Vallejo's 'Other': Versions of Otherness in the Work of Cesar Vallejo

By Hart, Stephen M. | The Modern Language Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Vallejo's 'Other': Versions of Otherness in the Work of Cesar Vallejo


Hart, Stephen M., The Modern Language Review


Vallejo, 'el gran poeta maldito de America' (1)

Cesar Vallejo (1892-1938) is, without doubt, one of the most enigmatic figures of contemporary Spanish American literature; thus there are a number of unsolved mysteries with regard to his work and also his life. In this essay I propose to review some of these enigmas and, without attempting to bring closure on them, analyse the ways in which they permeate the way Vallejo's work has been understood. The theme I have chosen to study is Otherness, since, as I shall be arguing, it is the central leitmotif of the Peruvian poet's work. Other themes, such as pain, religiosity, the absurd, and politics, have been proposed as central, (2) but I propose that these be seen as subplots in the narrative of a life and work shot through with Otherness. There have in the past been some studies of the double (Xavier Abril), alterity (Antonio Melis), and 'otredad' (Guzman; and see below), but to date there has been no substantive treatment of this issue as a methodological tool to assess Vallejo's work as an evolution. (3) This essay has four parts, (i) the Otherness of Vallejo the man, (ii) Vallejo as the critic's Other, (iii) The Self as Other in his poetry, and (iv) Vallejo as cultural Other.

When writing of the Otherness of Vallejo the man, I am alluding to the sense of mystery that has surrounded certain crucial details of his life as they have gradually emerged over the last fifty years or so. Some indication of what lay ahead emerged when it became clear in the early 1940s, soon after his death, that nobody really knew when he was born. Various documents, including passports, were bandied about, notably by Juan Larrea, probably Vallejo's best male friend, and Georgette de Vallejo, his widow, who were at odds right from the beginning, and claims were followed by counter-claims. In 1954 Antenor Samaniego published a copy of Vallejo's baptism certificate, retrieved from the local church in Santiago de Chuco, dated 19 May 1892, and deduced (since the document referred to the birth of the child two months earlier) that Vallejo had been born on 19 March 1892, although this date was corrected to 16 March 1892 by Andre Coyne in a study published three years later in which he argued that Samaniego had taken the expression 'dos meses antes' too literally. (4) Thus, Vallejo was born on 16 March 1892, not in 1893 as his wife had thought. (The fact that his wife did not know his birth date gives some immediate indication of the mystery surrounding his life; Georgette de Vallejo even went as far as to have his tomb stone made with the wrong date on it.) (5) It has since emerged that some of the blame for this ought to be attributed to Vallejo himself, since according to one account, he asked, when a small boy, to have his birthday celebrated on a different day from the official day, and his family accepted this rather bizarre arrangement. (6)

If the confusion surrounding Vallejo's birthdate were not enough, it later emerged that the exact cause of his death (he died prematurely on 15 April 1938 at the age of forty-six) was not known. It is fair to say that, even today, it is still not known exactly why he died. The reasons suggested, some based on medical evidence from the Maison de Sante Villa Arago clinic where he died, have ranged from the sensible (he died of physical and/or mental exhaustion), to the plausible (Xavier Abril's suggestion that he died of syphilis, or Georgette de Vallejo's thesis that the cause was a disease he contracted while working in insalubrious conditions in Peru in the early 1920s:), to the frankly bizarre (he died on Good Friday and was therefore a resurrected Christlike figure, or he died 'of Spain', a remarkable disease if ever there was one). (7) Discussions on Vallejo's death range from the sublime (what was his contribution to humanity and the Latin-American peoples?) to the ridiculous (was it raining when he died?; what were his last words? …

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