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The love affair between the Mexican poet Octavio Paz and Marie-Jose Tramini is the stuff of legend here: the story of how they met at a reception in Delhi, where she was living as the wife of the French ambassador, how they fell madly in love and eventually married under a huge neem tree – how his poetry began to burn with an erotic fervour once they were together, how they eventually returned to Mexico, where Paz won the Nobel Prize and the couple was a pillar of cultural life.

The poet died in 1998, and left the luminous Tramini, who was 20 years his junior, all his papers and the rights to all of his work. For the next two decades she was the custodian of his legacy – a woman defined by her relationship with the great writer, and her determination to safeguard his memory.

But Tramini died last July, at 86, and she died without a will – creating a Mexican cultural calamity. She and Paz had no children, and his daughter from a previous marriage predeceased her, leaving no heirs. There are no cousins, no nieces or nephews. Under Mexican law, Paz’s estate – including valuable artwork, correspondence with some of the great thinkers of the 20th century and the rights to publish his dozens of volumes of poetry and essays – now becomes the property of an archaic state charity whose primary function, these days, is to administer school breakfasts. In the months since her death – which coincided with a shift in political power in Mexico – a literary tempest has been brewing in Mexico City.

There is a faction that insists Paz wanted his works to go to the Colegio Nacional, a national academy for men (and a few women) of letters, but it has little capacity to administer such a role. There is a group of friends of the couple who want the new government to declare his estate a national treasure and let a committee manage it. And there are rumours of parts of the estate being quietly removed from the Paz home for sale abroad. There is anonymous casting of aspersions in the papers, rumours of conspiracy and, over it all, one question – how can this have happened? How did Tramini let the legacy she guarded so fiercely become the subject of a public scrap?

“The key issue is that she didn’t trust anyone enough to give somebody the responsibility, not even an institution,” said Alberto Ruy Sanchez, a prominent writer and editor who was a friend of the couple. “I always told her, as did other people, ‘Marie-Jo, make a will, because while you’re alive, you can change it but if you have an accident, and you die, then it will be a problem’ – but she didn’t want to think about that.

“She was not,” he went on with a sigh, “a very practical person.”

Her friends say her refusal to consider the possibility of her own death has combined with incompetence and corruption in the cultural bureaucracy to put the Paz legacy at risk: They fear the collection will be broken up, pilfered or sold abroad – or perhaps worse, that Paz’s poetry will cease to be read, if it goes out of print, the rights frozen in the hands of a government charity.

“It’s very easy if you have the will to protect – but they have no will and there are incompetent people making wrong decisions and the result is this mess,” said Arturo Salcedo Gonzalez, a lawyer and cultural-affairs consultant – and collector of Paz works – who was close to Tramini. “It’s not like someone who died with no will and the discussion is about a chair or a car. It’s someone who died with critical importance for the national interest – it’s a legacy we will never see again if we lose it.”

Paz is Mexico’s only Nobel laureate for literature (he was given the award in 1990) and is revered both as the author of some of the foundational texts of social criticism and as a representative of a better Mexico – an internationally recognized man of ideas and a creator of beauty, from a country too-often known for violence, corruption and narco-trafficking. While he was alive, the government set up an Octavio Paz Foundation and tapped a Paz acolyte named Guillermo Sheridan to run it.

And therein, Tramini’s friends say, lie the seeds of the mess in which the estate is now mired: Paz and Tramini viewed the foundation as a personal project, Ruy said, while Sheridan approached it as a scholarly one. After Paz died, a rift opened between Sheridan and his widow – both of whom said they had the best idea of what should happen with the rights and his unpublished papers. Within months, they were camped out at opposite ends of the foundation-headquarters-cum-Paz-residence, not speaking but trading barbs through the media. Ruy said Sheridan made decisions to publish that may well have been based on things Paz had said, but they angered Tramini, who owned the rights.

“There was a great deal of fighting,” Ruy recalled over tea in his sunny living room in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Roma. (Sheridan said by e-mail that he was hired “to assist Ms. Tramini Paz” and that after Paz’s death “she decided she didn’t need help.”)

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Octavio Paz, Visiting Lecturer at Cornell University with his wife, Marie-Jose Tramini, on May 1, 1966.Al Fenn/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Eventually, the government brought in an auditor, who dissolved the foundation. Control of the rights stayed with Tramini, but she shunned computers, was overwhelmed by correspondence and responded to few of the requests to publish or translate Paz works. She viewed the dissolution of the foundation as an attack, and blamed the same group of admirers who had helped set it up.

“She felt betrayed, she told me that, and she had the feeling she would be betrayed again – at the end everything was lost—the house, the money, the foundation,” Salcedo explained. “And then she was very careful.” But she was also on course for a situation that Paz never imagined – that there would be no foundation and no one to administer his work. Ruy said Tramini, a collage artist who also served as the writer’s “creative conscience,” did not deserve the reputation she developed in the Mexican media – of a tempestuous diva – but she did, in the end, leave a mess.

“She was very independent, she did not rely on anyone, no one could give her advice, she was the one who decided everything,” he said. “It’s very curious – you can’t view her like someone who couldn’t make decisions. She did. And this not-deciding, it is a decision – to avoid the issue.”

Tramini worked with Salcedo to stage a series of events in 2014, the centenary of Paz’s birth, but did little else to keep the work alive, he said. As the years went on, the friends she retained urged her to make a plan for the future of the work, but she would put nothing on paper, and treated it as the height of bad manners when someone suggested she should consider the possibility of her own death.

“She died convinced that she had done everything correctly to protect him and his legacy,” Salcedo said in an interview in his apartment in the centre of Mexico City, where stacks of rolling shelves sag under the weight of antique books, works by Paz and others. Her chief preoccupation, he said, was to make sure Paz’s papers did not end up outside Mexico (foreign universities have bought many of the archives of great Latin American writers). “She died with a clear conscience – that she did everything she should have – except the will!” He gave a rueful laugh.

In the last years of her life, Tramini was a recluse: Ruy said she had knee trouble that meant she had to use a walker, and she was embarrassed to be seen as disabled. But she would rise in the early afternoon each day and spend five or six hours on the telephone, he said, calling friends and colleagues to gossip and discuss matters related to the estate.

Salcedo said that days before her death, she outlined a plan to him to purchase Paz’s grandfather’s home – where the writer first discovered books – and use it to house the archive and serve as a retreat for writers and scholars. She had not lived in the apartment where Paz’s library and papers are for years (she could not climb the stairs, and was afraid of elevators); she died in an apartment in the upscale neighbourhood of Polanco. It is not clear who might have been in the apartment at the time – several domestic workers, apparently, perhaps others. This situation has led to rampant speculation about what happened on the day she died, and since, to the collection of artworks and manuscripts presumed to have been in the apartment. The then-Minister of Culture told the media on the night of her death that the ministry was talking to her lawyer and would proceed according to his instructions.

That statement threw Ruy and others into a panic: They knew Tramini had no lawyer, and were quite sure she had left no instructions. He and Salcedo wonder what has potentially gone missing already – which they may never be able to establish, since no one knows exactly what artwork or papers Tramini had when she died.

Lucina Jimenez, director of the National Institute of Fine Arts, said the apartment where Tramini died was sealed shortly after her death, as was the one housing the archive, and they were put under police guard. “No one has entered, not one person,” she said.

Once the government agreed there was no lawyer, everything froze. Jimenez said there was a mandatory waiting period for any possible heirs to come forward, but none did.

But Salcedo and the other Paz friends chafed at the delays. Salcedo says the administrators in the last Ministry of Culture didn’t want to do anything lest they be accused of corruption or mismanagement once they were replaced by new officials – so they didn’t take the “obvious logical step” of declaring the Paz-Tramini estate national heritage and expropriating it in the name of the state. “They didn’t dare to do it.”

When the new government came in, officials announced that Paz had left instructions that if Tramini died without a will, his papers were to go to the Colegio Nacional. But there is still no plan for the rights, which, as an asset, go to the public charity.

“It’s a giant mess and they don’t understand it," said Salcedo, a small man who wears round, horn-rimmed glasses and shawl-collared sweaters. “… Everything depends on the will of some politician who doesn’t care about poetry or Octavio Paz or anything.”

Jose Alfonso Suarez del Real, the Minister for Culture of Mexico City in the new government, said that the process of making an inventory has begun, that Paz’s papers and correspondence will go to the Colegio Nacional. The couple’s ashes will be interred together at a small college called San Ildefonso where Paz had studied. The physical property will go to the charity but the government will create a new version of the foundation to manage the literary rights, and could use the funds from the sale of the real estate to manage it. He said this was dependent on all the “interested parties” agreeing to the plan – and if they don’t, the funds will go to maintenance of the elderly and orphans. The federal Culture Ministry will declare the Paz works objects of national heritage, he said.

Salcedo said he believes the process may be deliberately slow and messy to give cover to actors who wish to siphon off parts of the estate. He said having the estate in this opaque condition (wherein no one really knows how much is in the bank accounts, what art there is, what books and letters) was equivalent to turning children – nefarious children – “loose in the candy store.” He does not have the sense that the current government truly understands why all of this matters.

“Culture still has the power to unify the country: Mexico is so diverse and what really makes people proud and gives expectations for the future is culture,” he said. Paz and his generation of artists and musicians represent the product of a postrevolutionary investment in education and culture. “It’s not that he’s the most brilliant mind, no. He’s the product of investment in education – we need to share that lesson for people in the future. Why did this country at the start of the 20th century produce a person to win the Nobel Prize? In the archives and the work there are many clues.”

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