Taming the Divine Form

Sergio Pitol with King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain, President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, cousin Luis Demeneghi, and nieces María and Laura Demeneghi after receiving the Cervantes Prize in 2005.

1.

I’ve been an avid and loyal reader of Sergio Pitol since I was a teenager. I also owe him much of my readerly education: Pitol led me to many other authors who shaped my tastes and my vocation from an early age. Of his vast and multifaceted oeuvre, I think the first book I read—and the one I’ve re-read most thoroughly—was Taming the Divine Heron. This novel became one of my personal fetish-books, the kind that accompanies a reader, sometimes surreptitiously, for years.

That being said, my multiple re-readings haven’t made me the owner of a heavily underlined, abundantly annotated volume. As it turns out, I always end up losing this book of Pitol’s (during a turbulent move from one apartment to another, or when a loan becomes a theft). Since I go out and buy another copy whenever I lose it, I’ve now read it in various editions over the years: first, the one published by Ediciones Era, considered the classic version; next, when I was living in Madrid, in the Tríptico de Carnaval [Carnival Triptych] edition published by Anagrama; and then in a volume of Pitol’s collected works, released in Mexico by Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE).

A few weeks ago, I was wandering the streets of Havana, where I’d been invited to attend a gathering of Mexican writers, and I stopped in front of a bookstore’s dusty window display. There’s no denying it: Cuban bookstores are less attractive than in Buenos Aires or Mexico City, at least in conventional terms. They only showcase national editions, with frankly ugly designs and printed on ordinary paper. But the books are certainly cheap. And so I walked into that bookstore, on one of the busiest streets in Old Havana, and there I found a Cuban edition of Taming the Divine Heron. (“One more for my lost collection,” I thought.) I bought the book at a ridiculous price, remembering that Pitol had a close relationship with Havana (as I learned during my stay from the poet Antón Arrufat, who met him there), and also remembering (memory is a fickle thing) that in The Uruguayan Book of the Dead, by Mario Bellatin, Pitol and Bellatin traveled to Cuba together with a suitcase full of towels.

I couldn’t have known that reading a novel in its Cuban edition would obliquely determine my interpretation. Maybe because Habana was still (and is still) on my mind, or maybe because the object itself (the book) insinuated this hidden relationship. In any case, during my most recent reading of the book, I couldn’t shake off the impression that Taming the Divine Heron is among the very Cuban-est novels in Mexican literature, if such a statement makes any sense.

In retrospect, I wonder if something similar might have happened to me with every previous reading: perhaps, when I read it in Madrid, it struck me as the most Spanish of all Mexican novels, and perhaps the FCE edition made me see it as the most official one, with its hard cover bound in solemn red cloth. How I wish I’d written a different essay about this same novel every single time, focusing on the little signs planted—by the context, by the materiality of the book, by my own life—like clues among the words.

 

2.

The first chapter of Taming the Divine Heron is frequently forgotten or overlooked. The first time I read it, I carelessly dismissed it as a kind of prologue, and only later did I understand its importance to Pitol’s Baroque architecture.

This chapter, written in the third person, is titled “Where an aging novelist who, greatly troubled by life, shows us his laboratory and reflects on the materials with which he proposes to construct a new novel.” Here, a 64-year-old writer (Pitol wrote the book at 54, so we know we’re in fictional territory) is getting ready to write a new novel. And so we have two narrators from the start: the one telling us the story of the “aging novelist” and the aging novelist himself, who will begin to tell another story in chapter two. Before he does so, the old writer ruminates about a close friend’s critiques of his work. Distressed, he wants to write something new, change registers, inhabit a different narrative realm. With this desire in mind, he jots down a few notes that will help him start writing his new novel.

First off, he’d like to address subjects that appear in Mikhail Bakhtin’s book about early Renaissance popular culture. He also wants to create a character with certain characteristics of Chichikov, the protagonist of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (a character, he writes, whose “sordidness could serve, not unlike the nonexistent virtues of Chichikov, to enlighten the behavior of other characters and, at the same time, grow richer with their reflection”). Finally, the sixty-something writer recalls an unpleasant former schoolmate who will serve as a model for his own novel’s protagonist, whom he will christen Dante Ciriaco de la Estrella.

The second chapter of Taming the Divine Heron is actually the first in the novel that the sixty-something writer has sketched out in chapter one. The lawyer Dante de la Estrella, a pedantic and disagreeable fellow, arrives unannounced at the home of the Millares family, in Tepotzlán, where he is intercepted by a tropical storm that will prevent him from leaving. Trapped indoors with a group of people he dislikes and who dislike him back, Dante can think of nothing better to do than tell them about the time he traveled to Istanbul and met a writer named Marietta Karapetiz, the widow of a famous anthropologist. His encounter in Turkey with Karapetiz (the “divine heron” of the title) will indelibly mark Dante’s life, propelling him into a meticulous study of Gogol’s work—but also into a neurotic ailment associated with incontinence, both verbal and excrementitious in nature.

The plot of Taming the Divine Heron consists, almost entirely, of the story told by Dante de la Estrella (through digressions and hyperboles) in the Millares living room, a story that transpires over the course of two or three days in Istanbul. Every so often, the narrator’s voice (that is, the aging novelist of the first chapter) interrupts De la Estrella’s dithyramb with caustic remarks about him and his involuntary hosts, the Millareses.

All this being said, the set of Russian nesting dolls staged here isn’t limited to the relationship among the three narrators (the omniscient narrator of chapter one, the “old writer,” and Dante de la Estrella); it goes beyond that. Dante’s monologue involves two other characters who take the floor via quotations, especially Marietta Karapetiz. This old intellectual woman, settled in Turkey, speaks within the story in a voice much like De la Estrella’s own—and she turns out to be nearly as unpleasant as he is. When Karapetiz takes the reins of the story, circumlocution and exaggeration take over, too, as do incessant references to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol.

While Dante’s voice is clearly distinguished from the other characters in Taming the Divine Heron, its resemblance to the voice of Karapetiz (whom he himself describes as his nemesis) stands out to our eyes and ears. A dynamic of simulation and antagonism is established between these two characters—a dynamic that is, in my reading, the mysterious heart of the whole novel.

 

3.

Over the years, the prevailing consensus has more or less asserted that Pitol’s autobiographical works constitutes the undeniable peak of his career, while the novels grouped together as the Carnival Triptych (Love’s Parade, Taming the Divine Heron, Married Life) are considered “minor” works, fatally burdened by a comical air. Or, better put, a parodic one.

My intention isn’t to simply refute this assessment; what I want, rather, is to reflect on what it means. In doing so, I’ll turn to the classic essay by the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, “Baroque and Neo-Baroque” (1972), which can function almost as a reading guide to Taming the Divine Heron. Sarduy, who lived in France from 1960 to 1993, dedicated many essays to examining Latin American literature through the lens of a “return to the Baroque,” influenced by the intellectual circle of the journal Tel Quel.

I should start by mentioning that Sarduy does not adhere to the critical trend of dismissing derivative or parodic works as “minor.” Indeed, he states that “only insofar as a work of the Latin American Baroque is the disfigurement of a previous work which must be read in filigree to enjoy it completely does it belong to a major genre.”

From the first chapter onward, Taming the Divine Heron sets out to dialogue “in filigree” with prior works, as well as to parody them. When studying this derivative or secondary dimension of the novel, we must also add that it contains a scatological element—one essential to the plot. This detail helps us understand why the book has been relegated to second-tier status by a majority of Latin American critics (so fond of the sublime, so hostile to filth).

This repudiation of muck and excreta, this preference for the “European” and the “sophisticated,” is among the elements of Latin American “high culture” that was sharply criticized by the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz during his long exile in Argentina. To Gombrowicz, “peripheral” literatures (he refers to Argentina and Poland, but I’m taking the liberty of including Mexico, too) should abandon Europeanizing models and instead embrace the immaturity, the foulness, the baseness of their own lands. Only in making this shift would they attain their very own form of expression and contribute something truly valuable to the annals of world literature.   

Pitol not only corresponded with Gombrowicz; he also translated the Polish writer’s last novel, Cosmos (1965). It’s hardly outrageous to think that some of Gombrowicz’s ideas may have filtered into Pitol’s work—particularly into Taming the Divine Heron, where the juxtaposition of the Noble and the Abject, approached through parody, is a central theme.

 

4.

Severo Sarduy uses the term “Latin American Neo-Baroque” for the convergence of parody, intertextuality, metafiction, and carnival, and he dedicates his famous article to tracing both the discursive strategies and the philosophical objectives of this current. The Cuban writer highlights the Neo-Baroque’s ability to absorb other literatures and dialogue with them through fiction.

In the first chapter of his novel, Pitol expressly references some of the works that the book incorporates and which must be read in filigree within Dante de la Estrella’s hyperbolic discourse (Rabelais, Quevedo, Cervantes, and Musil, among others). But he also adds a further twist by including Bakhtin: in Sarduy’s view, the theorist who best defines and underpins the characteristics of literary parody. Sarduy writes:

According to [Bakhtin], parody derives from the ancient “serio-comic” genre related to carnivalesque folklore…The substrate and foundation of this genre—whose high points have been Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire—is the carnival, a symbolic and syncretic spectacle in which the “abnormal” reigns, in which confusions and profanations, eccentricity and ambivalence are multiplied, and whose central action is a parodic coronation, that is, an apotheosis concealing mockery.

Almost all of the elements that Sarduy attributes to the Latin American Neo-Baroque (artifice, proliferation, parody, intertextuality, eroticism) can be found in Taming the Divine Heron—which, as we have seen, is a narrative “in layers.”

The novel contains an artificialization enacted through masking or progressive envelopment: we start by reading the story of an old writer who lists the tools he wants to use in writing a novel. Next, we read that novel, in which a character (Dante C. De la Estrella) sounds off with a first-person monologue before a confined but not particularly attentive audience. In turn, the text mechanisms at work in the content of this monologue gesture toward a new level of artificiality, and there are additional levels of fiction within the monologue (at one point, for example, De la Estrella narrates the plot of a short story by Gogol from start to finish).

To put it in the terms of Roland Barthes, Sergio Pitol’s novel is part of the metalinguistic turn through which twentieth-century literature detaches from its artisanal vocation and is transformed into reflexive language. In other words, this is a literary work that constantly displays its own opacity, incorporating and internalizing its awareness-of-itself.

 

5.

The conclusion to be drawn here isn’t that Taming the Divine Heron is simply an update of the Neo-Baroque aesthetic classification as defined by Sarduy. On the contrary: it seems that Pitol, in employing Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque and the parodic to construct Dante de la Estrella’s voice, ultimately creates a character who is Neo-Baroque in spirit—and who then, in friction with more fundamentally realist characters (the Millares family and the Vives family, both middle-class, educated Mexican clans), sparks a new form of absurdity. This clash, this confrontation among various kinds of speech, is only possible because the narrator (the sixty-something writer) is a step behind them, in a place seemingly external to fiction, while being also held captive by a different level of fiction.

The members of the Millares family interrupt Dante de la Estrella’s story only a few times, and their interventions all point in the same direction: they can’t stand their guest’s way of speaking. Moreover, this way of speaking seems to skirt around an erotic prohibition: the Millareses suspect that a woman is behind Dante de la Estrella’s entire tale (a failed romance with Karapetiz or the novel’s other female character, Ramona Vives). But the Millareses are mistaken: the suppressed element in De la Estrella’s monologue isn’t erotic, but rather scatological, as the novel reveals at the end.

Dante doesn’t tell the story in Taming the Divine Heron because he wants to tell something, but because he doesn’t want to tell it: the plot develops through the detours he takes in order to not recount the matter at hand (a matter involving shit, as the reader gradually comes to suspect), resorting to veiled allusions that irritate the Millareses.

(There’s something interesting about the role played by irritation and pedantry in the novel: the characters, almost without exception, are irritating. What’s more, Dante de la Estrella himself suffers from an irritable bowel. That is, his digestion, as well as his capacity to incorporate the speech patterns of Karapetiz and Nikolai Gogol into his monologue, is imperfect: assimilation is limited to simulation, imitatio. Dante de la Estrella is a character marked by the sign of the pedant: he repeats things that sound highbrow but hasn’t digested them correctly. The word pedantic—for which we could invent an ad hoc etymology associated with pedo, meaning fart in Spanish—, actually derives (according to the Spanish-language etymological dictionary Corominas) from peatón [pedestrian], as does imitador [imitator].

When he finally faces the topic his account has repressed (the object of his scatalogical prohibition: the abject), Dante Ciriaco de la Estrella neuroticizes this transgression and must be escorted out of the Millares house, reeking of excrement.

Here, Sarduy’s text is relevant once again, engaging intensely with Kristeva, Lacan, and French post-structuralism:

The “object” of the Baroque can be specified: it is what Freud, but above all Abraham, called the partial object: maternal breast, excrement, and its metaphoric equivalent: gold, constituent matter and symbol of all Baroque—gaze, voice—a thing forever alien to everything man can comprehend…

As I mentioned above, the intertextual practices are often characterized by digestive metaphors. We could say that Pitol digests a tradition, in the sense that he absorbs it into the innards of his text. The result of this alchemical/digestive process is the shit/gold as referenced in the novel by Marietta Karapetiz, quoting Constantine Porphyrogenitus: “Only when the shit, which after all is said and done is fire, breaks its pact with the devil, will it become nutritious, a fertilizing breath.”

I realize that this reading of Taming the Divine Heron, permeated with Sarduy and the carnivalesque spirit, risks derailing into illegibility, and so I’ll stop here.

A mise en abyme of picaresque echoes, an exacting and acerbic parody of the Mexican intellectual middle class, a verbal excess that tears up—irritates—the manuals of good literary “style,” Taming the Divine Heron is a masterpiece because it allows for a range of interpretations that tends toward infinity. Concealed in its smoke and mirrors, its intertextual references, and its dark, fetid entrails is one of the greatest moments in twentieth-century Mexican fiction. Read in connection with the philosophical coordinates of the Latin American Neo-Baroque (a term that encompasses both Lezama Lima and García Márquez), this novel unfolds as a genuine tour de force of erudition, humor, and metaliterature.

Translated by Robin Myers

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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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