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José Emilio Pacheco obituary


Award-winning Mexican poet and author of the bestselling novel Battles in the Desert

In 2010, as he was on his way to collect the Cervantes prize, the Spanish-speaking world's prize for literature, from the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, the Mexican poet and novelist José Emilio Pacheco's trousers fell to his knees. Unabashed, he hitched them up with one hand, declaring that "an incident like this is a cure for vanity". This self-deprecating humour was one of the characteristics of a writer often described as the most important Mexican poet of the second half of the 20th century. The Cervantes prize was only one of a long list of awards that Pacheco, who has died after a fall aged 74, received over the years. The award citations stress the extreme rigour and deceptive simplicity of his verses.

Pacheco's family background was a complex mixture perhaps typical of Mexican identity in the 20th century. On his mother's side, the Berny family were rich business people from the eastern port of Veracruz. His father was brought up during the years of the Mexican revolution after 1910, and rose to become a general in the revolutionary army. Cashiered when he refused to carry out orders to shoot another general, he turned to the law and practised for many years in Mexico City. He intended his son to continue with the family practice, and the young José Emilio, born in Mexico City, dutifully enrolled at university to study law.

However, his interests were already far more inclined towards literature, and he took up studies in philosophy and letters at the huge UNAM university in the Mexican capital. It was there that he met his lifelong friends, the writers Carlos Monsiváis, Juan José Arreola and Sergio Pitol, and the four of them soon became involved in the literary and cultural life of Mexico.

As a student, Pacheco tried his hand at writing plays, then published his first volume of poetry, Los Elementos de la Noche (The Elements of Night, 1963), at the age of 24. In the same year he published a book of short stories, El Viento Distante (The Distant Wind). By 1966, with El Reposo del Fuego (The Fire's Rest), he had already acquired his mature voice, a spare, probing examination of the world around him and the possibilities of changing it.

He said: "I like poetry to be the interior voice, the voice no one hears, the voice of the person reading it. That is how the 'I' becomes 'you', the 'you' becomes 'I', and in the act of reading is born the 'we' that only exists in that intimate, full moment of reading." Many more volumes of poetry followed, gaining him a faithful following among Mexican readers and critics.

But it was for a novel about an adolescent's impossible love for Mariana, his best friend's mother, in Las Batallas en el Desierto (Battles in the Desert, 1981), that he became best known in Mexico. The short novel has been reprinted some 40 times, and has inspired a film, Mariana, Mariana (1987), a comic, a song by the group Café Tacvba and a play, as well as being translated into English and other European languages.

Battles in the Desert describes growing up in a city that was doubling in size to become the megalopolis of modern-day Mexico City, full of a huge variety of characters but masterful in the way it links life in the city with the emotions of a young boy awakening to the adult world around him.

As the book's ending shows, this is not an exercise in nostalgia: "They demolished the school, demolished Mariana's block of flats, demolished my house, demolished the Roma neighbourhood. That city is gone. That country is gone. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who can feel nostalgic about that horror?"

Elsewhere, Pacheco insisted that: "Yesterday cannot live again … All that is truly ours is the day that is beginning." He devoted much of his time to writing for newspapers, engaging as fully as possible in the daily cultural life of his country. He also taught Mexican and Latin American literature at universities in Mexico, the UK (Essex) and Canada, and from 1985 until 2005 at the University of Maryland in the US. He was also a distinguished translator from English, in particular of Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot.

He is survived by his wife, Cristina, a writer, and two daughters, Laura and Cecilia.

• José Emilio Pacheco Berny, writer, born 30 June 1939; died 26 January 2014

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