In her 2013 entry in Granta's regrettably short-lived Best Untranslated Writers series (which may have been more accurately titled "Best As Yet Minimally Translated Writers," though def not as succinct/inciting to action-y), Valeria Luiselli relates her first, captivating encounter with the celebrated Mexican writer Sergio Pitol at the age of 15. She describes the writing of Pitol -- diplomat, writer, and translator from the Russian, English, and Polish into Spanish -- and the experience of reading him like so:
"His writing -- the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words -- reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced -- and perhaps, too, the many men he has been. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once."
The precision of Luiselli's assessment is clear in this excerpt from Pitol's The Art of Flight, over at BOMB, (which, incidentally, contains one of the most gorgeous and animated descriptions of literary creation I've ever read, and I strongly encourage you to lose your breath over it ASAP). In it, Pitol reports on a hypnosis session that he hopes will cure him of his cigarette addiction, and his resultant insights, such as:
I jotted down in my notebook: “We’re a terrible mixture, and in each individual coexist three, four, five different individuals, so it’s normal that they don’t agree with each other”; it wasn’t relevant, but it soothed me; and with that news I fell asleep.
(I would feel remiss if I didn't mention that, in pulling together this post, I discovered that Pitol's hypnotist was the brother-in-law of writer Juan Villoro, whose short story collection, The Guilty, was recently translated by my former workshopmate, the excellent Kimi Traube, of which you can read an excerpt, the wry and wonderful story "The Whistle," here at Lit Hub, or purchase without a moment's hesitation here.)
A number of these previously un- or little-translated (into English) writers have been translated in the three years that have passed since the series began (including Guadalupe Nettel in our sister mag, Spolia). This is true of Pitol, as well, whose first two books in his Trilogy of Memory, The Art of Flight (El Arte de la Fuga) and The Journey (El Viaje), are now available from Deep Vellum Publishing, thanks to the seemingly indefatigable Will Evans. (Interview with Asymptote.)
Though Pitol has authored many books (26 to my reckoning), been translated into more than a dozen languages, and won both the FIL Literature Award in Romance Languages (formerly the Juan Rulfo Prize) and the Cervantes Prize, these are his first and second books ever translated into English, a task -- and a treat, I imagine -- undertaken by George Henson, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose previous translations include Elena Poniatowska's The Heart of the Artichoke and Luis Jorge Boone's The Cannibal Night. (Interview also with Asymptote.)
And I'm hoping you share in my intense FOMO about everyone having a hell of a lot of fun when the US is out of the room, and equally intense gratitude to the literary translators and translation publishers of the world for opposing our insular tendencies.
Henson proposes that the reason for the absence of Pitol in English translation is likely severalfold and due in no small part to his complexity and transnational flavor. Variously billed as:
"sometimes difficult to follow" (Anne Poston over at Words Without Borders)
"unfathomable" (Daniel Saldaña París at Lit Hub)
"one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers" and "certainly the strangest" (Luiselli at Granta)
and "a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects" by Matt Pincus in his review of The Journey in our latest issue of Bookslut, lest you fear you might be out of your depth with Pitol, Henri Lipton assures us in his staff pick over at The Paris Review that, while he may be a complicated writer with a zeal for many literatures, "Pitol is not a pedant, nor does the relative obscurity of many of his references distract from his vivid prose."
In his "An Ars Poetica?" from the January/February 2015 issue of World Literature Today, Pitol has soothing words for any of us who have ever felt that we were somehow intellectual dabblers, dilettantes even in relation to what we consider fiercest passions:
I was invited to attend a biennale of writers in Mérida,Venezuela, where each of the participants was to explain his own concept of an ars poetica. I lived in terror for weeks. What did I have to say on the subject?
Regrettably, my theoretical grounding, throughout my life, has been limited. [...] The truth is, I never got beyond the study of Russian formalism. [...]When I attempted to delve into more specialized texts, the so-called “scientists,” I felt lost. I was confused at every turn; I did not know the vocabulary. It was not without regret that little by little I began to abandon them. From time to time I suffer from abulia, and I dream about a future that will afford me the opportunity to become a scholar.
He goes on to expound, beautifully and fluidly, on his own poetics, giving us a guided tour of his inheritance from his many literary progenitors. But isn't it always a relief to hear a brilliant and accomplished person admit their lingering doubts in their own abilities?
Because uncertainty, skepticism, and the pursuit of complex understanding and multiple possibilities seem to be foundational to Pitol as a writer and as a person, I'll leave you with this explanation of what he aims to achieve with his narrators from "A Vindication of Hypnosis," which is just as good as direction on how to go about being a human in the world as it is on constructing a literary point of view:
He will come to know that absolutes do not exist, that there is no truth that is not conjectural, relative, and, therefore, vulnerable. But searching for it, no matter how ephemeral, partial, and inconstant it may be, will always be his objective.