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Bolivia’s most distinctive literary voice in the twentieth century was Jaime Saenz (1921–86), the mystic poet of the city of La Paz. Idiosyncratic and bohemian, his bouts of alcoholism and late-night carousing and inspiration were legendary, and he exercised a powerful influence on the younger countercultural writers and artists who revolved around him. His dense and mysterious poetry at times sailed in ecstasy and at times plunged into lugubrious shadows. Critics consider his poem “To Cross This Distance” / “Recorrer esta distancia” (1973), extracted below, one of the most mature works of one of the finest poets ever to have written in Spanish since the language reached the southern Andes in the sixteenth century. As a whole, the poem expresses Saenz’s intimate search to transcend the deep chasm between self and other and to reconcile the truths of love and death.

Saenz was fascinated by the city’s dark underside and nocturnal fringes, and he captured the soul of its ancient, twisting streets and decaying neighborhoods in atmospheric prose. His exotic imagination seized in particular on one of the denizens of old La Paz, the porter known by the Aymara name of aparapita. Below is a passage from his major novel, Felipe Delgado (1979), in which the feverish protagonist describes the aparapita’s coarse, patched-robe coat. Some readers have taken the aparapita’s coat as a metaphor for the motley composite fabric of Bolivian society.

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