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Labyrinths of Astonishment: Sergio Pitol’s Literary Journeys

By West Camel.

Dvd 122 (15-11-04). El escritor mexicano Sergio Pitol, durante la presentaciÛn de la semana de autor dedicada a Èl en la Casa de AmÈrica. © CristÛbal Manuel SERGIO PITOL, EN LA CASA DE AM…RICA DE MADRID CRIST”BAL MANUEL Sergio Pitol, esta semana, en la Casa de AmÈrica de Madrid, donde se le ha dedicado una Semana de Autor.

I.

Reading Sergio Pitol will make any serious writer want to write—and write better. One of the most prolific writers of his generation, Pitol’s influence in Spanish-language literature is both wide and widely acknowledged: in 2005 he received Spanish literature’s most prized accolade, the Cervantes Award. Yet in the Anglophone literary world he remains relatively unknown.

In The Art of Flight and The Journey, the first two parts Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” published by Deep Vellum and translated by George Henson, the English-speaking public finally has access to the work for which other writers so revere Pitol. But this work, perhaps, also provides the reason why those previously translated writers—e.g., Roberto Bolaño, Enrique Vila-Matas, Valeria Luiselli, Álvaro Enrigue, and others—have enjoyed some success in the Anglophone world, whereas Pitol himself has not. For, in these two volumes, Pitol does something brave and perspicacious for a renowned writer’s writer, but something that may not appeal beyond a narrow literary audience. He investigates a central, paradoxical idea: that writing does not capture life; rather, it captures the effort to capture life. Most importantly for writers, the aesthetics of Pitol’s investigation reflects this paradox by expressing with absolute clarity how writing fails to make life clear.

In The Art of Flight, while discussing how a single image prompted Faulkner to begin work on The Sound and the Fury, Pitol describes the “paths to creation” as

full of wrinkles, mirages, delays. They required the patience of a saint, a good deal of abandonment, and at the same time, an iron will in order to not succumb to the traps the unconscious lays to block the writer. It is well known that the struggle between Eros and Thanatos always lies at the root of creation. But the end of the battle is always unforeseeable.

For Pitol, that battle is writing; and he describes it with elegance and articulateness, in prose that Vila-Matas, in his introduction to The Art of Flight, describes as a stylistic means “to say everything, but not to solve the mystery.”

For Pitol the world is a mystery—specifically a literary one. The Pitol on display in The Art of Flight is the quintessential man of letters: his whole life, as described here, is dominated by constructing literature, responding to literature, and by responding to the mysterious world in literary ways. Unclassifiable other than as a volume of prose, The Art of Flight is a collection of essays, journal entries, memoirs, descriptions of his own fiction (which themselves become pieces of fiction), criticism, accounts of his reading, and even dream analyses. Through all of this, Pitol examines how writers attempt to respond to and understand the world through literature, and describes a process so continuous that his writing has a sense of the eternal: in Pitol’s aesthetic vision, there will always be books, time to read, time to write about what one has read, as well as time to write more books that will feed this process over and over again.

The title of the first volume of Pitol’s trilogy comes at the end of one of its shortest pieces, entitled “Test of Initiation,” an account of his first attempts at writing. The young Pitol, “an eighteen-year-old youth who suddenly decides to become a writer” after several failures, discovers that an article he has written has been published. But rather than excitement, he feels shame, and doesn’t want his success acknowledged: “any sign of surprise or celebration of his talent … would drive him hopelessly mad.” His misery is compounded when, on rereading his work, he finds—using a phrase he borrows from both Dostoyevsky and Flaubert—that he doesn’t “understand a lick” of it. Yet even this literary allusion does not reassure him. His cognitive faculties have failed him; and, worse, the literature he has written about in his article seems “as hollow and as ridiculous as his own prose.” He is temporarily destroyed.

As the man writing this note of memoir, Pitol suggests a reason for his adolescent distress: it was “his confrontation with the word, his printed word,” and his discovery that writing does not, and cannot, capture life. Writing’s futile battle for clarity makes it something profane; a deed polluted by its innate failure to achieve its object. To write at home, therefore, amongst those he loves, would be to commit “an obscene act in a holy place.” Pitol responded to this discovery by leaving home and traveling. Writing thus became “a joyful game of concealment, an approach to the art of flight [italics added]”: in order to write—to defile life by trying to capture it in words—he had to fly.

In this explanation, however, Pitol introduces his characteristic uncertainty: trying to find a reason for that early upset is “a pointless guessing game … [T]o continue it would send him into a labyrinth of astonishment. He would become lost in marshes without ever touching solid ground.” Nowhere else in Pitol’s work is there a better description of his writing.

As an adult, Pitol learned to delight in his writing “vice.” He acknowledges that the act of writing is a Sisyphean task; but for him its eternal qualities are what make it so addictive. This is, perhaps, why writers so adore his work: he not only loses himself in the “marshes,” but he wallows in their mud; seeking astonishment he throws away Ariadne’s thread and wanders deeper into the labyrinth. Throughout The Art of Flight we see Pitol feeding his addiction. He indulges in obfuscation by continually putting pen to paper; and he remains on his infinite journey—both around the physical world in his other career as a diplomat, and across the literary world through his reading.

In a series of diary entries spread over four years and collected in a piece entitled “Here Comes the Parade!,” Pitol demonstrates his addiction to writing and literature using a real-life example: the gestation and birth of one of his novels.

He begins with an idea for a detective story set in an apartment building. Then, after a discussion with his niece, he toys with the idea of something akin to Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. Another idea he entertains is to make it a political book, set in the 1930s or ‘40s.

A year later, still thinking of the novel, he appears to be in the darkest part of the labyrinth, the most unstable marsh, where he cannot yet see his characters: “The story unfolds at the level of masks. The faces will never be seen. The biggest enigma lies in the identity of the protagonist.” A month later he concludes that “the truth, the true truth of the truth is not likely to be within our reach.” But within three days he is on a completely new track—the novel’s main theme will be the relationship between a mother and her son. Two months later he confesses to abandoning completely his original apartment building idea. But then stories he hears, and documents he receives about German activities in Mexico in World War II, spark his interest again; and an exhibition of interwar photographs seems to provide the faces he has been searching for. At last, he enters a café “with a view of the river and the castle” and begins a rough outline—the “heavy carpentry” of the novel that will become El desfile del amor (Love’s Parade). Present are many of the elements Pitol has been turning over in his mind during the previous few years: the detective story, the apartment building, the interwar setting, the political discussion, the unmasking of characters.

Within a month, however, Pitol is fretting: is the novel’s writing going well, or is it “nothing more than an outbreak of graphomania”? But more reflective and positive journal entries see Pitol thinking about the book’s structure and its influences—how his reading and digestion of art breathe a “cheerful expressionism” into his book. And then, as he is approaching the final stages of the writing process, he considers how readers will receive the novel. He is sure they will recognize that the plot revolves around Mexico’s wartime fascist groups. But buried in this thought is his conviction that “the lack of clarity, the gap in the story, seems necessary to me.” A series of questions follow; but Pitol instinctively shies away from answering them in any definitive way. He wants, in Vila-Matas’s words, “to say everything, but not to solve the mystery.”

The finished book would go on to win the Herralde Novel Prize. It is still not translated into English.

 

pitol

II.

The Journey, the second volume of the “Trilogy of Memory”—like the description of the writer’s process in “Here Comes the Parade”—is an extended discussion of Pitol’s literary concerns. But in this case Pitol has a real-life rather than an aesthetic adventure. At the heart of the book lie Pitol’s attempts to reach the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, at the invitation of a Georgian writers’ organization. But this apparently simple trip, like his description of Faulkner’s creative process, is full of “wrinkles, mirages, delays.”

Beginning in Prague in the mid-1980s, Pitol’s travels to Georgia are marred by the complex and fluid politics of the perestroika era. Shortly after the Georgian invite, he receives a parallel offer from the Soviet Ministry of Culture: is he being welcomed by the Russians or delayed? Once in Moscow, Pitol is not exactly held against his will, but it does seem that his Russian hosts are keen to prevent him from traveling to Tbilisi, one of the “strongholds of perestroika.” Pitol’s meetings with Soviet officials are awkward and his questions are evaded. In one hilarious scene, he is even accused of possessing illicit pornography. He is terrified: “All this for wanting to go to Georgia and not to the celebrations for Turgenev?” But the accusation is not the trap Pitol believes it to be; it is a simple—and for the official, embarrassing—mistake.

Characteristically, while waiting to be granted permission to continue his journey, Pitol spends his time in bookshops, theatres, and galleries. Most importantly, he reflects on the life and work of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. One of the most important of Russia’s twentieth-century writers, a supporter of the White Army, and resolutely anti-communist, for five years after the 1917 revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow, where she witnessed a terrible famine. Pitol’s response to his own predicament is to consider in detail her struggles and her literary output. Studying her last essays, he describes them as having “few details, more or less tics, eccentricities, digressions on writing, her surroundings, fragments of conversations, a sense of montage as effective as Eisenstein; nothing seems important, but everything is literature.” This could just as easily be a description of the ways in which Pitol himself views the world.

Pitol finally receives a plane ticket—but whether it is a return to Prague or a flight to Tbilisi is still uncertain. Surprised to find himself at last at his intended destination, he compares his struggle to get there with one of Prospero’s schemes:

an intricate plot so that Miranda, his daughter, and the heir of the kingdom of Naples will fall in love. … If they had read Shakespeare well, Russian writers would not have placed so many obstacles and difficulties in my way to reach Georgia. Their strategy was wrong. They destined that I find all the virtues of the world in this place.

As the book’s title suggests, Pitol is celebrating the process rather than the destination—however full of “virtues” that destination might be.

What he finds in Tbilisi delights him, yet there is “something more that is a little difficult for me to describe.” Among the camaraderie of the Georgian writers, and the open and happy aspect of the city, most striking is his account of a communal lavatory:

a collective latrine, something I would never have imagined existed, outside correctional facilities … There was no collective shame. Belly laughs could be heard intermingled with belly noises. The cavernous stench was unbearable.

Here, the reader is reminded of his close reading of Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk in The Art of Flight, in which Pitol demonstrates how Svejk’s scatological obsessions evolve from “festive atmospheres derived from the old medieval and Renaissance tradition” to an illustration of the baseness of war, where the front is “an area of corporal expulsion, where one speaks only of urinals, enemas, diarrhea, suppositories, stained underwear, and fecal stench.”

In The Journey, however, Pitol’s revulsion at the Tbilisi communal latrine leads him not to a meditation on the USSR’s war-torn past, but to a memory of being potty-trained in a house where “[e]verything was neat, transparent, I was surrounded by happiness.” Once again, Pitol’s preoccupations surface: the literary and social pleasures he experiences in Georgia are linked to something unclean: the baseness of bodily functions. And those bodily functions in turn arouse in him a memory of purity and cleanness. In “Test of Initiation,” he realises he must escape home to indulge in the impurity of writing; in The Journey, literature takes him halfway across the world from his birthplace, only to be transported back there by shit.

In Pitol’s life and his writing, neither images nor thoughts flow naturally and automatically to their logical associations. The paradox is that these two books demonstrates this incongruity and the uncertainty it creates with absolute precision. Vila-Matas notes this paradox, describing Pitol’s style as “to distort what he sees.” It is Pitol’s perfection of this “distortion” that so well describes the futility of any attempt to represent the world accurately through literature. Instead, he suggests, literature can only accurately represent a written version of the world, or perhaps not even that—rather, a written version of an attempt to represent the world.

Writers see in this attempt the reflection of their own struggles. Perhaps if Pitol’s fiction were to also be translated and published outside of his native language, more readers will have access to Pitol’s unique brand of aesthetics: a refreshing and stimulating distortion of reality.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He has contributed work to a variety of publications and organisations, including The Times Literary Supplement, Culture Compass, Writers’ Hub, Ahh…, and Korea’s List magazine. He was an editor for Dalkey Archive Press, where he edited Best European Fiction 2015 and is now editing for Orenda Books and Yale University Press. He has also written a novel, several short stories, and scripts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 28th, 2015.