Obituary: Germn List Arzubide
Tuesday 03 November 1998
He was also a highly innovative and original poet, though his work is now not well known outside Mexico. He wrote his first poem on the wall of his prison cell, a satirical portrait of his gaoler, who was too much of a self-centred macho thick-head to realise that he was the subject of the poem.
List wrote many poems extolling Zapata, which were at first underground works but became very popular after the leader's assassination at the Hacienda de Chinameca, Morelos, in 1919. List's biography of his leader, Emiliano Zapata: exaltacion, appeared in 1927, and in 1973, to mark the centenary of the birth of another radical, Francisco I. Madero, who had been assassinated in 1910, he published Madero: el Mexico de 1910.
The revolutionary movement was begun by poor peasants whose ejidos (common land) had been appropriated by rich private owners, leaving the peasants destitute. Another hero of those times was Pancho Villa, a poor peasant who became a cattle-stealer, assassinated in 1923. The rallying cry, often found in List's poems, was "Tierra y Libertad!" ("Land and Liberty!").
The literary work of List and his contemporaries, both poets and novelists (including Martin Luis Guzman and Mariano Azuela), create the best picture of those passionate uprisings. The great Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote, in Los Hijos del Limo ("Sons of the Soil", 1974), about the eternal Mexican tradition of "rupture with the past." In a perpetual climate of revolt, it was natural, indeed inevitable, that the literature of the period should also rise up in rebellion.
The young writers of Latin America strove to break all links with the past, and in emulation of all the new "isms" in Europe - Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and so on - invented a full hand of isms of their own, ultraism, criollism (Chile), creacionismo and many more, that were to lead eventually to today's much- abused "magic realism".
In Mexico, List and his contemporaries invented their own movement, the movimiento estridentismo - as the Spanish suggests, it really was "strident" in its glorification of noisy modern scientific and industrial developments. It was started by Manuel Maples Arce in 1922, and List followed him in writing about fast trains, racing cars, aeroplanes, telephones and ocean liners, an obsession with the violent and the new that resemble Italian futurism, but from a Marxist viewpoint. Other "strident" writers included Luis Quintanilla and Salvador Gallardo. List wrote the definitive book about the movement, El movimiento estridentista (1926).
This group's work, and the writings of all the other "ism" groups, give us a vivid portrait of the revolution and its leaders, a far cry from Marlon Brando's overblown impersonation of the national hero in Elia Kazan's 1952 film Viva Zapata. A much more reliable and truthful cinematic version is the documentary by Raymundo Gleyzer, The Frozen Revolution, which contains rare newsreel footage of Zapata and Pancho Villa. List was one of the many revolutionaries interviewed in the film.
On his 100th birthday, earlier this year, List told an interviewer: "I want to die smiling, as I expect to do soon, since I don't want to continue abusing life, especially when the doctors have taken all the fun away by forbidding me alcohol and women." That is the authentic voice - rebellious to the very end.
Germn List Arzubide, poet, writer and revolutionary: born Puebla, Mexico 31 May 1898; died Mexico City 19 October 1998.
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