October 4, 2023


Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Journeying through the multifaceted universe of Octavio Paz’s ‘The Monkey Grammarian’: a text that circles about itself

13 min read

Satyarth Pandita reviews and analyses Octavio Paz’s The Monkey Grammarian (Arcade, 2017) and calls it indescribable.

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

~ “Brotherhood” (“Hermandad”) by Octavio Paz

(Translated by Eliot Weinberger)

There are books that are read and forgotten over time and then there are other books that are read, re-read and talked about, thus, keeping its writer alive. I came across a similar work, by the writer of the poem ‘Brotherhood’ which for some reason has not gained that much light. I discuss, here, through this write-up, the often-overlooked work of one of the major authors and essayists of the 20th century- the Master-poet and Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz. 

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

Octavio Paz was born in Mexico City, Mexico. His interest in literature was sparked by the books in his grandfather’s extensive library. He was the author of many volumes of poetry as well as literary and art criticism and works on politics, culture, and Mexican history. From 1962 to 1968, Paz was appointed Mexican ambassador to India and it was during this period that he visited the temple of Galta, in Rajasthan which was to become the inspiration for his book ‘The Monkey Grammarian’. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1990. 

It was during the freezing winters of January 2020, when I was reading different books and magazines on Kashmir Shaivism that I came across an unfamiliar name: Octavio Paz. It was an essay by Dr. Oscar Pujol titled “The Monkey Grammarian and the Wise Alchemist (Some thoughts on Abhinava Gupta and the poetics of Octavio Paz in The Monkey Grammarian)” that piqued my interest. I had never heard about this Mexican poet before and thereafter I started to scavenge and read his works and the first prose or prose-poetry which I read was the “The Monkey Grammarian”.  The Monkey Grammarian? 

“Granted there is a wall, but what’s going on behind it?”

                                                                     ~ Jean Tardieu

I was surprised at the title of the book. The painting of Hanumān pulling open his chest to reveal Rama and Sita seated in his heart, on the front cover justified the title to some extent but the combined effect of letters, colours and Hanumān’s image instilled an urge within me, to read the book and make sense of it. After reading the book for the umpteenth time and drawing my own interpretations, I could not stop myself but write a few lines about this creation of Paz and thus by doing so, the lines ‘and at this very moment, someone spells me out’ speak for their creator.

The Monkey Grammarian is a kind of book, describing which, would mean dissolving its meaning because how do you describe something which is indescribable? You can read through its pages, but you cannot describe it, because doing so would be dissolving the text. The book does not attempt to create rather abolish everything. This is a text that banishes meaning. After reading, I have been trying to summon, like a catalogue, the various adjectives and genres that can be used to describe this book, viz. a travelogue, prose-poetry, an essay, a philosophical work, a rumination, wordplay, chaos, order, defamiliarization, a complex work, a ceremony, scintillating work, the unfathomable abyss etc. But none of these words justify the text because the meaning of the text is not limited to any word. This is a book that can only be experienced and felt. 

Translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane

The book in its very core is a recollection and reflection of Paz’s trip to the temple of Galta, in Rajasthan. The temple which is also known as the monkey temple due to the large number of monkeys swarming inside and outside of the complex leaves a long-lasting impression in Paz’s mind that he is compelled to write a complete book on it. There is, however, another figure, an inhuman companion of the poet, making a parallel journey alongside him, to Ceylon. The book is a reminiscence of two journeys and all the twenty-nine chapters of this book accompanied by twenty-nine pictures oscillate between Galta and Cambridge I.e., the place where he had been and the place where he is writing his book. 

Octavio Paz has laid out the manner for the readers in which the book is supposed to be read in the very opening paragraph of the first chapter. “The best thing to do will be to choose the path to Galta, traverse it again (invent it as I traverse it), and without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, go to the end—without being concerned about what “going to the end” means or what I meant when I wrote that phrase.” The reader need not be concerned about how or where the book ends, rather it is all about the process of reading, enjoying and experiencing it.

Paz has creatively penned his work like a fine labyrinth so as to leave the readers with something to imagine. The book calls forth for the active involvement of the reader because without a reader’s reading, the work is non-existing. Paz has provided rich imagery of the places where he visited in the past and where he is writing this book. By doing so, he has made sure to keep his reader’s imagination as busy as his own. He never lets the reader get bored in any of the chapters because there is no linear narrative. Paz never lays out everything in front of the reader in a simple manner for he knows that doing so would be to bore the reader to death or perhaps because he knows that life is not simple. The active and creative aspect of reading are made sure to remain intact throughout the text. Like a person in a jungle, the reader has to make his own way through this forest of text; it is the reader’s task to work out things for himself. This book is a forest whose every page is a dense grove in which each printed letter is a unique tree. To read this text is to enter a forest and to understand this text is to find one’s way through it.  “A thicket of signs: how to read it, how to clear a path through this denseness? Hanumān smiles with pleasure at the analogy that has just occurred to him: calligraphy and vegetation, a grove of trees and writing, reading and a path. Following a path: reading a stretch of ground, deciphering a fragment of world. Reading considered as a path toward.… The path as a reading: an interpretation of the natural world?”

At some points it seems like the author has made a deliberate attempt to exhaust the reader’s patience in the process of reading the text. There is a complex wordplay throughout the book. One often asks if there is any order underlying the chaotic interplay of words? This is something that means different things for different readers. There is no linear narrative because the journey to the temple of Galta in itself is a recollection of the past produced by a pattern of action potentials in Paz’s brain. He has no control over his memories. They resurface at their own will. This book is confluence of the writer and the reader’s imaginative and creative thinking abilities.

This book is also a meditation on the nature of poetry and art, language and grammar. Octavio Paz’s preoccupation with language is evident in this text. It seems as if the protagonist of this book is neither Paz nor Hanumān but language itself. The language of the unknown. We see that there are two stories being woven throughout the book. One by Paz himself and the other by the great monkey chief, Hanumān. Describing Hanumān, Paz quotes Dowson, “A celebrated monkey chief. He was able to fly and is a conspicuous figure in the Rāmāyana. … Hanumān leaped from India to Ceylon in one bound; tore up trees, carried away the Himalayas, seized the clouds and performed many other wonderful exploits. … Among his other accomplishments, Hanumān was a grammarian; and the Rāmāyana says: “The chief of monkeys is perfect; no one equals him in the sāstras, in learning, and in ascertaining the sense of the scriptures (or in moving at will). It is well known that Hanumān was the ninth author of grammar.” Indeed, Hanumān is known to possess a deep knowledge of the scriptures and grammar along with physical prowess.

Photo source: Wikimedia commons

An account of Lord Rama’s speech of Hanumān’s knowledge of the scriptures and grammar is also found in Griffith’s Ramayana as:

For one whose words so sweetly flow 

The whole Rig-Veda needs must know, 

And in his well-trained memory store 

The Yajush and the Sáman’s lore. 

He must have bent his faithful ear 

All grammar’s varied rules to hear. 

For his long speech how well, he spoke! 

In all its length no rule he broke.

Hanumān is a grammarian and poet and the story of Hanuman is the story of poetry per se and this is reflected in the following passage: “Hanumān wrote on the rocky cliffs of a mountain the Mahanātaka, based on the same subject as the Rāmāyana; on reading it, Vālmīki feared that it would overshadow his poem and begged Hanumān to keep his drama a secret. The Monkey yielded to the poet’s entreaty, uprooted the mountain, and threw the rocks into the sea. Vālmīki’s pen and ink on the paper are a metaphor of the bolt of lightning and the rain with which Hanumān wrote his drama on the rocky mountainside.” And thus, Hanuman destroyed his text so that Valmiki would be able to write his.

Hanumān’s possession of great learning is also documented by Dr John Muir in his Original Sanskrit Texts:

“The chief of the monkeys, measureless, seeking to acquire grammar, looking up to the sun, bent on inquiry, went from the mountain where the sun rises to that where he sets, apprehending the mighty collection. The chief of the monkeys is perfect: no one equals him in the Sastras, in learning, and in ascertaining the sense of the Scriptures. In all sciences, in the rules of austerity, he rivals the preceptor of the gods.”

“The critique of the universe (and that of the gods) is called grammar”. There underlies an irony in the title of the book and that is the book flouts the rules of grammar and defies all the subtexts that define a book. Grammar provides a defined structure and stability to things. We understand things because of their grammar. We understand the universe by its grammatical structure. Everything has a grammar. Religion is grammar. Science is grammar. But the grammatical structure of the book is undefined. There is no finality in the structure. There is no finished form. The author has laid out multifaceted grammatical beads and left it for the readers to weave them in a string of the manner they desire.  

In the book, Paz also defamiliarizes people, things, events, places and scenes. He believes that the things which actually exist in this world have been veiled by the names given to them. What we know are the names but not the things in actuality. Perhaps this is why he has not named the chapters and just designated them numbers because naming the chapters would mean imposing an ontological certitude. He says that the moment of truth, when we come the closest to a thing’s actuality and its essence is due to the poets.  “The poet is not one who names things, but one who dissolves their names, one who discovers that things do not have a name and that the names that we call them are not theirs . . . Through writing we abolish things, we turn them into meaning; through reading, we abolish signs, we extract the meaning from them, and almost immediately thereafter, we dissipate it: the meaning returns to the primordial stuff.” Therefore, “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.”  Poets, by dissolving and abolishing the names of things, present the world to us as it precisely is. That moment is the moment of truth, the moment of revelation.

As much the text oscillates between the two places of Galta and Cambridge, so much it oscillates between the two worlds of the author. The text is a conflict between the external world and the author’s internal mental world. If the text aims to seek anything at all, it is ‘Equanimity: the point where the opposition between inner and outer vision, between what we see and what we imagine, ceases.’ When Paz commenced his journey to Galta, he perhaps began it in search of something which he did not know at the time and which he could not achieve even after the completion of his trip. “I was simply setting forth to meet … what? I didn’t know at the time, and I still don’t know.” The book is another attempt on his account to begin again his quest for the search of that something. But what is it that Paz is in the search for? Is it the quest for ‘equanimity’ which the sadhu of Galta is also in search for? Or is it a quest for the unknown, the unfathomable? It is left to the reader to fathom. It is as if, at the end of the road, begins the real quest for meaning for Paz.  He has presented his dilemma in this book to the readers because the more you try to understand it, the more you lose its context and meaning for it is a book that is meant to disturb the reader. There is no beginning, middle or end of this narrative. It is a text that rotates on itself. Even when the book ends it does not end because there is no ‘full stop’ that would tell us so. “Without being concerned about what ‘going to the end’ means”. The reader is left stranded in the sea of the text to think what the end of the book is?

The Fairy-Feller’s MasterstrokePhoto source: Wikimedia commons

Octavio Paz also had a deep interest in art and it is reflected by the carefully chosen pictures that accompany the text. Although most of these pictures are of buildings, people, monkeys, Hanumān, scenes from the Ramayana, there is, however, one painting, described and studied in detail by Paz that at first seems to be totally out of context. It clearly stands out from the rest of the pictures. It is the painting ‘The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke‘ by Richard Dadd which was finished over a course of nine years while he was imprisoned in an insane asylum on the charges of hacking his father to death with an axe. Paz reflects that the theme of the painting is ‘expectation’ that “the figures that people the painting are awaiting an event that is about to take place at any moment now.” He says that “nothing is happening except anticipation” in the painting. “The figures are fated to await the masterstroke of the woodcutter which never happens.” ‘The Monkey Grammarian’ is Octavio Paz’s ‘The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke’ in which he (the author) is the woodcutter with pen in his hands instead of the axe and we (the readers) are the figures of the painting waiting for something to happen. We skim chapter by chapter in expectation of finding something. A meaning, perhaps? The masterstroke of the painting and the masterstroke of this text share the same fate, both of them are “an event that is always about to happen and at the same time will never happen.”

If there is any well-defined summation of what ‘The Monkey Grammarian’ is, it is in the introductory chapter by Ilan Stavans:

Needless to say, The Monkey Grammarian is a challenging text. It might be better described as a test. Indeed, I know of countless readers who have succumbed in the process of navigating it. Then again, those who do stay for the ride are handsomely rewarded. This is a book of magical thinking and heightened awareness.” 

In the words of Octavio Paz himself, “What I am writing is also a ceremony, the whirling of a word that appears and disappears as it circles round and round. I am erecting towers of air.”


Satyarth Pandita is a BS-MS undergraduate student at an Indian Institute. He is doing his major in Biological Sciences. He has a keen interest in science, literature and cinema.

His articles and letters have appeared in state newspapers such as ‘Daily Excelsior’, ‘State Times’ and his short stories, CNF and essays have featured in magazines like ‘Outlook India’, ‘All Ears’, ‘Ayaskala’, ‘TheStoryVault’, ‘SearchKashmir’, ‘Naad’ and ‘Kitaab International’.

Satyarth’s Twitter handle is: @panditasatyarth. He can be reached at: panditasatyarth@gmail.com

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