The Road to Cambridge

The Road to Cambridge

El camino de Cambridge

Luciano Concheiro

English translation by Tanya Huntington

After resigning as Ambassador to India in protest of the military repression of university students that took place on October 2, 1968 in Tlatelolco Square, Octavio Paz spent a year at Cambridge University. Before now, this stage in the life of the Mexican poet and future Nobel Laureate has remained practically unknown. In this brief essay, Luciano Concheiro contributes new information and helps clarify certain aspects of Paz’s historic resignation, which continues to inflame passions even today.

Having abandoned the Mexican embassy in India, Octavio Paz and his wife, Marie José, lived for several years in voluntary exile. Naturally, their decision sparked discontent among adepts of the regime, who wasted no time in unleashing an acrimonious campaign against Paz. To return to Mexico would have put him in a thorny situation, to say the least. As he would later explain to Julio Scherer:

I did not believe it would be sane to return to Mexico right away. Government hostility aside, I would have found myself embroiled in sterile and circumstantial disputes with public power and, moreover, with the opposition. I decided to wait a little while longer: it was clear that the repression would not be ongoing and that soon, spaces would be freed up that would enable criticism and debate. (1)

Paz would find the refuge he so desperately needed in three Anglo-Saxon universities: Pittsburgh, Austin and Cambridge. There, he would dedicate his time to writing, but also to teaching –an exceptional practice, in his case. This would be, as he himself would underscore in a later interview, his “first and last university experience.” (2)

His stay in Cambridge would turn out to be the most significant of them all. Not only was it the university where he remained the longest and where he would reside before finally returning to Mexico in 1971: there he would also perform the soul-searching that finally led him to make that decision. In Cambridge, Paz realized he had two dialogues pending. The first was with his mother: Josefina Lozano was elderly, and he wanted to accompany her during her twilight years. The second was with his country: he felt he could not abandon Mexico at this critical juncture. Cloistered in an ivory tower, he could have led a comfortable, peaceful life; but to forsake his country seemed like a betrayal. In his own words: “Yes, living abroad I could have written with greater tranquility, but to abandon Mexico under those circumstances would have been more than evasion: it would have been treason.” (3)

Not long ago, prompted by a single telephone conversation and a series of rainy afternoons, I decided to follow the paper trail of Paz’s passage through Cambridge. Scattered among several archives, I discovered a series of documents related to his stay at this University. (4) With the exception of a photographic portrait and a couple of postcards, they are essentially administrative; and yet they also provide important data and shed light on various aspects of Paz as a person of note during that era. They show, on the one hand, the considerable prestige he enjoyed abroad starting in the 1960s, and on the other, the existence of an efficient, international network of intellectuals that developed around him. Lastly, they prove something that turns out to be key in the recently revived debate regarding Paz’s resignation from the Embassy in India: his action was interpreted abroad as a severe critique of the Mexican government. If we change our perspective in this debate and instead of centering on Paz’s motivations and intentions, analyze the effects of his decision, it becomes indisputable that his was a historic protest in response to the events that took place on October 2nd at Tlatelolco.

It would seem Paz mailed his letter of resignation together with a large quantity of others that sought employment. On October 18, 1968, the wheels had already been set in motion to find him a position in Cambridge. He had written to the poet Nathaniel Tarn, expressing his desire to spend time in England and asking whether some local university might employ him on the subjects of Hispanic or Latin American literature. Tarn, in turn, informed George Steiner of the matter. It was, in fact, Steiner who decided to intercede on Paz’s behalf with University of Cambridge officials.


A previously unpublished picture of Octavio Paz. Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Churchill College

Steiner proceeded to send a letter to Sir William Hawthorne, a renowned engineer who was Master of Churchill College at the time, requesting his support in opening a new position for Paz at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. In his missive, he explained: “As the press has disclosed, Octavio Paz has broken with his government and resigned his Embassy over the shooting in Mexico City.” And as he stated further along, “Paz is, unquestionably, one of the three or four major figures en Latin American literature today, very possibly on a par with Neruda and Borges. It would be a brilliant feather in our cap if we could be his hosts.”

Sir William Hawthorne was quickly persuaded and communicated with the directors of all the departments or centers of research that might be interested in accommodating Paz. But none of them had any vacancies. John Street, Director of the Center of Latin American Studies, suggested an alternative: that he be put forward as a candidate to the Simón Bolívar Chair, created a year earlier at the behest of the Venezuelan government with the financial support of the Shell Oil Company in order to tighten cultural bonds between the United Kingdom and Latin America.

However, even those who were striving to employ Paz at the University were dubious as to the expediency of this option. The candidates for the Chair position had been selected by a committee composed of academics from Cambridge and the Ambassador from Venezuela in the United Kingdom. They feared that the Venezuelans would reject Paz’s candidacy under the argument of not wishing to offend the Mexican government by supporting someone who had openly opposed them, abandoning the embassy under his charge.

In order to weigh the gravity of the situation and to consider how they might overcome this obstacle, they consulted Sir John Walker, acting General Director of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council, by virtue of his special insight into the Latin American intellectual and political panorama. Walker unequivocally replied that Paz was not merely an outstanding figure within contemporary Latin American culture, but perhaps the most important of them all. He believed that it was an extraordinary idea to bring him closer to England, given that his relations with Europe up until that time had been aligned with France.

Regarding the more delicate subject at hand, he warned that indeed, Paz had resigned the position of Ambassador to protest the “Mexican government’s repressive attitude towards university students.” He confessed that it was difficult for him to formulate an opinion regarding the attitude that might be taken by the Venezuelans with regards to Paz, although they “might possibly not wish to offend the Mexican government by pressing the candidature of one who stood up against them.” He concluded by suggesting that such musings were beyond the scope of the British members of the selection committee.

Everything seems to indicate that in the end, the question as to who would occupy the Chair was successfully decided without involving representatives of the Venezuelan government, Paz’s intellectual merits thus outweighing any potential diplomatic tensions between Mexico and Venezuela. By early December of 1968, Eric Ashby, the top administrative official at Cambridge University at the time, had confidentially, unofficially offered Paz the Simón Bolívar Chair for the 1969-1970 academic year. We know that Paz’s candidacy prevailed over that of other distinguished candidates: Victor Urquidi, also from Mexico; Pedro Grases, Humberto Fernández Morán, Ignacio Iribarren Borges, José Antonio Mayobre, Arturo Uslar Pietri and Marcel Roche, all from Venezuela; Ricardo Krebs, from Chile; Aldo Ferrer, from Argentina; and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, from Brazil.

Paz accepted the invitation almost immediately, setting only one condition: instead of remaining in Cambridge during the entire academic year, that is to say, from October to September, he requested permission to do so from January to December of 1970. His petition was granted: his hosts showed themselves to be willing to adapt to any extraordinary circumstances.

The administrative documents I found make no mention of Paz’s activities during the year he spent in Cambridge. There are dozens of pages filled with administrative formalities that, in the end, contribute nothing of value. Only the Cambridge University Reporter, as a thorough record of scholarly events, confirms his presence and provides some new information: Paz gave two courses at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages during three academic quarters. On Tuesdays, at eleven in the morning, he taught “Poesía moderna hispanoamericana: postmodernismo, vanguardia y tendencias contemporáneas” and on Wednesdays, from four to six in the afternoon, he led a seminar on Spanish and Spanish-American poetry. (5) In a conversation with the American journalist Rita Guibert, Paz observed that his students knew very little about Latin American literature and that an outmoded Iberian favoritism prevailed among them.(6) We do not know much more about these courses, although from their titles it is not hard to imagine that they would have come in handy for the development of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at the University of Harvard a few months later, eventually published as Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-garde.  

After delving into the Cambridge files, I became convinced that, at least for now, the best approach to Paz’s residence in England remains The Monkey Grammarian, the enigmatic poem he wrote while living there. This book, as Paz himself suggested at some point, can be read as a farewell to India and the start of a voyage of self-discovery. In the end, this is what his period of voluntary exile in the arid academic world was all about: the gestation of a combative, polemicist Octavio Paz, intensely committed to the reality of his homeland. Someone for whom the classroom would turn out to be far too small.

1 “Tela de juicios.” Interview by Julio Scherer (September 30, 1993) Obras completas. Miscelánea III. Entrevistas. Mexico: Círculo de Lectores-Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003. p. 554.
2 “Soy otro, soy muchos…” Interview by Silvia Cherem S. Obras completas. Miscelánea III. Entrevistas. Mexico: Círculo de Lectores-Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003. p. 362.
3 “Soy otro, soy muchos…”. Interview with Silvia Cherem S. Obras completas. Miscelánea III. Entrevistas. Mexico: Círculo de Lectores-Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003. p. 363.
4 The documents are found at the Cambridge University Archives (GB730 Box882A File 1, GB730 Box883 File 2) and at the Churchill Archives Centre (CCPH/1/6/1-65, CCAC/110/2/3, CCAC/110/21 box 54).
5 Cambridge University Reporter No. 4703. 15 April 1971. Vol. C. No 30;  Special 12, 15 April 1971. Vol. CI, p. 35.
6 “Octavio Paz”. Interview by Rita Guibert (4 October 1970): Obras completas. Miscelánea III. Entrevistas. Mexico: Círculo de Lectores-Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2003. p. 476. 

foto Concheiro Luciano

Luciano Concheiro studied History  at the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) and Sociology at Cambridge University. He currently coordinates the Horizontal Center. His Twitter is @ConcheiroL

*Image by Rogelio Cuéllar

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