Sergio Pitol, a Heterodox Editor

Mexican writer Sergio Pitol (right) with Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas.

It is nothing new that every writer is nourished through reading, but in the case of Sergio Pitol (Puebla, 1933), an indispensable author within parodic literature and winner of such awards as the Miguel de Cervantes Prize and the Alfonso Reyes International Prize, his passion for reading is even more intimate. Having been bedridden during most of his childhood due to malaria, he says: “I was under my grandmother’s care, who read day and night and lived in a house full of books, she gave me with the readings that gave me life.”

The indiscernible relationship Pitol establishes between literature and his life makes it impossible to categorize his works. Although it is possible to establish common features which unite some works with others, more certain is the fact that, as Pitol notes about his creative process, “everything is in all things.” Just as his stories can interweave themselves into each other, they can also be used over again and expanded through the genesis of a novel; in the same way that an anecdote becomes part of one’s memory, this can, in practice, reveal diverse subtleties and establish unforeseen relationships between places, works of art, outlandish traditions, or inexplicable obsessions.

The interwoven nature of Pitol’s work does not exclude Heterodoxos (1970-1976), the editorial series—“for writers and texts alike” it explains—that he ran in the collection Cuadernos Ínfimos [Tiny notebooks] from the then incipient Tusquets Editores of Barcelona. In it, Sergio Pitol compiled a magnificent compendium of key works—some which remain little known today—of non-orthodox thought throughout the years ranging from Witold Gombrowicz to Lu Xun, including Macedonio Fernández and Antonin Artaud. However, Heterodoxos, in addition to presenting magnificent selections for any reader, offers on the one hand, to the readers of Pitol, a central thread with which to trace the fingerprints of the readings of said author, and on the other hand, a heterodox form of Pitolean writing. In other words: the editorial series Pitol compiled, besides being just a catalogue of exceptional works chosen by the author due to features of form and content, can also be seen as another example of the Pitolean corpus.

Upon arriving in Barcelona in June of 1969, Sergio Pitol had already acquainted himself with the atmosphere of renewal and experimentation that was taking place in the Mexican art scene. For many years, Mexican muralism—championed by Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco—and its schools had been the “only route” for recognition and economic growth in Mexican visual arts. In the middle of the 20th century, however, the work of many other young artists whose proposals and interests distanced themselves from government-friendly themes expressed in bombastic formats, and approached the more abstract and experimental, began to be recognized. The proposals of these young artists, later called the “Breakaway Generation,” added to the movement that generated concrete and visual poetry during the second half of the 20th century. Additionally, they opened the door to an interdisciplinary approximation of the arts which permeated all the way to the editorial level. Primarily through the work of Vicente Rojo (Barcelona 1932), various publications and publishing houses renewed not only their profiles, but also the relationship between literature and appearance.

Despite his stays outside of the country, Sergio Pitol must have been aware of this renewal, moved not only through explicit interest in all forms of artistic expression or by dealing with matters present in the cultural domain and print media, but also because his book Los climas (1966) [The climates] was published in the Serie del Volador from the publisher Joaquín Mortiz—whose title pages Rojo oversaw. Later, he would also publish No hay tal lugar (1967) [There is no such place] and El tañido de una flauta (1972) [The peal of the flute] with Editorial Era, which was cofounded by Rojo in 1960. That is to say, upon arriving in Spain, during what came to be known as late Francoism, Pitol had a full understanding of that the editorial process could be, on its own, a heterodox expression of artistic language.

After a short while living in Barcelona, Sergio Pitol came to know Beatriz de Moura and her husband, Óscar Tusquets, who were there to found Tusquets Editores. The first collections of the now consecrated Spanish publisher were Cuadernos Ínfimos (1969-1988) and Cuadernos Marginales (1969-2001) [Marginal notebooks]. In both cases, the focus was on paperback books and peculiar texts that, in the words of De Moura, “nobody wanted to publish in book form.” These collections placed special attention on the design, directed by Óscar Tusquets himself and the Catalan architect Lluís Clotet. This strategy, besides revealing an acute talent for marketing, demonstrates the conception of a book as a potential artistic object and—judging by the colors chosen for both collections, namely: the Ínfimos silver and the Marginales gold— even a luxury.

The meticulous layout that distinguishes Heterodoxos shows a tendency towards experimentation, an aesthetic preoccupation beyond the explicit and beyond the text, as well as a provocative subtlety that, in those days, was itself an act against the politics of austerity and harshness of the Franco regime. Heterodoxos differentiated itself from the rest of the books in the Cuadernos Ínfimos by the embossing on the cover. On it, two lines of holes cross each other in an X formation. Due to the yellow fly leaf that is located right after the cover, when the book is closed the X stands out, taking on the same color. Upon opening the book, the title page reads: “HeterodoXos Series edited by Sergio Pitol.” Only then does the X change into a linguistic symbol which until then had been a strikethrough, perhaps as an ironic gesture trying to gain the reprobation of censorship due to the renegade nature of the series. It should be noted, in this respect that, while the Press Law of 1966 feigned a seeming relaxation of censorship in Spain, the truth is that the ambiguity of the law allowed for the continuation of the practice of publishing houses running their books by the official readers for their approval. It was a promotion of the cultural idea known as “Homogenous Government,” which kept certain ideas like Marxism, sexuality, the history of Spain, and whatever slightly progressive view of Catholicism, let alone other religions, consistently outlawed. In this context, Sergio Pitol molded, by means of Heterodoxos, a discourse which confronted the regime and which, thanks to certain creative strategies he used, achieved approval from the official censors of the regime.

The first and most unique of these strategies is surrendering before form. Pitol, who had then written El tañido de una flauta, his first novel, had noticed that “upon writing it”—explains the author—“I established a tacit commitment to writing. I decided, without knowing that I had, that instinct should come before any other mediation. It was instinct that would determine form.” This procedure would guide all his writings, and in a certain way it, too, structured Heterodoxos. Although Pitol made a preliminary selection of works and authors that would constitute the series, it was not possible to follow the initial publication plan. He recalls in The Art of Flight (1996) “Of every three or four titles, the censors allowed us to publish maybe one. We lived and worked ignoring the dictatorship. When a Heterodox saw the light of day we celebrated with devotion.” That is to say, the sequence of one author to another, of one theme to another, and even the decision of what texts would be published were decided for reasons not always known to the editorial director. In this sense one could say that Pitol had to yield to form in the same way that he had with El tañido de una flauta (1972) and the rest of his works.

That being said, this acceptance of form implies neither an anxious nor passive attitude; Pitol invited form into his writing, creating a notorious procedural plasticity, in which, certain items, scattered by him almost randomly and apparently isolated on the blank page, began to expand and establish “tentacles in search of others” until, through the distinct relationships established between them, the complete image formed. In Heterodoxos the procedural plasticity acquires a complete materiality, as each one of the points becomes, in this case, published books thanks to the intervention of certain astute editors, the political climate, the economic situation, and, most certainly, luck. The possible relationships between each one of them must be established by the reader, who can gradually form an idea of the heterodox thought of the era, the ways in which an authoritarian regime can be toppled, as well as the distinct strategies for breakdown and creation.

This invitation of form that Pitol accomplishes so well in his writing, like in his editorial work, results in, as Pitol so well put it regarding his ideal writing, “an increasingly complex and intricate character, with gaps, creases, ironies, blurrings, and glaring darkness.” Consequently, interdisciplinarity, playing with time, and a diversity of voices abound in his texts; multiple possible realities form part of other possible realities in turn, in a structure of Russian nesting dolls which ends up confusing reality in a woven narrative which intertwines distinct levels in a subtle manner, exposing the difficulty—often passed over by the editorial industry—in distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction. In that ambiguous reality, gradually a great revelry begins to be forged, from which the most disparate characters come—from grotesque bureaucrats to conflicted artists and intriguing scoundrels, to give some examples—giving rise to an ideal climate for parody and humor. In respect to this, in an interview with Silvina Friera, Pitol mentioned having with greater enthusiasm incorporated parody and jest into his work during his sojourn as an ambassador in Prague (1983-1988). According to him, the need to make up for the loss of normal life while he lived immersed in diplomatic parlance which was entirely foreign to him pushed him to write El desfile del amor [Love’s parade] (1984) in a markedly parodic tone, different from what he had previously written. Even so, in the early seventies in Barcelona, still under Franco’s dictatorial thumb, Sergio Pitol had already turned to parody, games and, humor in order to compensate for the rigidity of the regime and the limitations it had placed on freedom of expression.

Of the nineteen works, written by authors principally of the 19th and 20th centuries from all over the world, which constitute Heterodoxos, we encounter texts of all types, personal or philosophical essays, correspondence, poems, novels, and stories with different themes and tones, all in the same place. In this spread of authors we find, following the categorization of Pitol, a few avant-gardists—those who “They rationalize, disagree, create theories, sign manifestos, launch battles with the literature of the past and also with contemporary literature”—like Tristan Tzara, Picabia y Michel Leiris, and a large number of eccentrics: Jonathan Swift, Witold Gombrowicz, Raymond Roussel, Oscar Wilde, Cristóbal Serra, Antonin Artaud, among others. About the eccentrics, Pitol has said: “parody is as a rule their form of writing […], the writing of an eccentric is almost always blessed by humor, even if it is black.” The authors included in Heterodoxos abide by this principle, managing, in less than 160 pages, to question, parody, and confront with irony and an acute sense of humor the monolithic products of an inflexible ideology. Through the multiplicity of perspectives offered in each book of the series there is the ability, like in a cubist painting, to comprehend more than one reality taking place at the same time, in a type of Carnivalesque excess that opens up the possibility of a limitless space, formed by all the areas of thought beyond the limited margin of the doxa.

Thus, Sergio Pitol, with the same “courage to undertake difficult challenges” of the eccentrics he adores, constructing the editorial series with a “total ordering intention”—as Paz Naranjo would say about the drawing in El tañido de una Flauta—rebuilds the structure of Russian nesting dolls so supported by the author: in Heterodoxos, the authors who joined together become characters in a new (editorial) work that, turning to humor and parody in each of the works, made writing a celebration. Sergio Pitol, an eccentric writer by his own definition, not only challenged the orthodox thought through each one of the authors chosen for Heterodoxos, rather, through shaping his editorial work in the same way as his writings, he questioned, once again, the limits separating life and literature.

Translated by Matthew Carman

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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.

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