Vol. 41 No. 22 · 21 November 2019

On Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini

Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis 

3146 words

One afternoon in June 1962 Octavio Paz and I, until then only acquainted through letters, met at the studio of the painter Juan Soriano in Mexico City. From there we went walking down Paseo de la Reforma, and he told me he had just been appointed ambassador to India, Ceylon and Pakistan. He had accepted, reluctantly, because of the scant job opportunities in Mexico. Leaving one ‘exotic’ country for another held little appeal, he said, but he felt unappreciated in his own country, a feeling that endured throughout his life. He had no idea that the mission would be more than simply a diplomatic post.

Paz arrived in India on 2 September 1962. In October or November that year he attended a diplomatic drinks reception at a house in Sundar Nagar, Delhi, and there he met Marie José Tramini. Among the other guests was Maya Khankhoje. Her account of the party was relayed by Conrado Tostado in an essay on Paz’s poem Viento Entero:

A group of French diplomats stood chatting at the end of the garden, among them Marie-José, married at the time to the political advisor at the French embassy. At dusk ambassador Octavio Paz, a newcomer to India, arrived. He spontaneously joined the group of French people and the air began to feel charged, becoming ever more rarefied by the attraction between him and Marie-José. As the tension heightened, everyone’s gaze flitted between Marie-José and Paz and her husband.

The next encounter was definitive. It took place by chance in Paris, on the afternoon of 28 June 1964. Paz describes it in Viento Entero. In Paul Blackburn’s translation:

              The fallen bird
between rue Montalembert and rue de Bac
is a girl
              held back
at the edge of a precipice of looks
. . .
A marching battalion of sparks
                                                          a real girl
among wraithlike houses and people
Presence a fountain of reality
I looked out through my own unrealities
I took her hand
                              together we crossed
the four quadrants the three times
floating tribes of reflections
and we returned to the day of beginning

Less than two years after this meeting, the couple married at the Mexican Embassy in Delhi, on 20 January 1966. The ceremony took place beneath a tree. ‘Meeting Marie-José was the best thing that has happened to me in life, apart from being born,’ Paz would later say.

The first time I saw them together was in 1967, at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. Surrounded by poets – Giuseppe Ungaretti, Allen Ginsberg, Ingeborg Bachmann, Rafael Alberti, John Berryman, Charles Tomlinson, Stephen Spender – we felt en famille. Paz and I and our wives drove to Assisi to see Giotto’s frescos, wandered about the Chiostro dei Morti, and climbed to the Eremo delle Carceri, home to Saint Francis’s stone bed. ‘The only Western saint who resembles one from the East,’ Paz said of him.

On Sunday 2 July we went to see a production of Don Giovanni, with sets by Henry Moore. During the interval my wife Betty said to me all of a sudden: ‘Look who’s behind us.’ It was Ezra Pound, walking alongside Henry Moore. ‘If it were Mallarmé I would go to greet him,’ Paz said, ‘But since it is not Mallarmé . . .’ But when we ran into Pound face to face in the foyer, Octavio’s interest in him was kindled. We overheard Olga Rudge, the woman who had sacrificed her career as a violinist to serve Pound hand and foot, ask the poet from Idaho whether he was hungry. Pound nodded yes and she bought him a slice of pizza from the snack bar. ‘That’s all there is,’ she shrugged, and he ate it with difficulty with his few remaining teeth. A small group had formed around him; Paz, Tomlinson, Ginsberg, Marie-José and Betty were trying to get his attention. Ginsberg chanted a mantra, gesticulating wildly with his hands, but Pound remained silent and avoided looking us in the eyes, his own gaze – like a basilisk’s, Betty noted – kept low. All I could think of was to tell him about a brilliant German pianist friend of his from before the war in Rapallo who was now living in Mexico and was a friend of mine. When I uttered the name of Gerhart Münch, Pound looked fixedly at me, as if I had touched a hidden chord that brought up something far gone in his past. Pound had dedicated Canto 75 to Münch.

Paz returned to India, but his residency there was dramatically cut short by events back home. On 2 October 1968, on the eve of the Olympic Games in Mexico, a crowd of 10,000 students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlaltelolco area of Mexico City to protest against the government’s violent repression of student demonstrations. That evening they were surrounded by more than 5000 soldiers and 200 armoured vehicles. Snipers positioned themselves on the top floors of buildings. Shortly after 6 p.m. two helicopters circling the plaza shot flares. The snipers, army and police began shooting at the crowd. The armed men of a secret security branch called the Olympia Battalion, each sporting a white glove on the left hand to alert the soldiers not to shoot them, rushed towards the student leaders to arrest them. When the gunfire ceased, hundreds of people lay dead.

The official count was 32, other sources spoke of 300; to this day, the real number remains a mystery. One hundred victims were identified by name, but there were rumours of many more bodies tossed into the Gulf of Mexico. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz declared himself responsible for the killings. In protest at the government’s violent methods, Paz asked to take a leave of absence from the Foreign Service. ‘Last night,’ he wrote to the foreign secretary, Antonio Carrillo Flores, on 4 October, ‘I found out through the BBC of London that violence has again erupted in Mexico. The press in India today confirmed and disseminated the news by radio: armed forces had opened fire on the crowd, comprised above all of students. The result: more than 25 dead, several hundred wounded, and a thousand people in jail . . . I won’t try to describe my spirits. I imagine they’re similar to those of most Mexicans: sadness and rage.’

Paz was discharged from the diplomatic service. He and Marie-José spent 1969-70 at Cambridge, where he held the Simón Bolivar Chair in Latin American Studies. ‘No other European tongue, perhaps, can claim such an uninterrupted line of great poets, from Chaucer to Yeats, as English. The country is also to be admired for its tradition of political liberties,’ he said at the time.

In the 1970s Paz and Marie-José went to live in Mexico, where they would remain until their deaths. Betty and I visited them often at their apartments on Calle Río Lerma and Calle Río Guadalquivir, which they shared with cats to whom they’d given Egyptian, Greek, French and Mexican names. One day a fire broke out in their flat on Río Guadalquivir, claiming the lives of many books and cats and works of art. They decamped to a large house on Francisco Sosa Street, courtesy of the Mexican government. The house had supposedly been the dwelling of Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés’s bloodthirsty captain responsible for the massacre of Aztecs in the Templo Mayor on 22 May 1520, during their celebration of the Feast of Toxcatl.

In October 1990, Octavio and Marie-José and a group of Mexican writers, including me, were in New York for the monumental exhibition Mexico: Thirty Centuries of Splendour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when Paz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In their room at the Hotel Drake Marie-José showed us the shopping bag she was filling with congratulatory telegrams.

In 1997 we had dinner with Paz, now suffering from cancer, and Marie-José at Bellinghausen, a restaurant in the Zona Rosa, where the American poet Mark Strand was also present. I was greatly struck by Paz, who was seated at the opposite end of the table, his face troubled and sallow; he watched us with deeply melancholic eyes, as if at every moment he was taking leave of life.

On 17 December 1997, four months before his death, the Octavio Paz Foundation was established in the house on Francisco Sosa. A ceremony was held in the courtyard. In attendance were President Ernesto Zedillo and a group of businessmen with ties to the government, as well as several writers. The foundation received $11 million in funding. Paz remained seated in a wheelchair during the speeches, his body sunken, with a dazed expression and trembling hands. All of a sudden he stared fixedly at the sun and spoke, the words emerging as if from a place of profound reflection: ‘Mexico is a solar country . . . But it is also a black country, a dark country. This duality of Mexico has troubled me ever since I was a child.’

After the ceremony Marie-José told a few friends that Octavio wanted us to join him privately inside the house. A stranger appeared (at least, none of us knew who he was). Paz, looking at him angrily, gestured with his hand: ‘Cioran was a bastard. Cioran was horrible. Cioran was a disgusting fascist’ – addressing the unknown man as if he represented the late Romanian writer.

Octavio and Marie-José (whom he always called Marie-Jo) were together until the end; perhaps they tried to remain together after he died, too. Marie-José used to say that she spoke to him every night in the garden of the house on Francisco Sosa, and continued to do so when she moved elsewhere.

Marie-José’s solitary death took place twenty years after Octavio’s. At Plinio 333, at 11 a.m. on 26 July 2018, domestic workers found her sprawled, lifeless, on the floor. It was later revealed that she was 83 years old; until the end, she had zealously concealed her age.

Plinio 333, in the upscale Polanco neighbourhood, was the widow’s final retreat. She rarely left the house, even to eat, much less to socialise, and was invisible to her neighbours. She would occasionally be glimpsed, however, on her own at a small restaurant on Oscar Wilde Street, or in the back seat of a car being driven through the streets, often by night, looking out the window, the interior lights never on. Sometimes she would ask her chauffeur to buy her French cheeses from a delicatessen. She avoided conversation with strangers, shunning anyone who tried to say hello. One night I was playing chess on the terrace of Café Europa, across from Parque Lincoln, when her chauffeur appeared and said that Mrs Marie-José wanted to speak to me. I made a quick move and went over to invite her for a coffee. But she stammered from the darkness of the car that she was in a hurry, and they drove off.

Marie-José would explain that she did not like to leave home or the confines of her car for fear of violence in the city. But she was withdrawing more and more, as if her true aim were to isolate herself completely from the world. Her mistrust of everyone was such that she refused to open the door for anyone. If someone brought her letters or books, she instructed the driver to tell whoever it was – including friends – to slip the items through the railings or throw them over the gate. The driver wasn’t allowed to fetch whatever had been brought until its bearer had left.

Only on holidays, or the occasional Sunday, when she probably felt stricken by solitude or a suffocating boredom she could no longer endure, would Marie-José pick up the phone to call me or Betty and ask for news about mutual friends. I remember her phoning to ask for details of the death of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy. During his final years, Octavio was always eager to hear about whom we had seen and what they were doing, urging us on with ‘And what else?’

After Marie-José’s death, the authorities began the inspection of her four properties in Mexico City. They discovered a vast quantity of books, art works (including her own collages), masses of documents, photographs of the couple, and unopened or unanswered correspondence, all covered in dust and in complete disarray. As far as they could tell, no one had entered most of the rooms in decades, especially one room that was under lock and key and housed the last letters Paz ever wrote. ‘A not particularly promising or pleasant panorama,’ said the director of Legal Affairs at the National Institute of Fine Arts, ‘and, above all, it stinks of cat.’ There is also an apartment on the rue Jacob in Paris, where the couple are said to have spent only one day. The legal custodian of this apartment has told me that the Mexican government has no right to it.

In his will Paz had designated Marie-José Tramini, born in Corsica of French nationality, as his sole heir. But she died without making a will. Since her husband’s death, she had shown no interest in legacies, though she took a very active part in the 2014 celebrations of Paz’s centennial. Perhaps her reluctance to deal with lawyers and notaries sprang from the same feelings that fuelled her distrust of doctors.

Marie-José died alone, without any known heirs or inventories of her possessions. Her sister and her sister’s children were among the 95 who perished in the 11 September 1968 crash of an Air France plane on its way to Nice from Ajaccio. (Many believed the plane was shot down by the French military by mistake.) The couple had no children, and Octavio’s daughter Helena, from his first marriage to the writer Elena Garro, died on 30 March 2014, a few hours before the opening event of the centenary of Paz’s birth, casting a pall over the celebration. Marie-José was sure that Helena had committed suicide that day to spite her. After a minute’s silence in Helena’s memory, nine poets, including Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka and me, each read a poem by Paz and one of our own.

Almost immediately after Marie-José died, bureaucrats and pettifoggers appeared, brandishing permits and credentials, anxious to rummage through the couple’s papers and possessions, to draw up inventories and gain access to the estate. A house on Porfirio Díaz Street, where Paz’s mother had lived, had been largely deserted for decades. In its rooms they found overturned bookcases, boxes full of random objects, and pieces of furniture that had belonged to Paz’s grandfather, Ireneo Paz, and his mother, Josefina Lozano. There were also brass beds, crockery and dust – a lot of dust. In Marie-Jo’s home on Plinio they emptied refrigerators full of rotting food and scrubbed the floors and walls. They caught the cats and changed the locks to keep out pilferers, but not the authorities, who kept copies of the keys. For a while the houses were guarded by police.

There may still be testamentary battles, as a search is on in France for fourth-degree relatives. Should an heir be discovered, Mexican law allows ten years for claiming the inheritance. Should none be found, the estate will go to Mexico City’s System for Integral Family Development (DIF). Public and private opportunists are at the ready, the now chauffeurless car stands abandoned, payments from prizes and royalties are on hold. The heaps of unopened and unanswered letters at Plinio 333, primarily from overseas, and probably containing requests for permission to publish Paz’s work, continue to wait.

Because Marie-José died intestate and Paz never had a literary agent, it is unclear what will happen to the rights. All we know is that on 6 December 2013, Marie-José Tramini signed a contract with the Fondo de Cultura Económica for a reprint of 15 volumes of Paz’s Collected Works, and that in February and March 2018 she signed the last two contracts, one for The Labyrinth of Solitude, his most popular book, which since its publication in 1959 has sold more than 1,536,000 copies in different editions. More than the fate of any property, the poet’s copyright is the most pressing issue.

The Secretariat of Culture has declared Octavio Paz’s archives a national artistic monument. This includes all ‘papers, documents, correspondence, manuscripts and typescripts of his poems, essays, journalism, translations, photographs and bibliographic files, in any and all formats or storage mediums’ that are found in the four properties in Mexico City. Paz stipulated that if Marie-José did not decide the archive’s future, it should go to the Colegio Nacional, of which he had been a member for 31 years, and its contents not made public until 25 years after his death. Federal, city and university authorities announced that the ashes of Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini will rest side by side under a tree in the patio of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, formerly the National Preparatory School, where Paz was a student. The baroque building, now a museum, features murals by Orozco, Rivera and others.

In the meantime, in rooms no one had entered in years, paintings were found lying on the floor, and carpets covered in hairs, dander and oblivion; shattered glass, Mexican sculptures, and necklaces and figurines brought back from India. And cats – more and more cats, who came and went as they pleased between balconies, back yards and unoccupied rooms. Officials who visited the apartment on Rio Guadalquivir, inhabited by cats since the fire, reported that the floors were strewn with papers, many rendered illegible by scratches or urine. There were no vermin, however, thanks to the cats, and inspectors handed the animals over to friends of the couple for adoption.

More than a year after Marie-José’s death, a will has yet to be found, and there is no sign of any relative to the fourth degree. At the end of September, the DIF was declared sole heir, and as such will be entitled to sell the property – the money will be used to fund cultural activities – but not anything that belongs to Paz’s literary estate.

Meanwhile, a detailed inventory is being drawn up, of money, jewellery, furniture, works of art, real estate, financial documents, important papers, clothing, shoes, china, cutlery, kitchen equipment, oriental rugs and so on belonging to Marie-José, as the universal heir of Paz’s estate. The archives will be in the keeping of the Colegio Nacional, but will belong to the Mexican people. The fate of Paz’s royalties, and of the Paris apartment, vacant for more than ten years, has yet to be decided.

For months, four cats were still seen coming and going at will, as the house on Plinio Street’s final residents. And there have been others, too, hiding in closets or under the furniture or crouching between the tanks of gas on rooftops. They may return tomorrow.

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