Octavio Paz (1914-1998), the Nobel Prize-winning poet, critic, philosopher, and diplomat, spent 14 years in newly-independent India from 1952-1968, the last six of those years as ambassador from his native Mexico. His travels on the subcontinent inspired his fascinating and thorny The Monkey Grammarian, a book that combines impressionistic travelogue, prose poems, and philosophy.
A new trade paperback edition from Arcade Publishing has an informative new introduction by Ilan Stavans to the fluid English translation by Helen Lane. Though short, this fascinating work takes a little effort to punch through, like seeking out the figuration and symbolism in a seemingly abstract painting. It repays the reader with a dizzyingly three-dimensional understanding of certain aspects of Paz’s distinctive mind and poetic sensibility.
The book’s leitmotif is the titular monkey god Hanuman, a hero-deity best known from the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana. Hanuman is revered for, among other things, his faith in and devotion to Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. Paz visited a temple in the partly ruined town of Galta, near the city of Jaipur, where fearless monkeys and portly monks maintained reverence for Hanuman. Later the poet turned his encounters on his approach to Galta and at the temple into insistently felt – though sometimes rhetorically tangled – ruminations. Above all, he drives home the idea that what we perceive as permanent is not truly so: “Fixity is always momentary” (p. 15).
That’s true, he writes, even of the very act of writing. Coming upon a tree “firmly planted in its own reality, he writes: “I can touch it but I cannot name it, I can set fire to it but if I name it I dissolve it” (p. 48). And at its extreme, language does indeed dissolve, or rather Paz deconstructs it. One brief chapter that consists mostly of listed images – pilgrims and their clothing; colors, smells and tastes, sounds – ends with
verbal liquid, gurgling bubbles that rise from the bottom of the Babelic broth and burst on reaching the air, the multitude and its surging tides, its multisurges and its multitudes, its multivalanch, the multisun beating down on the sunitude, povertides beneath the sunalanche, the suntide in its solity, the sunflame on the poverlanche, the multitidal solaritude
But for Paz, in this book, wordplay is a symptom, not a theme. The real message bubbles up as he returns repeatedly to an image of a little wooden table on a neighbor’s patio, and the table bring to his mind the banyan trees he saw on his pilgrimage to Galta. “Each one of these realities is unique and to truly express it we would require a language composed solely of proper and unrepeatable names…Thus seeing these realities, truly seeing them, is the same as going mad…returning to…the world before language exists.”
One might pose the question: Isn’t that precisely the world the speechless monkeys live in? Though Hanuman was also a literary icon, the “grammarian” of the title, the real monkeys on the temple steps and balconies are perfectly content to have no speech. But I think that by language Paz meant more than just syntax and grammar; his “world before language exists” is something pre-life, a universe of abstraction that monkeys can’t imagine, but poets can. Or perhaps more simply, it’s “the other side of life” to which, as he writes in his poem “Across,” “amnesia guides me” – the ultimate forgetting.
It’s not all chaos and entropy in The Monkey Grammarian. Paz takes comfort from the pilgrims he encounters (the book reproduces photos of some of them, along with images of Hanuman and photos of the temple). The pilgrims know something the poet didn’t: The sound of people talking is different from “the screams of the monkeys, the cries of the parakeets, and the roar of the wind” but also the same, and “To know this was to reconcile oneself with time, to reconcile all times with all other times” (p. 80).
Hanuman, “the ninth author of grammar,” “sews [the universe] together through words” as he travels, writes Stavans in the introduction (p. xiv). As such the monkey god is both an avatar and an idealization of the poet, who in turn stands in for all of humanity. In his circuitous way, but with power and grace, Paz makes this case through these pages.
The Monkey Grammarian is available at Amazon.com and other bookstores and online retailers.