Roque Dalton was what you might call an ‘all-purpose revolutionary.’ He taught armchair Marxism and agrarian insurgency, wrote poems and novels, criticism and journalism. He attended the University of Santiago when it was illegal to be red in Chile and, at a time when the CIA would have gladly put a bullet in his head, publicly visited Korea and Vietnam as an emissary, ending up working at a bicycle factory in Hanoi. His numerous and miraculous escapes from under the executioner’s sword are legendary, his assassination at the hands of his own soldiers is infamous even among people who have never read a word he wrote. With Otto René Castillo he founded Círculo Literario Universitario, and later helped judge the Premio Casa de las Américas, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Latin America. And if you’re still not convinced: he was a womanizer and drop-dead gorgeous in the way only a clean-cut Jesuit schoolboy can be, a latter-day Don Byron type with a socio-political sickle to grind. Between 1961 and 1965 he lived in Havana, after leaving Mexico in a big hurry. During this period his study of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and practice matured in earnest, study he would be forced to put to real use upon his return to his native El Salvador.
But I have to imagine this pale and thin young poet—26 years old then, the same age I am now, as I write this—feeling unsure on his feet the first time he brings a loaded AK-47 to his shoulder under the hard scrutiny of Cuban revolutionary commandos. Maybe the drillers chuckle at this schoolteacher’s awkward handling of the ten-pound rifle, maybe they call him a salvatrucha cherna comemierda. I can’t but imagine him homesick and bored in an interminable Havana blackout, daydreaming of pupusas con chile and a cold Suprema while he assembles and disassembles IEDs over and over until his fingers cramp up. This bookish revolutionary, straining to wring the bourgeois joneses from his body would have looked to his literary heritage for a model. He would not have had far to look. In César Vallejo, Dalton would have seen a man brought up a faithful Catholic, a poet-teacher who supported himself on part-time journalism work, and who, in the end, found himself in the middle of a war begun before he was born. Dalton’s attempt to reconcile his growing militancy with the dubious Soviet aggressions abroad could have been eased through an identification with Vallejo’s own relationship to the Soviet Union and its international influence a quarter-century earlier—in the early 1960s history still seemed on the side of the Socialists.
The section published below is from César Vallejo (1963), a book expanded from a lecture Dalton gave for an event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of the Peruvian poet, from a series called Cuadernos de la Casa de las Américas. Other books in the series are La familia de Martí, by Ezequiel Martínez Estrada, an Argentine who was an early director of Casa, Hemingway, by Lisandro Otero, a well-laureled mover and shaker in Cuba’s literary scene, Lam, azul y negro, by Edmundo Desnoes, a Cuban expat currently living in New York City, and Eugene O’Neill, by Rine Leal, a theatre critic. The book itself is divided into seven parts. The majority of these are measured yet poignant close readings of sections from Vallejo’s poems, situating him firmly in his European modernist context.
Dalton begins the book by stating, simply, that “César Vallejo is, in our estimate, the greatest poet ever to come from America,” and ends it with seven lessons to be learned from the work of César Vallejo. Just about everything in between is Dalton showing us, repeatedly, the ways Vallejo’s poetry is amazing. But in the fifth section, translated below, Dalton pauses to comment on Vallejo’s biography, starting from his move to Paris when he “embraced” Soviet Communism in response to the “broken” world he saw around him, and ending with Vallejo’s death in 1938, his own body undone by the revolution, and leaving behind a manuscript that would be published later as Poemas Humanos. Dalton could relate—but to an extent that, sitting over his own typewriter in Havana, he could never have understood. There is an eerie, almost Homerically tragic sense in which Dalton was writing his own obituary, which his execution, and the Poemas Clandestinos he left behind, somehow validated.
Again I see the poet, this time steeling himself against a death he feared but also sought. Writing about Vallejo’s death could have been an attempt to come to terms with the sacrifices he would be asked to make, not only as an anti-bourgeois, anti-imperialist, anti-Capitalist revolutionary, but as a writer, as a person. If we look beyond the bluster and propagandist tone of some of the lines (remember that El Che, who loved Vallejo, may well have attended the event, and that this was a young Marxist eager to prove his muster and devotion) we see an ambitious poet subtly but deliberately situating himself into an aesthetic and ideological lineage that began with Rubén Darío and continued long after Dalton fell, swept aside by the same revolution he helped to make.
from César Vallejo, by Roque Dalton (1935 – 1975)
In 1923 César Vallejo leaves his country bound for France. His arrival in Paris will initiate a long string of miserable years constantly menaced by hunger. Years of suffering so intense that, like those of the other brilliant Latin American in Paris, Horacio Quiroga, have become exemplary, classics in their terrible genre. The mestizo returning from Christianity who had initiated the cycle of his own expressive revolution, the rebel against the crushing voices from the outside that reached his small world in Peru, he confronts, face to face and without weapons but those of his exceptional sensibility (suicide weapons, from a practical point of view, under the circumstances), the horror of the Capitalist world which at home he had only known in an incipient form. Because the hunger of Paris in winter, the loneliness of men in bitter and hostile multitudes, their contempt, neglect, and the bleak perspectives Vallejo would soon come to know in all their implacability are just this: Capitalism. This is how Vallejo would come to interpret in his own voice the poor and wonderful man of the first half of the twentieth century: the man broken by Capitalism.
We will not insist here upon the details of Vallejo’s day-to-day pain. Juan Larrea, schematically, has left them faithfully transcribed: “Years 1923, 24, 25” he writes, “numb winters, with intermittent address and uncertain diet, without clothes to wear […] From the window of his hotel room […] Vallejo contemplated Paris with a burning sense of love and every morning he found himself in a second hand, used up dawn, lived and relived, unfitting in any light to satisfy his desire. He climbed and descended every staircase of poverty, accumulating everyday civilities, innumerable troubles and discomforts, hungers of every kind, that sum of deficits that constitute the obsessive ritual of misery when it becomes the axis of a life.” It is interesting to note that in these years Vallejo encounters the path, the truth he sought since his early youth to satisfy his thirst for human and humanizing goodness. The harshness of the Capitalist world rips the last veils from the poet’s eyes, knocks down the final idealistic walls suffocating him, and reveals definitively that man genuinely suffers, here on earth, of causes rooted in men; that it is necessary to bear witness to that suffering and to how the solutions are for us to make, in the daily struggle to materially transform an unjust world into a new one where love directs every sphere of existence. The “Season In Hell” which for Vallejo meant the years 1923 to 28 leave him, in spite of and alongside the wounds and scars, with fecund deposits. Larrea himself refers thus to the final years of this period: “Years 1926, 27, 28, of internal crisis, of choking on another—tougher, so to speak—variety of misery […] Another kind of concern begins to occupy his attention […] the hope of something on the other side, a better world, whose structures do not create victims of individuals or nations. Preoccupations of a socio-political character automatically take up his days and nights […] Through the natural play of his circumstances, Vallejo embraces the cause of the Revolution and, after a meticulous study of its theories, joins the party seeking it by the shortest path.”
In 1928 and 1929 Vallejo takes two trips to the country of new hope: the nascent Soviet Union. These two trips were, according to Monguió, “as crucial to Vallejo’s biography as his imprisonment in Peru […] decisive regarding his adherence to a political philosophy, a political organization,” but for us these trips signify, above all, a ratification in fact of the philosophical principles of the Revolution that Vallejo had already embraced, at least intellectually and, according to Larrea, “after a meticulous study of its theories.”
From that point on Vallejo begins intense revolutionary activity, as much in the development of his work as in his daily actions, to the extent that he was forced to leave France, deported for his “Communist affiliation.” In a Spain waking up to the Republic, Vallejo publishes his proletarian novel, El Tungsteno (1931) and his book of journalism Rusia en 1931, reflexiones al pie del Kremlin. In early 1933 he returns to France where indescribable misery sinks its claws in once again. In spite of this, Vallejo continues fulfilling his greatest task: to write. In the three years between 1933 and 1936, in addition to a large quantity of important journalistic articles, he writes three plays and two books of essays.
In 1936 the insurrection against the Spanish Republic broke out, ending up as a civil war. For Vallejo this event signified as much the tremendous stimulus to unleash his poetic voice, resonating with unprecedented human pain and hope, as the decisive proof that for him words and blood, poetry and emotion, man and art, had become the same through the long and staggering process begun in Peru with Los Heraldos Negros. More than an opportunity to fight with this existential identity, for Vallejo the Spanish war was always the definitive war, the Human war. The war for the human Vallejo, at least.
On two occasions the poet travels to a Spain in all-out war—trips that barely interrupt the desperate fight he maintained in Paris. The first time was in early 1937 and the second in July of this same year for the Second International Writers’ Congress for the Defense of Culture, which began in Valencia and ended in Paris. It was then that, “this man, who since leaving Peru in nineteen twenty-three had not published a single book of poetry, who had barely written any during his years in Europe, now, amid the hectic service he gives, with his vision of a combatant Spain just out of sight, not knowing at all ‘what to do, where to stand; I run, I write, I cheer, I cry, I sense, I ruin, snuffed out, I tell my heart to stop, the good to come,’ breaks forth once again with poetry. In the fall and winter of 1937—many of the poems are dated September, October, November, and December—he writes what will fill a volume titled Poemas Humanos.”
Luis Monguió adds: “Through the poetic effort produced at the end of 1937, a great physical and psychological exhaustion crushed Vallejo. His hunger, his miserable life, his political trouble, his emotions over the Spanish battle had pulled him to pieces.” On March 13, 1938 he takes to bed from an illness that has not been established, and on April 15 of that same year, he dies. Only after his death were the Poemas Humanos published, a series of which, España, aparta de mí este cáliz, were edited as a posthumous tribute from the Latin American Committee to the defense of the Spanish Republic.
Translator’s Note: Dalton quotes from two books in this section: César Vallejo o Hispanoamérica en la Cruz de su razón, Juan Larrea (Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina, 1958), and César Vallejo, vida y obra, Luis Monguió (Editora Perú Nuevo, Lima, 1952).