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Cesar Vallejo Biography | Poet

Photo of Cesar Vallejo

César Abraham Vallejo Mendoza (March 16, 1892 – April 15, 1938) was a Peruvian poet. Although during his lifetime he published only three books of poetry, he is nonetheless considered one of the great poetic innovators of the 20th century. Always a step ahead of the literary currents, each of his books was distinct from the others and, in its own sense, revolutionary.


César Vallejo was born the youngest of eleven children in Santiago de Chuco, a remote village in the Andes of Peru. He studied literature in the Universidad de la Libertad in Trujillo. Lack of funds forced him to withdraw from studies for a time and work at a sugar plantation, the Hacienda Roma, where he saw firsthand the exploitation of agrarian workers, an experience which would later have an important impact on his politics and aesthetics. Vallejo received a BA in Spanish literature in 1915, the same year that he became acquainted with the bohemia of Trujillo, in particular with APRA co-founders Antenor Orrego and Victor Raul Haya de la Torre.

In 1916 Vallejo moved to Lima, where he studied, worked as a schoolteacher, came into contact with artistic and political avant-gardes, and prepared a first poetry collection, "Los Heraldos Negros", which was eventually published in 1919 (despite its publication date of 1918). The poet suffered a number of calamities in the following years: he lost his teaching post after having refused to marry a woman with whom he had an affair; his mother died in 1920; and he was imprisoned for 120 days for alleged intellectual instigation of a partisan skirmish in Santiago de Chuco. In 1922 he published his second volume of poetry "Trilce", still one of the most radically avant-garde collections in the Spanish language. After publishing the short story collections "Escalas melografiadas" and "Fabla salvaje" in 1923, the poet emigrated to Europe under the threat of further incarceration, and remained there until his death in Paris in 1938; the bulk of this time was spent living in dire poverty in Paris, with three trips to Russia and a couple of years in exile in Spain in the early 1930s. During his time in Europe he was a regular cultural contributor to weeklies in Lima, and sent sporadic articles to newspapers and magazines in other parts of Latin America, Spain, Italy, and France; he published two books of reportage on Russia in the early 30s, and prepared several theatrical works which were never performed; and he wrote a children's book, Paco Yunque, and a socialist-realist novel, El Tungsteno, which shares content with the drama "Colacho Hermanos, o Los Presidentes de America". After becoming emotionally and intellectually involved in the Spanish Civil War, he had a final burst of poetic activity in the late 30s, producing two books of poetry (both published posthumously) whose titles and proper organization remain a matter of debate: Poemas humanos and Espana, aparta de mi este caliz. He died on April 15, 1938, of an unknown illness which is now though to have been a form of malaria -- an event fictionalized in Roberto Bolano's novel "Monsieur Pain". Originally buried in the proletarian Montrouge cemetery, Vallejo's remains are now in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, France.




Los heraldos negros (1919)

Los heraldos negros (The black heralds) is a transitional book which blends modernismo, posmodernismo and the beginnings of the avant-garde in the structure and language of its poems. The poet confronts existential anguish, personal guilt, and pain, writing famously, Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes..., yo no sé ("There are blows in life, so hard... I don't know") and Yo nací un día / que Dios estuvo enfermo ("I was born on a day / when God was sick"). The book sold relatively few copies and received few reviews, but was lauded by Vallejo's closest friends and fellow artists. Vallejo gave it to the publishers in 1918, awaiting a promised prologue from the avant-garde writer Abraham Valdelomar, and only gave the go-ahead after the latter's accidental death in early 1919 -- hence the incorrect publication date of 1918 which appears in the edition.


Trilce (1922)

Trilce, published in 1922, anticipated much of the avant-garde movement that would develop in the 1920s and 30s. Vallejo's book takes language to a radical extreme, inventing words, stretching syntax, using automatic writing and other techniques now known as "surrealist" (though he did this before the Surrealist movement began). The book put Latin America at the center of the Avant-garde. Like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake and Vicente Huidobro's Altazor, Trilce borders on inaccessibility.


España, aparta de mí este cáliz (1937)

In España, aparta de mí este cáliz (Spain, take this cup from me), Vallejo takes the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) as a living representation of a struggle between good and evil forces, where he advocates for the triumph of mankind symbolised in the salvation of the Second Spanish Republic (1931 – 1939) that was being attacked by fascist allied forces led by General Franco.

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Poemas humanos (1939)

Poemas humanos (Human poems), published by the poet's wife after his death, is a leftist work of political, social poetry. Almost all of the poems in this compilation were posthumous, but a few had been published in magazines. The poet never specified a title to group them in, but reading his writings his wife found that he had planned a book of 'human poems', which is why his editors decided to name his works this way.


Vallejo wrote five plays, none of which were staged or published during his lifetime.

Mampar is the subject of a critical letter from producer Louis Jouvet which says, in summary, "Interesting, but terminally flawed". The text itself is lost, assumed to have been destroyed by Vallejo.

Lock-Out (1930, written in French; a Spanish translation by Vallejo himself is lost) deals with a labour struggle in a foundry.

Entre las dos orillas corre el río (1930s) was the product of a long and difficult birth. Titles of earlier versions include Varona Polianova, Moscú contra Moscú, El juego del amor, del odio y de la muerte and several variations on this latter title.

Colacho hermanos o Presidentes de América (1934). Satire displaying Peruvian democracy as a bourgeois farce under pressure from international companies and diplomacy.

La piedra cansada (1937).


El tungsteno (1931). A social realist novel depicting the oppression of native Peruvian miners and their communities by a foreign-owned tungsten mine.

Towards the kingdom of the Sciris (1928) is a historic short story dealing with the Incan theme.

Fabla Salvage(1924) Literally 'Wild Language', is a short novel which follows the insanity of a character who lives in the Andes.

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