Whoever has met Sergio Pitol, let’s say for example, in a book fair in whatever part of the world, who has seen him in some writers’ conference, who—getting into a time machine—had treated him like a diplomat, without digging too deep into intentions or into the nooks of his way of being, will always say that Pitol is an elegant, sober, attentive, chivalrous, elegantly mannered man. They will say, in short, that he is a well-balanced man.
And they will not be wrong. They will be speaking an objective truth, without wrinkles. Without wrinkles because they will not have detailed the wrinkles: the astrologists say that while the sign determined by the date of birth establishes the mode of being, the hour and the place of birth are the cause of the ascendant sign, the sign that reveals the form in which the person presents himself before the world. The first is the face and the second is the mask. And “the mask is the mirror of the soul”. I say this because Sergio Pitol, whose ascendant sign indicates him as the most well-balanced, in reality has a deep, an undeniable passion for what is outside the center, that is to say, for the eccentric.
Let’s hear what Pitol said to his great friend Carlos Monsiváis on a recent date: “In my books eccentrics abound, perhaps in excess, but it’s natural. Remember, Carlos, our youth and you’ll see that we moved among them. Our friend Luis Prieto, the king of the eccentrics, led us to that world. We spoke a language that few people understood. And during my many years in Europe, above all in Poland and the Soviet Union, that was my world. Dictatorships and oppression produced them; being odd was a way to freedom. Victorian England and Ireland produced an army of them; perhaps for that reason they have a splendid literature, Sterne, Swift, Wilde, and their successors. When I lived in Barcelona, at the end of the Sixties and the Seventies, I moved within literary circles that bordered on eccentricity, play, now when I see them they are different, normal, starched, conventional.”
The eccentricity of Pitol is not strident. He maintains the chivalrous and elegant forms of his astrological ascendant, of his profession as a diplomat, of a child well-raised by his grandmother. And under that shell he plays his game, that goes in various directions: as an essayist, as an author of fiction, as a translator
As an essayist, for example, what Pitol has done is to reinvent the genre.
He himself has said that “it is strange that an essayist upon writing a text incorporates narrative elements, with plots and novelesque characters. There might be others, but I only remember Magris and Sebald. As my essays were rather boring and miserable, I began to interpolate one little plot or another, a dream, a few games and various characters”. For example, in The Magician of Vienna there appears a synthesis of a hilarious novel of the same title , The Magician of Vienna, in which there appear women who “had been nuns, and in that capacity had committed unspeakable blasphemies and countless depravities, such as strangling the portress of the convent, the gardener, or even the Mother Superior, only to wander the world lost for years thereafter, until being found, identified, and reunited with the vast fortune that their deceased parents had desposited into some banking institution.” And, further on, in the same book, he insinuates a tale that “will confuse law-abiding citizens, reason- able people, bureaucrats, politicians, sycophants and bodyguards, social climbers, nationalists and cosmopolitans by decree, pedants and imbeciles, society matrons, flamethrowers, fops, whitewashed tombs, and simpletons.”
The final result is something that is not a compilation of essays, nor a fragmentary book—although it has some of both—, but an alchemic mixture of travel chronicles, word play, an approximation to this text or that artist, diary, personal memoir, autobiography, a transcription of appointments, in short, a tutti frutti of new flavor, new texture, a true delicacy as are The Magician of Vienna, that I have been citing and The Journey, that diary that carries us through the past, through Prague, and through Russia.
In regard to his prose, Pitol himself divides it into three phases. “My first stories—he says in The Magician of Vienna— appear now to have been an attempt to expel my childhood from me. I find it strange; I always believed that those narratives were a tribute to my childhood, to rural life, to my early illnesses, to my neurasthenia praecox, and it turns out that perhaps there was never any of that. Deep down, masked, I attempted to free myself from every kind of bond. I simply wanted to be myself.” And he adds: “During that first stage, my writing tended toward severity.The characters of those stories display a permanently tragic rictus. It was a world devoid of light, despite being set in the Mexican tropics, very close to the ocean.”
Let’s see what he says about the following period: “By contrast, my next narrative stage, the second, was vitally forceful. Having recently entered university in Mexico City, I began to travel. It was a way of contradicting my childhood confinement in rooms impregnated with the saccharine odor of potions and medicinal herbs. I was in New York and New Orleans, in Cuba and Venezuela. In 1961 I decided to spend a few months in Europe, and I delayed some thirty years in returning home. (…)I moved through the world with absolutely extraordinary freedom, I read for nothing but hedonistic reasons; I had eliminated from my environment any obligation that I found irksome.”
Let’s hear the testimony from Pitol himself about the third phase: “The following movement, the third air of my narrative, is marked by parody, caricature, laxness, and by a sudden and jubilant ferocity.The period’s corpus is comprised of three novels: El desfile del amor (1984), Domar a la divina garza (1988), and La vida conjugal (1991). Now, from a distance, the emergence of this playful and absurd vein in my writing doesn’t surprise me. Rather, I should be surprised by the lateness of its appearance, above all because if any- thing abounds in my list of preferred authors it is the creators of a parodic, eccentric, and desacralizing literature, where humor plays a decisive role, better still if the humor is delirious: Gogol, Sterne, Gombrowicz, Beckett, Bulgakov, Goldoni, Borges (when he’s himself, but especially when he’s transformed into Bustos Domecq), Carlo Emilio Gadda, Landol , Torri, Monterroso, Firbank, Monsiváis, César Aira, Kafka, Flann O’Brien…”
A few paragraphs further on, Pitol alludes to the impression that the reading of Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin made on him. And, upon this basis, recently, Rodolfo Mendoza notes the following: “Bakhtin used to say that his compatriot Alexander Herzen observed that laughter had something revolutionary about it, that “No one laughs in the church, in the palace, in the war, in front of the boss at the office […] the servants don’t dare to laugh before their master. Only those of the same condition laugh amongst themselves. If we remember any novel from the Carnival Tryptic or some of the Pitolian short stories, we can see that freedom—beginning with parody, satire, the revolutionary laugh that shows the narrator Pitol. That freedom that is not only exhibited in the themes and the characters, but, more than anything, in the prose itself. The prose of this author is of an “overwhelming” freedom. Freedom breaks all order: the narrative, the spatial, that of language. The characteristic of this narrative work is, precisely, that great tribute to freedom, that ambition of the writer to achieve something that he knows he can only reach through literature”.
Until now we have an atypical essayist, a narrator who doesn’t walk along the main street nor by known traditions but rather looks for new authorships, new affiliations, who explores in a direction opposite to affectation and seriousness and looks for the comic as a caricature of reality, who explores reality as a release from the commonplace, contrary to the worn path.
Unbalanced, eccentric, risky, that route that Pitol assumes from the beginning, serves to convert him into a point of reference: almost fifty years after setting out on his own path, of constructing it as he walks along it, half a century after accepting himself as different, Pitol has been worthy of the two principal recognitions that are given to a writer in our tongue: the Guadalajara Book Fair prize, also called the Juan Rulfo Prize, in 1999 and the Cervantes Prize in 2005.
That adherence to what is different, and here, after three pages, I finally arrive at the matter that convenes us today, is noted in the materials that Sergio Pitol has translated into Spanish.
The first thing that I should say about the translations by Pitol, is that it is not a question of a translator that writes but rather a writer that translates.
The principal thing that Pitol gives us in his versions is an impeccable, transparent, fluid Spanish that is pieced together by an extremely gifted writer. That is first and of upmost importance, although it must be considered as the most important the marginality of the texts and the literatures that Pitol has brought to our language.
With his very particular humor, that is capable of turning against itself, Carlos Monsiváis refers to the occasion when he boasted in front of Sergio Pitol that he had a library in three languages. Monsiváis tells that “in that moment (Pitol) looked at me with such mercy and I learned then what compassion was, well he speaks, writes and translates in seven languages. His library is in seven languages”.
Sergio Pitol has said that “since I left for Europe, in the Sixties, I began to translate because I didn’t have another job. I have translated more than 30 books, or close to 40. And I had the luck to be able to call the editors in Mexico, Argentina or Spain and I would suggest books that I liked and that I myself was reading. Only two or three did they impose on me to translate”.
Impossible to list all the books translated by Pitol. From English, for example, he brought to our tongue Emma by Jane Austen, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry, not to mention The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and of texts by Robert Graves, by Nabokov and by Ackerley. From Italian he translated Elio Vittorini, Luigi Malerba, Giuseppe Berto and Giorgio Bassani. From Russian a novel by Chekhov that anticipates one of the most brilliant tricks of the detective novel, since in that one by Chekhov, the narrator is the murderer. From Hungarian, Tibor Dery, from Chinese Lu Hsun.
What Sergio Pitol has done to bring Polish literature closer to the reader in Spanish deserves a paragraph apart from the unforgettable Anthology of the Polish Short Story, appearing in 1969 under the Era stamp up to the individual books by Kazimierz Brandys, Witold Gombrowicz (Argentine Diary, Cosmos) and Jerzy Andrzejewski from whom he made in Spanish the unequalled The Gates of Paradise.
There is an intimate relationship in Sergio Pitol between the work of translator and the labor of his personal writing. He himself tells that “when I read, translated and corrected The Good Soldier, an extraordinary novel by Ford Madox Ford, a force entered into me and a desire to write novels. Each time that I want to work on a novel I read many things, but always two classic books: Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann, and The Good Soldier. All that has helped me”.
Years ago there was a lack of academic initiative and institutional support to gather in a single collection Sergio Pitol’s translated works. And this is what the University from his home state, the Universidad Veracruzana has done, with a series that is now approaching its first titles, Pitol Translator. A collection looked after in his design, in his typography, in his splendid book covers with photographs in black and white. That collection is the one that brings us together today and I, in representation of the addicted readers, in representation of the friends of Sergio Pitol, I am here to thank him, the Universidad Veracruzana, his publisher, Rodolfo Mendoza, the gift that they have given us with this collection that already includes close to fifteen titles. Congratulations.
Medellín, July 29, 2009
For the Bogota Book Fair, August, 2009
Translated by Christina Miller