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INTERNATIONAL, POETIC VOICE WAS PAZ'S GIFT TO MEXICO

Above the scurrying crowds he's described as rats in an alienated city, Nobel prize-winning poet Octavio Paz sat in the serene silence of his apartment study filled with thousands of books.

He sipped a cool tea typical of the rural Mexico that flavors his writing, and told stories about his life with poets in Paris and New York, and in India when he was ambassador.Then the 81-year-old talked about sex. "Eroticism is imagination," he said. "Animals make love always in the same way. Mankind looks for . . . a change of experience."

Paz, one of nine Nobel laureates who took part in an Atlanta conference this past week to celebrate next year's summer Olympic Games in a traditional way, with feats not just of body but of mind.

The most famous poet Latin America has produced this century, he's credited with giving Mexico an international voice in poems that express Mexico's Spanish and indigenous roots. His most famous book, "Labyrinth of Solitude," defined Mexico for generations of Americans.

Recently, as he relaxed in an apartment color-splashed by huge paintings, he talked about the youthful experiences that influenced his work.

The first, he said, was when he went to rural Mexico to teach indigenous peasants. Another was when he traveled to Spain to support the Republicans against the Franco dictatorship.

"I knew Mexico was a country with an Indian past and a Spanish past, but one thing is to know and another is to feel through experience," he said.

"The third important experience was in 1943 when I . . . went to the United States. I was in love with the United States. I found the face of modernity but not only that, the great generosity of the people.

"It has changed. Already back then, there was the moral of money, but not so much as now. The U.S. was a more egalitarian society during the war, perhaps because there was unity.

"But I was in love, not just with American people but with American literature, poetry."

Paz's apartment is on Reforma, Mexico City's busiest and most famous avenue. But his big rooms are quiet, so much so that the sound of a typewriter carried.

His second wife, Marie-Jose Tramini, a striking blonde who appears many years his junior, was evidently tapping away in another room.

He met her in India, where he worked as Mexico's ambassador while in his late 50s. He resigned in 1968 to protest the Mexican government's massacre of students in Tlatelolco.

After that, he returned home. In a 60-year career, lived also in Paris, he's written hundreds of poems and essays that reflect extraordinary knowledge. He re-ceived the Nobel Prize in 1990 for "impassioned writing with wide horizons."

He's written about the erotic French writer Marquis de Sade, about surrealist poets, world politics, painting and Buddhism and Hinduism.

"I was very much attracted by Buddhism, this philosophical religion," he said.

"It could be very important if people could go through the experience (of Buddhism), to be less aggressive than we are. It would be an antidote to American activism," he said.

But more often, he writes about Mexico, its history and culture and its painful transition into the modern world.

He's described Mexico City as "a crowd of rats," and included himself among them. "Labyrinth of Solitude" is about the historic roots of Mexico's psyche but also its contemporary neuroses.

Throughout Paz's life, he's been controversial for his public persona. As a young man, he supported leftist causes, including the Russian and Cuban revolutions.

As an older man, he grew sharply critical of the left, which made rivals if not enemies of old friends.

"He's a great poet, and an extraordinary essayist," said Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais, who has known Paz for years. "But he thinks the Mexican left is Stalinist. He thinks the left attacked him."

Indeed, many Mexicans view Paz as their brilliant but cantankerous Nobel Prize winner.

During the interview, he showed only charm.

His face wrinkled into an impish grin that erased years, especially when he talked about love, the topic of his recent book, "The Double Flame."

"I was very much interested in the philosophical side of eroticism," he said. "After all, I'm from a generation marked by Freud but also by Marquis de Sade. I started to think about the difference between sexuality, eroticism and love.

"In eroticism one of the partners makes the other into an object. As a rule men do, but many times women do. For instance, one of Marquis de Sade's great figures is a woman, a kind of queen of bad.

"Love is reciprocity, when you see the other as a subject, a free person, not only an object."

Asked about his role as a Nobel Laureate, Paz wasn't contemplative but irreverent.

"I don't think we have a role," he said. "If we become preachers or moralistic, we become a bore."