Sergio Pitol, the celebrated Mexican author, essayist, translator, and winner of the Cervantes Prize, died in his home last Thursday. He is remembered here by Elena Poniatowska, considered “Mexico’s grande dame of letters,” whose Art of Fiction interview appears in our Spring issue.
Sergio Pitol was an Italian nobleman, an aristocrat who knew how to live, a connoisseur of furniture and of flavors, a maker of illusions, a bon vivant, the owner of stables filled with unicorns. He would appear, walking with his cane through his beloved Xalapa like the Marquis de Carabas, and gesture: “Those cane fields, those palm trees, those rivers are mine!”
If ever there was anyone who did not shut himself away, it was Sergio Pitol. Perhaps his first confinement, that of his childhood, that of his solitude and his adolescent exasperation, launched him into the world. As a child, he saw himself as a frail, malarial orphan whom no one loved. The torrid landscape of Veracruz and particularly that of Potrero, the sugar mill where he spent his childhood, made him its serf, and he often spoke to the tall green stalks of sugarcane, the dark and fragrant coffee trees, the banana trees that would one day shade his garden in Xalapa where he would walk, cane in hand, accompanied by his dogs. From a young age, he would recount the vicissitudes of his life to trees and water lilies.
First, he went to China. In 1962, he was offered a job as a translator from English into Spanish at a foreign-language publisher in Peking. Sergio had dreamed of China, and so he packed his bags. He never asked himself what might happen to him; Sergio knew how to adapt, to live the lives of others no matter how foreign their customs were. From the day-to-day to the age-old, he acquired the knowledge that is forbidden to mercurial tourists. And of course, the Chinese were grateful to him, and his observations on China went on to become a part of the great texts that were read at the time: The Long March, by Simone de Beauvoir; Keys for China, by Claude Roy; Les divagations d’un français en Chine, by Vercors. Surely, Sergio foresaw that China would rise like a giant, eventually destabilize the Western world, and become more open and more flexible than the Soviet Union.
Years later, during a second trip to China in the second half of the seventies, Sergio Pitol would befriend the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, whose iron he admired. “Gao Xingjian decided not to comply,” Pitol wrote. “He wrote with total freedom and defended his cause … He communicated with his inner being, employing every singular pronoun: ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘he,’ he examined himself with different eyes and also with theirs, he looked for and lost himself, he found himself while losing himself, and from that experience, on his return to Peking, he was a different man. In 1988 he traveled to Paris and there he went into exile.”
Wasn’t Pitol writing his own biography by portraying the respectful and courteous Gao Xingjian? All the confrontations, all the pain, all the searching, all the imposition, all the libertarian zeal—these are what turned Sergio Pitol into what he was. He was a magician, perhaps the one in his book The Magician of Vienna, the man with a thousand eyes that fly like doves toward every horizon, carrying letters in their beaks, crossing every ocean. This is why one hears a rush of wings around Sergio Pitol.
By undertaking his travels with such courage, Pitol created for himself and for all of us a new way of living: bolder, healthier, and more detached from the possessions that bind us all. The difficulty he had in leaving Mexico forged in him a strength of character that we who remain are lacking. His intelligence took flight, a great flight that gives us strength when we watch it from afar. That high and powerful flight was driven by his insight and his will. His feelings also acquired another flight, and for that reason, he was surprised to see on each trip how we were in a stew of chaos in Mexico, a stew in which we were falling to pieces. “Those who loved each other last year now hate each other,” he told me in amazement. “I can’t get my old friends together because they’re enemies now.” How he laughed at the smallness of our world: “Look, they used to see each other every other day. Now they don’t talk anymore. The world really is a carnival.”
His literature reflects the droll and ironic constant of his observations. Since his return to Mexico, perhaps from the dawn of the world, Pitol knew how to see others, and he managed to reconcile and reflect very different worlds. The Carnival Triptych—Love’s Parade, Taming the Divine Heron, and Married Life—“Asymmetry,” “Everyone’s Hell,” The Art of Flight, The Journey, The Sound of the Flute, “Mephisto’s Waltz,” “Bukhara Nocturne,” “The Cemetery of Thrushes,” “There Is No Such Place,” and so many other works in which Pitol looks at world literature, Jules Verne, Stevenson, Dickens, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Andrzejewski, Brandys, Proust, Balzac, Reyes, Borges, Faulkner, Neruda, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Herman Broch. He gives them all to us in The Magician of Vienna, about which he said: “I think it was The Magician of Vienna that inclined the jury to give me the Cervantes Prize.”
His political concerns turned him into a young man of the Left, which bound him to Luis Prieto, Carlos Monsiváis, and José Emilio Pacheco. Later, he was accompanied by two great female friends: Luz del Amo and Margo Glantz. We all knew that Sergio never lost his mysterious, his special literary vibration.
Translated by George Henson.
Elena Poniatowska is the author of more than forty books that span many genres. Her work focuses on the social and political issues that affect the disenfranchised. Her Art of Fiction interview appears in our Spring issue.