, however there’s an intention to spread wider.


  1. Pingback: The Edge of the Storm – Augustín Yañez (tr. Ethel Brinton) | Messenger's Booker (and more)

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