Literature as Life: Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory”

Literature as Life: Sergio Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory”

The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol
The Journey by Sergio Pitol
The Magician of Vienna by Sergio Pitol

THERE ARE TIMES in which not translating an author is an act of injustice. This is the case of Sergio Pitol, one of Mexico’s most important and revered writers, whose books are finally being published in English decades after their original publication. In a piece for Granta, Valeria Luiselli, whose work has spearheaded the renewed interest in Mexican literature in the United States, rightfully called Pitol one of the “best untranslated writers” and characterized him as “one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers. He is certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric.” In Pitol’s case, the belatedness of his English translations is unforgivable not only because of the chronic disinterest of US publishers, readers, and scholars regarding the country next door (a disinterest that, thankfully, seems to be subsiding thanks to a recent flurry of translations mostly by independent presses), but it is also so because Pitol is one of the most important literary translators of our time. His over 50 translations, primarily of British, Eastern European, Russian, and Italian literature, completely reshaped the canon of world literature in the Spanish language. It is hard to overstate how important his translations are. They helped define the collections of two of the most important literary presses in Spain (Tusquets and Anagrama), as the country’s literary field developed in the last years of the Franco regime and the first two decades of the transition. They also provided an anchor to the efforts of publishing literature in translation in Mexico, primarily at university presses and government outlets. Thanks to him, Spanish-language readers have access to high-quality translations of authors like Jerzy Andrzejewski, Jaroslav Hašek, Luigi Malerba, and Ronald Firbank, while his renditions of Jane Austen, Henry James, and Witold Gombrowicz are among the finest and most readable available to Hispanophone readers.

The 50-plus translations are currently in the process of being republished in an ad hoc series, “Sergio Pitol, traductor,” by the press of the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Sadly, this act of cultural justice is taking place in a moment when Pitol himself is no longer able to fully enjoy it. As various media outlets have reported in Mexico in recent days, he is facing the terminal stage of progressive aphasia (a terrible disease for a man with such a love of words), stuck in the middle of a bitter battle for his custody between family members, friends, and the state government of Veracruz. Even in the middle of this tragic situation, one should rejoice that Pitol’s writings, in correspondence to his adoring Anglophilia, have finally become available in the language that he so cherished as a reader.

To fully appreciate Pitol’s work, particularly his autobiographical writings, the place to start is with a glimpse of his unique life and trajectory. Born in 1933 and raised in the city of Córdoba, Veracruz (just a few years after Carlos Fuentes, the author of his generation most read in the United States, and the antipode of his work in many ways), Pitol was a voracious reader from a young age and his early works, including memorable short stories like the haunting “Victorio Ferri cuenta un cuento,” place him alongside many contemporary writers like Salvador Elizondo, Inés Arredondo, or Juan García Ponce, who, in different ways, sought to redefine Mexican literature as a cosmopolitan pursuit in resistance to what they perceived to be the nationalist imperatives of midcentury official Mexican culture. While his contemporaries flourished in the countercultural scene of 1960s Mexico City, Sergio Pitol did so through travel into regions of the world not usually frequented by other Mexicans. As he became part of Mexico’s diplomatic service in the 1960s, he was sent to Maoist China in 1961, as part of an effort to establish relations. In the eight months of his stay, right before the Cultural Revolution, Pitol experienced a cultural spring, in which he saw, according to his memoirs of the period, a cultural scene more exciting than the one available in the Soviet Union. In this context, he was part of an international translation program in which he worked in his version of Lu Hsun’s Memory of a Madman. In 1963, he arrived in Warsaw as part of an increased cultural exchange between Mexico and Poland and became acquainted with major figures of the period, including Andrzejewski and filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. His translations of compilations of Polish short stories and theater, of Andrzejewski’s The Gates of Paradise and writers completely unknown in Spanish like Kazimierz Brandys, would mark the beginning of his status, which I think he can still claim today, of the most important specialists in Polish literature in the Spanish language and in the world. As he was going to take another position in Belgrade, he departed the diplomatic service in response both to the repression of the Prague Spring and, more importantly, of the massacre of students at Tlatelolco in 1968. He landed in Barcelona, where he directed the collection Heterodoxos, in Tusquets Editores, which brought into Spanish works from writers as diverse as Jerzy Grotowski, James Joyce, Karl Marx, and Michel Leiris. After returning to the diplomatic service, his canon became expanded with experiences in Warsaw, Prague, Paris, and, more relevantly, Moscow, where he witnessed a significant defrosting of the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1980. This thaw granted Pitol access to theorists and authors (like Boris Pilnyak, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Viktor Shklovsky) whose reading and translation would reshape his work. Pitol wrote sparingly in the 1970s, but by the end of his time in Moscow he returned in full force to literary writing, as his early style, closer to the nouveau-romanesque post-avant-garde prose of his Mexican contemporaries, evolved into a completely different and unique writing that would (somewhat belatedly due to his age) turn him into one of the most significant Latin American writers of the past 50 years. He won the prestigious Herralde Award with his novel El desfile del amor (The Love Parade, 1984, translation forthcoming), and his move from cult author to widely recognized figure came in 2005 with the Cervantes Prize, the most important honor conferred to writers in the language. Writers like Roberto Bolaño, Antonio Tabucchi, and Enrique Vila-Matas have expressed in writing their unending admiration for Pitol.

The first group of Pitol’s works available in English are the ones that correspond to his Trilogy of Memory, a set of three hybrid works that masterfully combine the memoir, the essay, and fictional prose to present his fascinating life as a traveler and diplomat, his literary ideas, and his readings. The first one, The Art of Flight (El arte de la fuga, 1996), is a collection of texts divided into four sections: “Memory,” where he recreates his youth, travels, and encounters with other writers; “Writing,” a series of essays on his vision of literature; “Readings,” which gathers critical essays on some of his most admired writers and books, such as Jaroslav Hašek, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce; and “Ending,” a chronicle of a trip to Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising, of which he was an early supporter. The second book, The Journey (El viaje, 2000), is a beautiful work that interweaves the memory of his travel from Prague to Moscow and his readings of Russian and Eastern European literature. Finally, the third volume, The Magician of Vienna (El mago de Viena, a title that references Sigmund Freud, 2005), is a book of fragments that, mixing memoir and fiction, chronicles his life in a dialectic between real and false memories, as he also works through the first stages of his neurological condition. All three volumes are handsomely edited and include introductions by writers who are deeply acquainted with Pitol: Vila-Matas, Álvaro Enrigue, and Mario Bellatín, respectively (Margo Glantz provides an afterword to The Magician of Vienna). The introductions show no qualms in placing Pitol at the pinnacle of Latin American literature: Vila-Matas notes that “reading him, one has the impression of being in the presence of the best writer in the Spanish language of our time,” while Bellatín describes The Magician of Vienna “not just as a work of literature but as one of the Holy Books in which we store humanity’s imaginary.” Happily, the English edition of the Trilogy of Memory are just the beginning of a project: Deep Vellum, the publisher, has committed to the publication of at least a compilation of short stories and the other major set of works, the “trilogy of the carnival,” a set of three comic novels that Pitol wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Before commenting further on the three books, I want to recognize here the gargantuan effort that has made their translation possible. The first recognition should go to Will Evans, the editor at Deep Vellum Publishing from Dallas, Texas, which owns one of the most beautifully curated bookstores in the United States. Helmed by Evans, Deep Vellum has become a premier press for literary translation. Besides Pitol, they have published three works by three other Mexican writers (Juan Rulfo, Carmen Boullosa, and Eduardo Rabasa), the Argentine Ricardo Piglia, and two of the most fascinating South American writers active today: Claudia Salazar Jiménez and Lina Meruane. But this is the tip of the iceberg — their catalog boasts over 30 of the most interesting and original writers in the world today. A second recognition should go to George Henson, the translator, currently a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma. Pitol’s prose is one of the most complex in the Spanish language; it is at the same time rich, fluid, full of meanings and references, and elegantly balanced in humor and erudite gravity. This certainly provided numerous challenges to Henson, who does an outstanding job in conveying the richness and subtleties of Pitol’s prose to English readers. Henson’s translation is the result of a rigorous and loving approach to Pitol’s work and a fitting tribute to a man who was a major translator throughout his life. His work in the Trilogy of Memory elevates Henson, in my opinion, to the status of one of the most important literary translators at work in the United States today, and I very much look forward to his future work.

The experience of reading the Trilogy of Memory is one of the most rewarding that anyone passionate about literature and literary culture could possibly have. The books are not sequential, and they are not necessary to each other, so readers are free to read them in any order or choose just one of them as first approach. I personally think that The Journey may provide the most apt introduction to those reading him for the first time, but any of the three works is certain to turn most of its readers into ardent admirers. The Art of Flight, while masterful, has less unity than the other two works, although it does compile marvelous individual pieces, like his genius short story-essay hybrid on narration, “The Dark Twin,” the jewel of the book. The most challenging and rewarding work is The Magician of Vienna, as Pitol’s complex writing operates in a more rhizomatic and less defined way. Yet its richness and complexity as a book of memories and ideas are unmatched by any other work of literature written in Spanish in the last 25 years and available in English.

The books in the Trilogy of Memory shine, in part, because Pitol makes a compelling case for literature as a way of life, as a lens to politics, and as a key element in the experience of history. It is not coincidental that most of his writing in the trilogy concerns that of heterodox authors (eccentric nationalist reactionaries like Pilnyak, out-of-place aesthetes like Brandys, idiosyncratic cosmopolitans like Gombrowicz, brilliant satirists like Gogol), as those figures reflect his own ethos as a writer. His fiction thoroughly resisted the allegorical and cultural imperatives of Mexican literature, and, when he began publishing his major novels in the 1980s, they did not resemble the doxa of literary writing in the country. One could say that Pitol fashions himself in his work as a man of letters who admires those who seek to preserve the passion for literature in places that experience cultural rebirths amid authoritarian regimes: pre–Cultural Revolution China, pre-1968 Warsaw, late 1970s Moscow, and, of course, post-1968 Mexico. His literature is not political per se — other than a few moments like the essay on the Zapatista movement one would be hard-pressed to find evidence that Pitol is, in fact, a man of the left, who marched many times in the streets in solidarity with various causes of social justice and who in many interviews was critical of neoliberal capitalism. But his books carry out a different body politic, in which the experience is rife with cultural and political contradiction at the base of ideas of justice and freedom.

Pitol’s work also places significant question marks on the paradigmatic ways in which world literature is discussed and theorized in academic fields. The very concept of world literature — whether it is in David Damrosch’s optimistic idea of global circulation, Franco Moretti’s Wallersteinian account, or Pascale Casanova’s “World Republic of Letters” — is intensely based on the novel as genre, the sometimes acritical identification of economic supremacy with literary domination, or open or veiled accounts of world literature that get validation in the literary fields of metropolitan centers of power. Even more political notions (like the one produced by the Warwick Collective or Pheng Cheah’s postcolonial version of the term) tend to assume the international division of intellectual labor as a given, confining Latin America to being a site of production of what Jameson once called “national allegories” and forms literature whose relationship to magical realism or to localism is interpreted to be an inherently political act.

Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory shatters all of these assumptions. By combining the role of the writer, the critic, the reader, and the translator into a prose form, Pitol claims for the Mexican and Latin American writer a right to cosmopolitanism that is not dictated by the canons imposed by metropolitan fields, but rather defined by personal relationships to literature, which can short-circuit the preferences of both the literary market and the academy. It shows a form of Latin American literature that is neither subservient to the forms and canons of modernism nor easily traceable to the waves and flows of most critical descriptions of world literature. Contrary to Francocentric accounts of Latin American cosmopolitanism, French literature is trivial to Pitol’s canon, and his time in Paris is perhaps the least consequential of his travels to his work. Even as his literature is anchored in European genealogies, he always engaged canonical traditions in a heterodox way, against the grain of what those very traditions favored. He, for instance, translated or championed the translation of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett, two writers that even well-educated English readers may not know, while his readings of canonical authors like Austen or Woolf significantly depart the paradigmatic approaches in their own traditions.

It is fundamental in understanding Pitol’s work that his experiences recounted in the Trilogy correspond to a utopian moment in literary publishing in Spanish, where collective efforts in late Francoist Spain, post–Cuban Revolution Latin America, and other cultural scenes carried a forward-looking and politically intense approach to books that would later be wiped out by neoliberalism. Corporate consolidation absorbed many of the houses founded in this period. The ability of translators like Pitol to shape a canon would become irreversibly eroded by the emerging world of literary agent, multimillion-dollar contracts and the consolidation of authors (like Roberto Bolaño or Elena Ferrante) whose global success carries as a side effect a flattening in the experience of reading the world. As Daniel Saldaña París, who calls Pitol “Mexico’s total writer,” notes, the series Heterodoxos, where he published rare texts like Karl Marx’s humorous novel Scorpion and Felix or Robert Musil’s lecture “On Stupidity” can all be read as an extension of the Trilogy of Memory. In hindsight, it is truly astonishing that a press in Spain seeking to shake off Francoist censorship would grant a foreigner like Pitol the possibility of publishing a series based mostly on personal taste and aimed at challenging the very idea of literature in the Spanish language. The type of literary work that Pitol chronicles in the Trilogy is unimaginable in the context of neoliberal book culture. It is hard to imagine now an experience such as Pitol’s time in Moscow, in which he was able to unearth a rare writer who had been censored for decades — Boris Pilnyak — write critical essays on him, and ultimately persuade the Mexican government to publish a mass-distribution edition of his translation. It is also unthinkable today that, without the mediation of a literary agent and previous publication in a metropolitan center, a young translator working mostly on experience and instinct, as Pitol was in the 1960s, would be able to bring to a university press (Universidad Veracruzana) and independent private publishers (Era, Joaquín Mortiz) the work of unknown Polish writers for major release. If anything, what we can read in these books is a world literature based not on the neoliberal market and the structures of cultural neocolonialism that rule literary publishing today, but by the ability of a collective of writers and publishers (perhaps from the Third World or the Global South, although none of these labels really suit Pitol’s cosmopolitanism) to define their genealogies, canons, and traditions of reading through passion, freedom, and personal engagement. It allows us to see a brief moment in which literary publishing was a brave and communal endeavor freeing individual figures like Pitol from subservience to the imperatives of the market or the State.

Pitol’s writing is ultimately about the importance of language as an ethos, a social and political practice, as well as being about the role of literature to keep language alive, free, and full of potentialities. In The Art of Flight, he explains that he renounced the intellectualist style of his early work in favor of Bakhtin-influenced humor as a response to his experience in the diplomatic service, where he was usually confronted with the empty, meaningless language of bureaucracy. It is clear along the three books that Pitol’s mastery of language — and the joyful accessible complexity of his multifaceted texts — is the result of his success in finding equilibrium between the conversational (Pitol’s writing has elements of the communal engagement that Walter Benjamin identifies in the figure of the storyteller), the need to embed estrangement (a term he himself appropriates from Shklovsky) into his hybrid literary forms and the content of his work, and the task of erudition, which in Pitol means rendering visible the complex literary genealogies and historical experiences that underlie his writing. Very, very few writers in the world today (besides perhaps Orhan Pamuk, Roberto Calasso, and Cees Nooteboom) write prose that is at the same time so liquid and exquisite, so full of history and knowledge and yet so enjoyable and readable. Pitol’s work encapsulates a literary ethos and possibility for literature to be something else than the flattened version of world literature that the cultural institutions of neoliberalism bestow us. A Mexican writer who finally reaches the shores of the language that he so lovingly translated, a witness of the history of the Eastern bloc from a perspective few other writers provide, a man of letters who believed in the emancipatory power of literature and thinking before that power was territorialized into our present of cultural industries, Pitol provides us, through his work, a taste of a literature that could have been, and that perhaps we can begin to reclaim.


Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Washington University in Saint Louis.

LARB Contributor

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is the Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His research centers on the relationship between aesthetics, ideology, and cultural infrastructures in Mexico and Latin America, with a particular focus on literature, cinema and gastronomy. He is the author of seven books and over 100 articles, and the editor of 14 scholarly collections. His works include Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market and the Question of World Literature (Northwestern University Press) and Screening Neoliberalism. Transforming Mexican Cinema 1988–2012 (Vanderbilt University Press).


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