Pitol, a Project of Life

A childhood photo of Mexican writer Sergio Pitol (left) with sister, Cristina and brother, Ángel.

Sergio Pitol is one of those writers who lives literature in thought, word, and work. To read, to think, and to write, or in other words: to want to create, to know how to create, and to be able to create. A life in which so much is read, thought, and written that, as if to quell any doubts of the generosity with which the life is led, it is also translated. Translation is, without a doubt, the best school in which to learn to internalize the structure of literary genres and of one’s own language.

This is all to say that my first encounter with Pitol was through his translations. I knew him through Kusniewicz, Pilniak, Gombrowicz, Andreievski, and Chekhov before I knew him through the firm step with which he walked, in possession of himself and of his means, through novels, stories, and critical texts—texts for which I’ll take the happy opportunity to express the tremendous gratitude owed to him by those of us who are not such keen language-learners, and especially those of us who are also writers.

The fact that many were unaware of him until well into the eighties, as in the cases of many other writers of this continent, is without doubt due to the isolation and dispersion that have been the hallmarks of our literature.  Reading our Colombian, Argentine, and Central American contemporaries has been and is a feat of bibliophiles and bookworms. To reach us, they must pass through the great cultural centers or receive the slap-on-the-back of success.

But, as we all know, when one is interested in something, that something starts to appear all over the place. First was La casa de la tribu [The house of the tribe], then the short stories that showed up like something borrowed, like a gift from a friend, and later the personal meeting and the friendship with which he honors me. From the start, I felt intrigued by the nuances and the elaboration of his language, by certain traces of impassioned modesty that shone through his prose; by his transparency and idiomatic precision, as well as his parodic intonation, all of it together. It immediately made me imagine the subtle and undeclared inauguration of a literature differentiated from the rhetorical language of ideologized discourses and the good or bad faith of their reflections and reifications in the literary field.

On the other hand, I saw how his writing resolved itself in the structuration of existential situations, pushed forward between elusivity and the light of appearances, between dream and the relativization of wakefulness, sometimes blurrier than dream itself, which is how the world and its peculiarities are handed over to man, however little he may dream.

This initial enthusiasm led me to El desfile del amor [Love’s parade], with its moral reconstruction of the backwardnesses of the world war in Mexico, with its enigmas and lacking conclusions, with its telling-much without telling-everything, with its meetings and comings-apart, with its stories as reversals of the same stories that are always lying in wait to penetrate an era’s space of experience, including the physical space of the city in the course of becoming other. And once again, the tension with which we approach and distance ourselves from the ins and outs of a complex matter of fiction, metafiction, and history. It was only natural to leap from there to the dazzling, fiery explosion of Domar a la divina garza [Taming the divine heron] and his short stories. “El relato veneciano de Billie Upward” [The Venetian story of Billie Upward], “La pareja” [The couple], “El regreso hacia Varsovia” [Warsaw bound], “Nocturno de Bujara” [Bukhara Nocturne].

But it was in my recent and more detailed reading of Todos los cuentos [All the stories], or almost all of them, collected by Alfaguara, where I could confirm with greater certainty what, in Monte Ávila’s anthology, which lacks a number of elements with which to hold up my judgment, I had only allowed myself to presume. In this second reading, I formed a clearer impression that, just as his novels naturally formed the “carnival” triptych his short stories, with their open and frameless form, with their capacity to grow together, anticipate each other, and interconnect thematically and allegorically,  with their hidden, expectant narrators held back at a certain distance, with their characters entering and leaving the straightjacket of the restrictions and weak pleasures of fiction and delirium, were something like episodes and milestones in a project more extensive than their collection in an anthology or their chronological ordering in a book.

In order to explain, I must refer back to an earlier time.

In our approach to a writer, the writer is revealed to us more through what he has in common with his peers than through his divergences. To put this more clearly and briefly in the language of tradition, his revelation takes place through our affinities within the universe of literature as much as through the mediation of pre-established references. But this recognition, as part of a literary corpus, would only be enough to make him identifiable and locatable to us in the supposed sanctioned norms. His particularities are what make him stand out from all communitary, geographic, historical, and cultural determinations, which make him dear to us.

As far as this common good, Pitol makes connections throughout Latin American and Hispanic letters, as limiting as this affirmation might be in reference to a writer who has stepped “with the ease of a cat,” according to the expression used by Steiner to refer to the narrator who has fused the two prototypes of the travelling storyteller and the sedentary storyteller—the earnest artisan of postmodern intertextuality, of whom Pitol is a living example—through the great spectrum of domestic and foreign literatures. I say this because literatures are always domestic or foreign, they belong to us or they are alien to an individual’s perspective, and “universal” only as far as their reception and audience.

Pitol is more from this South, a South ever facing the North, and from this Atlantic front, than one would believe from first sight and isolated reading. In him is the intimate legacy of Rulfo’s dead, the ecumenical taste and insatiable curiosity of his master Reyes, the premeditations of the conjectural worlds of Borges; the demented humor, the catastrophism, the oppressive determinism of the Quirogas; Carpentier is in the musical scoring, if not the exuberance of the lexicon; the irremediable quality of orphanhood and unromantic solitude of Onetti, the tamed and redirected memory, but not the voluntarism, of the Ulisis criollo [Creole Ulysses] of Vasconcelos, the perspectivism of the novel of the sertões, the spiritual currency of Suave patria [Soft homeland] by López Velarde; the residual layers of the American picaresque, the grotesque, the medieval farce, passed down by Quevedo, cemented by Pérez Galdós, Valle-Inclán, and those who followed in their century. And over or under this bed of many sheets are all the brazen, guilty, or nostalgic exiles and self-exiles, all the circulations, the insularities, the returns to the homeland, to the lost paradises, well or badly recovered; all the foundations and re-foundations of one’s own being and of foreign being, all the enchantments and disenchantments that form a common wound of the lettered intellectual from the Pampas to the Río Grande.

His ideal, as expressed in “Droctulf y demás” [Droctulf and Others]—and in many other texts, some of which are fictional—is to establish certain real borders: those of the tribe’s dominion, those of national character, those of the definition of a tone in a language of belonging, all in order to later confront and conquer the oceanic vastness that runs through and permeates these borders: “To take all there is,” as Goethe said. If this is his mission, Pitol should consider himself satisfied, because he has realized this civilizing, or, better said, civic dream to the furthest extent that those ideals that seek to transcend our aspirations can be realized. As a writer—in formation and education, and from his own coming-of-age story, from the Triptych to the stories, from the stories to the critical text, from all of this to the vanishing point of The Art of Flight—he is Mexican. He has no need, when he sits down to write, to recall the signs of his identity and origin. He can continue, especially now that the strongest downpour of the identity debate has passed, like a restless feline, scaling, in body and spirit, all the coordinates of space to activate the virtue of tolerance and the reconciliation of disputes from which the idea of the future will take shape.

Pitol is a writer from this side of the world and from this hemisphere. But, as an author defined by the expression and elaboration of his work, he possesses certain moralities that are very much his own: moralities that, over the last twenty years or so, seem to have been eclipsed in our literature, beyond the technicisms and experimentalisms that gave rise to the overwhelming richness of the sixties, and that no longer appear to continue except in their emulatory reiterations and in the lost efficacy of their edges. Moralities reflected by his passion “for plot,” for “the rigor of plot,” as Borges said. For the youth of form against chaos, according to Gombrowicz, or for the “force against apathy,” as Pitol himself has declared in his defense of narrative form and the novel.

A debate about the return of narration has been churning up the literary world in the past few decades. This return often runs the risk of falling into rather conservative positions, even proposals and codes that only serve to placate the necessities of the industry, in order to determine which works are “well formed” and to regularize the audience for which they are intended.

But Pitol’s passion for the plot does not form part of this type of recuperation. To know this, we must only observe the composition, the articulation of form and language, his what and his how, as much as the narrative strategies, exemplified in one of his best and most ruthless stories, which is more of a story than an essay: “El oscuro hermano gemelo” [The Dark Twin]. In this story, following a prologue by Justo Navarro to a book by Paul Auster, he jumps to Tonio Kröger to take up the dogmatic sentence of Navarro’s—“You move away from yourself when you approach yourself... Writing is impersonating someone else”—to present us with the writer as part of a bustling evening among diplomatic officials at the Portuguese embassy in Prague. In this setting, he assembles the scene that takes place in Madeira, narrated and revisited by the wife of the ambassador of a Scandinavian country, in the midst of a delineation of monosyllables and interruptions, with the respective Chekhovian deafnesses that will open onto Conrad and the later, irritated comments of her husband, which reveal the dark and contradictory side of both the story and the writer who seeks to work it over in his laboratory. From this box of surprises will emerge the seamstress, the theosophist, a rancher from Veracruz, a second explosion of dynamite, and not a house in Funchal, but the vivid archways of the Hotel Zevallos in Córdova, Veracruz, Chiquitita, an uncle, the nonesenses of an inheritance, and thereupon, the last novel of Donoso, which bears an epigraph by Faulkner that returns us to the point where all the stories must go to die, if not to conclude, to the beginning of the beginning, to the reflection that synthesises the title that created them.

To confirm this, it would be enough to quote a text within a text that reverts to and multiplies in another text, like the step from “El relato veneciano de Billie Upward” to Juegos florales [Floral games]. It would be enough to recall the harsh observation to which he submits his characters, all of which plays a game of nostalgia and farcical repetition of gestures to destroy any trace of triumphalism; it would be enough to note the levity, the strangeness, the dissolution of language in the story’s development, the same dissolution that amazed Pitol as a young man when he read Borges and that, once a writer himself, he made his own. And if all of this was not enough, we could refer to the title of The Art of Flight and to the artistic and intellectual itinerary that marks the suture of “An Ars Poetica” in the book.

Everything included in The Art of Flight is the installation and display of these poetics. And, as if we needed more, we could recall the authors whom he loves and to whom he always returns: Sterne, James, Conrad, Woolf, Gogol, Chekhov, Mann, Faulkner, Reyes, Carpentier, Cortázar. Because when an author talks of some foreign work he is talking of his own. He is running his fingers down the links of the chain that form his own production line of meaning. He is remembering his debts and his creditors.

And, now that I mention The Art of Flight, I shall tie up my loose ends.

This book is like the conclusion of that project to which I referred in the beginning. Is it an autobiography? It seems that Pitol, just as in his stories and novels, when he uses the first person, that pronominal subject, is only an “I” in the sense of the verb that sustains, organizes, and isolates the scene. A secondary I, an I that is possible and deliberate, almost like Seremis Zeitblom documenting himself in relation to what he is and what he has been. An I, in the end, as a novelizable memory of a life made of journeys, books, diary pages that will someday become books. This memory, which unfolds and refolds from the present to the past, is a double game, present and past, now and yesterday, before and today, that establishes, in progressive terms, the simultaneity and the temporal and spatial alternation of the divisions and subdivisions of a record of life. From these movements rises the affirmation of a consciousness that calls to account the values and purposes that have ruled over it and filled it with meaning. All the flights and detours are there to attempt the reconstitution of the fragmented body of the story, which, without this effort, will end up drifting on without prospecting a mere event in life. The Art of Flight gathers together, as rites of passage, all the previous works, all the genres practiced by Pitol as moments of the greater totality that contains them.

Caracas, November 1999

Translated by Arthur Dixon

Languages

LALT No. 5
Number 5

LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.

Table of Contents