Elena Poniatowska: The Anti-Princess
La Poni, polaquita-Poleczka, Elenísima: Elena Poniatowska – the Mexican writer with a surname that sounds oddly familiar in Polish circles, turns 85 on 19th May 2017. Marcin Żurek, a specialist on Latin America and a translator of Poniatowska's work, writes about the amazing life of the Polish-Mexican anti-princess.
She is a princess of Polish, Italian, French, Russian, American and Mexican pedigree. She is often somewhat embarrassed by her, in her words, ‘absurd nobility’, and she looks for redemption for her socialite ancestors in caring for the lower classes, so tortured by their cursed history. For centuries, they were silent – at most arousing the limited interest of anthropologists –she gave them a voice.
She wrote about the common Mexico better than most local writers. Whilst other authors troubled themselves with the idle lives of the nouveau riche, busy misappropriating the ideals of the Mexican Revolution, she was busy turning México popular, with its streets and rundown neighbourhoods, into poetry.
Her writing never becomes Writing, separated from the world at large. No merciless secretary protects her from the tenacity of fame, stands in the way of her Peace of Mind, devises intricate excuses which would free her from overwhelming yet insignificant distractions. She is too close to the people, to just lock herself in her office and tell the housekeeper to keep out intruders with the universal ‘She is out and I don’t know when she’ll be back.’ And so, she ends up running to the pick up the phone, which keeps disrupting the rhythm of her inspiration at maddeningly short intervals – ‘will she give an interview’, ‘will she do a reading’, ‘will she support this’, ‘will she sign that’, ‘will she protest against that other thing’, ‘will she agree to this, that and the other.’ She will indeed agree, support and sign. She may just add, with innocent and harmless annoyance: ¡Ay qué lata! – Oh! Woe is me!
Horrible people, nice people
The accident of birth did not seem to be setting Elena up for the role of a ‘writer committed to the cause’. Niña bien, the girl from a good family, was to shine in social circles who knew full well about her dazzling aristocratic lineage of three hundred plus relatives, who comprised an aristocratic clique built up by the provincial complexes at the height of pretentious vanity.
Her elitist mother was astounded to find that her teenage daughter was bored of etiquette and fascinated with the ‘riffraff’, the ‘horrible people’, which populated the world making it unbearable and forcing the ‘nice people’ (as the higher classes were known in Mexico) to wall themselves in their imposing residences.
Helene Elizabeth Louise Amelie Paula Dolores Poniatowska came into the world on 19th May 1932 in Paris, the daughter of Paula Amor and the prince Jean Poniatowski. She was ten when she set off for Mexico with her mother, who knew nothing of her homeland. They were running from a Europe torn apart by war, in which her father was performing heroic feats, trading his health in for orders and medals.
Elizabeth Sperry Crocker, her American grandmother who was related to Benjamin Franklin, was terrified of the idea of her grandchild going off to a wild land, so far away from the civilised world, that she tried to scare her with pictures from National Geographic depicting Native Americans with human bones braided into their hair: ‘You’ll be living amongst cannibals, they’ll eat you too!’, she warned.
Only once in Mexico does she find out that her mother is in fact, Mexican. Her great-grandfather, the wealthy landowner José María Amor y Escandón, left the country in 1863. He left behind the San Gabriel hacienda in Morelos, which was later lost in the turmoil of the revolution, and went to Paris. Paula Amor and Jean Poniatowski met at a ball at the Rothschild residence at Place de la Concorde. A year after Elena was born, they had their second daughter Kitzia, and later, at the end of the 1940s, their son Jan was born – he died tragically in a car accident at the age of twenty.
Her mother sends her to the Windsor School, so she will learn English, while her French governess makes sure her French remains impeccable. She learns the contemptible language of her Mexican ancestry on the street. The influence of the family’s maids speech can be heard in her accent and amusing vocabulary to this day.
She later attends a Catholic school near Philadelphia, and when she returns to Mexico, is destined to marry a well-suited young man, to create the perfect couple – something akin to an aristocratic Barbie and Ken.
Elena wants to study medicine, but her parents can’t quite fathom the idea: ‘And what, pray tell, are you going to do during anatomy class with all those naked bodies?’. Even though the seeming fate of social mores should have condemned her to balls, cocktails, fashion shows and being a marvel of socialite circles, she knows that she will undermine the pretence of her elite predetermination.
She’s 20 when she starts working at the Excelsior newspaper, publishing an endless expanse of interviews which she remembers with her typical self-mockery: ‘I asked such ludicrous questions that I made the readers laugh.’
In 1954, she publishes her first book – neither a novel, nor a short story, but rather an etude of youthful fantasy – entitled Lilus Kikus. The reviews are enthusiastic: ‘it’s a book which no writer who is entering the world of literature would be ashamed of’, while others believe that ‘in reading a debut, rarely do we have the certainty we are dealing with a great writer’.
Elena leaves for Paris. Thanks to the connections of her grandfather, André Poniatowski, she conducts dozens of interviews with the greatest stars of the time: Jean Marais, Jean Cocteau, Françoise Sagan, Grace Kelly, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Rubinstein and Louis de Broglie. She gains a reputation for being ‘the brightest young Mexican journalist’, although some maintain that ‘Elena Poniatowska is a pseudonym for a moustachioed writer of an advanced age’.
In 1957, alongside Carlos Fuentes, she receives a stipend from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores (editor’s translation: The Mexican Writers’ Centre), and it is the writers’ scholarship which convinces the state treasury’s bean counters to believe that the money is spent on promising talent. She manages to write some light-hearted diaries based on the lives of the upper classes, but she will soon completely dedicate herself to the fortunes of those cast aside from the annals of history.
The electricity thief
Halfway through the 1960s, during a visit to the Black Palace of Lecumberri – where she was visiting the imprisoned leaders of a railway strike – she met Josefina Bórquez, an illiterate woman who kept the world at a distance through unrelenting salvos of filth. Josefina reveals before her the hell and capital mystery of the underworld and is transformed by Poniatowska into Jesusa Palancares in one of the most impressive Mexican stories ever: Hasta No Verte Jesús Mío (Here’s to You, Jesusa).
She asks Jesusa about her pitiable present and a past that sounds like something from an adventure film, about the revolution ‘which never gave anybody a thing’, about the brutal world which thwarts us ‘to bring new enslavement’. Jesusa is against the idea of recording their conversations – that ‘damn thing’ is stealing her electricity. Elena gives up on the tape recorder and runs home to write everything down. These meetings convey, to the accompaniment of Jesusa’s scolding mockery, all the poverty, hunger, ugliness and wrongs of this epoch in Mexico. As she looks upon the world underneath the veneer of bourgeois prosperity and the canon of customs that mask the tragic reality of the masses, the Polish-French girl loses what remains of her naive light-heartedness. Later on, she would comment:
Jesusa took me by the hand into the world of true poverty, where you have to carry water carefully so as not to lose a single drop, where people steal electricity, and where chickens lay eggs without shells because they never see the sunlight.
The book becomes famous very quickly, and garners praise: ‘one of the most outstanding Mexican stories of all time’, ‘a masterpiece you can admire a thousand times’, ‘pure poetry bestowed with a divine hand’.
Tlatelolco & other catastrophes
In the summer of 1968, the student revolution broke out: huge crowds marched through the city, exclaiming not-particularly-friendly cries about the government. The government then decides to get the anti-patriotic trouble making out of the ‘sons of bitches, illiterates, parasites and cynics’ heads – which, of course, hostile powers must be responsible for. They decide to teach them a lesson in Tlatelolco: on 2nd October, the army massacres a peaceful protest in the shadows of an Aztec ruin and colonial church. A few hundred people are killed, those who survive are imprisoned.
Early in the morning, Elena is on the scene. She recalls her visit to the hospital, where a wounded Oriana Fallaci spews insults at the ‘barbaric government’. She listens to the stories of those who witnessed the tragedy, she gathers their thoughts, she talks to the imprisoned protesters. The Night of Tlatelolco is, according to many, her most important book. The Noble Prize-winner Octavio Paz reads it as a ‘historical chronicle, written before history had had the time to cool, before the words turned into nothing but documentation.’
The press is silent about the newest book by the author they had so recently been glorifying, but Poniatowska herself reminisces that:
Many copies were sold because there had been rumours that it would be taken off the market, with security agents confiscating shipments to bookshops. The publisher ERA even received threats, that if the book was published, bombs would be planted in their headquarters. The owner Tomás Espresate said that he had taken part in the Spanish Civil War, so he was ready for another war.
After Tlatelolco, Poniatowska published two more collections of reportage, forming a literary protest trilogy: Fuerte es el Silencio (editor’s translation: Strong is the Silence) in 1980, and Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake eight years later. The first was about the desperate people, who in autumn 1968 had hope for change – about people lost in a ‘dirty war’, about mothers on hunger strike in front of the capital’s cathedral.
Elena’s criticism of those in power is a shock to many consciences, but on the morning of 19th September 1985, an even bigger shock comes. As the city is still just waking up, as workers are just beginning their shifts, as children are finishing their breakfasts and getting ready for school and their parents are tightening their ties and snapping their briefcases shut, as people are still out for their morning jog, as a seemingly normal day is starting – the earth trembles. It quakes with such force, that it leaves a big part of the city in ruins. How many casualties are there? Ten thousand? Fifteen? More? Nobody knows the exact count because the government tries to cover up the extent of the damage and President Miguel de la Madrid states that ‘We do not need help from abroad, we can manage on our own.’ However, he quickly withdraws from his insane sense of national pride.
Elena spends three months in the streets of this city of ruins, sitting down at her typewriter every evening. This results in a series of reportages, which will eventually become Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake: a chronical of a foreseen tragedy, caused by officially sanctioned mediocrity and the government's total helplessness in the face of disaster.
Teufel, Tina… King Poniatowski
As a means of escape from political as well as natural disasters, Elena digs out a draft of a novel she began some 30 years ago. The result is La Flor de Lis, whose heroine Mariana, a young girl from the upper classes, arrives in Mexico with her mother from France to reveal the lost worlds of her ancestors whose Mexican histories had become lost in the labyrinth of cosmopolitan genealogy. However, the autobiographical thread ends there, with the most important role in the novel going to Father Teufel, a product of pure literary fantasy. He becomes for Mariana what Jesusa was for Elena, revealing before her the real world, which had previously been concealed by aristocratic prejudice which seemed to have but one purpose: to nurture caste divisions, to have someone admire us and so that we could have someone to lord over (supposedly out of reluctance and with nonchalance).
Shortly after she begins work on Tinísima, a biography of Tina Modotti, an Italian who, after a short-spelled career in the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood, comes to Mexico at the beginning of the 1920s with renowned photographer Edward Weston. As a photographer herself, she showed her socialist sensitivity and had considerable success, all during a time when Weston was obsessed with artistic studies on toilet seats and other elements from the prose of life. She became active in the Mexican communist movement consolidated around the El Machete daily.
Modotti mingled with the artistic elite, causing a storm of sighs among the admirers of her beauty, after which, however, she was deported for her alleged role in the assassination attempt on President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. As an activist of global communism, she left for Berlin and Russia. She takes part in the Spanish Civil War only to return, clandestinely, to Mexico. Soon afterwards, and merely in her 40s, she dies of a heart attack in a taxi.
Elena Poniatowska’s later works include La Piel Del Cielo (after it won the Alfaguara Prize, it led her aged mother to exclaim ‘Finally you won’t have to write anymore!’), Tlapalería (one of the best examples of her good ear and literary imagination, in which the banalities of everyday life are channelled into poetry), as well as novels inspired by the biographies of English-born Mexican surrealist painter Leonora Carrington and of Lupe Marín, the wife of painter and muralist Diego Rivera. And finally, something which has circled around her as a biographical obligation: a novel about the last years of the Poniatowski clan in Poland, which she promises to finish this year. Nothing seems to suggest that ‘she will not want to write any more’.
Originally written in Polish by Marcin Żurek, April 2017, translated by Culture.pl.
Born in 1968, Marcin Żurek is a specialist on Latin America, whose articles have appeared in countless publications in the Polish media. His upcoming Polish translation of Elena Poniatowska’s book on the Mexican sculptor and painter Juan Soriano is due to be published soon.