César Vallejo

Picture of Author C├ęsar Vallejo
Author photo by Juan Domingo Córdoba, 1929.

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About the author

César Vallejo is one the greatest poets of the twentieth century, his monument being the book-length sequence Trilce — one of only two collections of his poetry published during his lifetime, the other being Los heraldos negros (The Black Heralds). After Trilce Vallejo wrote stories, essays, a novel, and several plays, but did not collect any of his subsequent poems for book publication. Since his death, these poems have usually been referred to as the Poemas humanos after the title of one of the posthumous volumes.

The Shearsman edition of his poetry is the most complete one available in English, is fully bilingual, and is based on the very latest scholarship. Each edition comes with an introduction, and comprehensive notes for the English-speaking reader.

The translations are by the Irish poet, and award-winning translator, Michael Smith, and the Peruvian scholar Valentino Gianuzzi.

Biography

In March 1892, César Vallejo was born in Santiago de Chuco, a small town in the Andean sierra of northern Peru. He died in Paris in April 1938.

Increasingly, despite the difficulty of his poetry as compared, for example, with the popular accessibility of the work of the Chilean Nobel prize-winner, Pablo Neruda, this strange Peruvian is now being recognised as the major voice in 20th century Latin-American poetry. Vallejo's background was provincial middle-class, although this should not be taken to mean too much, granted the context of Peru at that time. Even though he did not know Quechua, the Andean world he grew up in is ever-present in his work, visible even in his European writings. His father, Francisco, earned a fairly decent living as a notary and local official. Nonetheless, with a large family to support, of whom César was the youngest, Francisco's earnings would not have gone too far, and money in the Vallejo household was often scarce. Hence, César's ambition to acquire a university degree was fulfilled only after a couple of failed attempts.

It was during one of these financially induced failures (1911–1912), when he had to abandon his university studies and work, first as a tutor to the children of a hacendado on an estate near Huánuco, and later as an assistant cashier on a sugar plantation, that Vallejo witnessed, unforgettably, the exploitation and oppression of the mainly Indo-American workers.

Another disillusionment in Vallejo's early life occurred in July 1920, on his return to his hometown of Santiago de Chuco for the annual fiesta of the town's patron saint. There he found himself embroiled in a local feud, in the course of which a store was burned and a deputy killed. Although, it seems, that he was innocent of any complicity in the events—indeed, Vallejo was helping the Sub-prefect to write up the legal documents—Vallejo was somehow implicated, arrested and charged, and subsequently spent 112 days in prison in Trujillo. This whole experience had a deeply disturbing and long-lasting effect on Vallejo.

After a series of teaching jobs and work as a journalist, Vallejo left Peru for good in the middle of 1923. By that time, his deeply loved mother was dead and a passionate love affair had ended acrimoniously. Vallejo went to Paris. There, with little money, no contacts and no French, he somehow managed to eke out a living with journalism and some teaching. In time, of course, he made friends, and it was in Paris that he became politically radical. He studied Marxism and visited Russia three times in the 1930s to observe for himself the great Soviet experiment in social engineering. And he married a French girl, Georgette Philippart.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Vallejo passionately committed his time and energy to the Republican cause, writing propaganda and acting as a political instructor. When in Spain in 1937, he attended the International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers. What he saw in Spain during these visits made him fearful for the fate of the Republic, but his fervour for the Republican cause increased rather than diminished. It was during these feverish times that Vallejo wrote most of his magnificent final poems, including the sequence Spain, let this cup pass from me.

In March 1938 Vallejo fell gravely ill, and died in a Paris hospital on the 15th of April. The doctors gave as the cause of his death intestinal infection. Vallejo's wife believed that it was the recurrence of the malaria that had struck him in his youth. On his death-bed, he dictated the following words to Georgette: 'Whatever may be the cause I have to defend before God, beyond death I have a defender: God.'

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