Friday, 3 June 2016

Book Review: The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

When I decided to read and review The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz for Guiltless Reader’s Read the Nobels 2016 challenge, I didn’t quite know what to expect. After all, my main reason to choose the book was that I liked its title and that at first sight it wasn’t poetry like most other works from the pen of this Mexican author that I saw in the bookshop. Having read that the Swedish Academy had honoured him in 1990 with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity”, I divined – correctly – that it would be a difficult read that required much attention as well as patience. However, for me this was rather an incentive to read it than a deterrent! As it turns out, the slim book is a highly philosophical exploration of language and grammar inspired by the memories of a visit to the Hindu temples of Galta in Rajastan.

Octavio Paz, in full Octavio Irineo Paz y Lozano, was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in March 1914. Already as a teenager he published essays and poems bringing out his first complete volume of poetry titled Wild Moon (Luna Silvestre) in 1933. After travels and studies, the writer joined the Mexican diplomatic corps and became ambassador in India in 1962, a post from which he resigned in 1968 in protest of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico. In the following years, he taught at different renowned universities and continued to write prolifically. Although much of his work – like The Monkey Grammarian (El mono gramático: 1974) – defies clear classification, Octavio Paz is best known for his poetry that has been widely translated into English and published in different collections. He also wrote important essays like The Labyrinth of Solitude (El laberinto de la soledad: 1950), The Bow and the Lyre (El Arco y la Lira: 1956), and Alternating Current (Corriente alterna: 1967) along with biographies like Claude Lévi-Strauss. An Introduction (Claude Levi-Strauss o El nuevo festín de Esopo: 1967), Marcel Duchamp. Appearance Stripped Bare (Marcel Duchamp o El castillo de la pureza: 1968), and Sor Juana or The Traps of Faith (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe: 1982). In 1990 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Octavio Paz died in Mexico City, Mexico, in April 1998.

The title of The Monkey Grammarian refers to Hanumān, the monkey God and ninth grammarian from Hindu mythology, who is worshipped – among others – in the temples of Galta, i.e. the abandoned town of Galtaji near Khania-Balaji east of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. According to the Rāmayāṇa, he and his warrior monkeys helped God Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the hands of the demon king Rāvaṇa who kidnapped her to Ceylon. Seated comfortably in his study with a view on his neighbour’s patio in Cambridge, England, in the summer of 1970, the author as first-person narrator looks back on his visit to Galta where the legend of Hanumān is ever-present on the dilapidated walls of the temples. However, the memories of the sacred place and the present experience of nightfall in Cambridge serve the author only as starting points and constants in a chain of contemplations on various aspects of time and reality, of language and grammar.
 “… The critique of paradise is called language: the abolition of proper names; the critique of language is called poetry: names grow thinner and thinner, to the point of transparency, of evaporation. In the first case, the world becomes language; in the second, language is transformed into a world. Thanks to the poet, the world is left without names. Then, for the space of an instant, we can see it precisely as it is – an adorable azure. …”
At the heart of all subtle, if not pedantic discussions about the true meaning of words is the vital question about origins and ends not just of language but of everything. The entire discourse moves around and between opposites: fixity and transition, permanence and change, always and never, male and female, the God-given and the human invention. And along the way the author puts everything in question including his own role in the process of creation.
“As I began these pages I decided to follow literally the metaphor of the title of the collection that they were intended for, the Paths of Creation, and to write, to describe a text that was really a path and that could be read and followed as such. As I wrote, the path to Galta grew blurred or else I lost my bearings and went astray in the trackless wilds. Again and again I was obliged to return to the starting point. Instead of advancing, the text circled about itself. …”
Wikipedia articles on Octavio Paz list The Monkey Grammarian among poetry although in reality it’s virtually impossible to pin it down to only one literary form and genre. It’s at the same time memoir of the author’s travel to the temples of Galta, a cursory introduction into the legend of Hanumān as important part of Indian mythology, an essay on language, grammar and poetry, a philosophical discourse on time and reality… and much more. Nonetheless, its classification as poetry in prose is justified considering that topics and language are highly lyrical throughout the text. Above all the depiction of architecture and nature are simply breathtaking thanks to their beauty of language and the vivid atmosphere that they create. The great number of metaphors and similes interspersing the book speaks of the lasting influence that surrealism had on the author’s style, but it also makes it a demanding read. In fact, it isn’t always easy to follow the logic of the reasoning. Often I had to re-read passages because the sentences were so lengthy and my attention didn’t last long enough to take in their exact meaning. Precision of expression definitely is another virtue of Octavio Paz as it should be of every writer, notably a poet.

I truly enjoyed reading the original Spanish version as well as the English translation of The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz. I hadn’t intended to read both, but I wasn’t sure if my Spanish was good enough to fully profit from the book. The English edition is quite good, in fact. It left me with just the same positive impression as the Spanish one, i.e. it didn’t feel as if it had lost much of its original power and atmosphere. Admittedly, as a poetic essay the book isn’t for everybody, readers who like it philosophical and don’t mind the complex will love it, though. Highly recommended!

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to:


  1. This sounds an amazing book and one I would love to experience. I hadn't heard of Octavio Paz before so thank you for sharing your review :-)

    Stephanie Jane @Literary Flits

    1. Always happy to be of help! I hope that you'll like "The Monkey Grammarian". Thanks for leaving a comment!

  2. I've never read his work so it's great to read your review. I'm envious you're able to experience books in the various languages and often wonder whether it's different for each version? Which one was better for you?

    1. This one was my first by Octavio Paz too - because even though I like individual poems, I can't bear reading an entire volume. And essays don't often find their way on my TBR list.

      I always prefer the origial versions since it's inevitable that some of what the author expressed with so much skill and care in his own language gets lost in translation. Even when I don't understand every single word it's the more authentic experience - although (as in this case) a good translation can be very helpful.

      Thanks for your comment Aloi!


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.