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Monday, 20 June 2016

The Art of Flight - Sergio Pitol (translated by George Henson)

It embarrasses us to be pilfering through other people’s lives and at the same time we cannot help but do it.

Readers of Spanish language fiction would know of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize. An annual award that currently carries a prize of €125,000 The Miguel de Cervantes Prize is considered the most important award in Spanish language literature (according to the website it is!). It is awarded to a writer for their literary oeuvre, not a single work and although some citations state that it is announced every year on 23 April, the date which commemorates the death of the author of Don Quixote, the 2015 winner was announced in November with Spanish King Felipe VI presenting the award to Fernando del Paso on the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death. In fact Cervantes actually died on 22 April 1616 however the Spanish commemorate his death on 23 April as it was the date he was buried (coinciding with the date of Shakespeare’s death).

The Miguel de Cervantes Prize was created in 1974, although the first award was made in 1976. The candidates are nominated by the Spanish Royal Academy, by the Academies in Spanish-speaking countries and by former prize-winners. The chairman of the jury is the Spanish Minister of Culture and since 1980, it can only be awarded to a single candidate.

In 2005 Sergio Pitol became the third Mexican to win the award (Octavio Paz in 1981 and Carlos Fuentes in 1987 being the first two Mexican’s to win the award), and for Pitol’s work to remain unavailable in English is yet another example of the small representation that translated works hold in the English speaking world. New independent, not-for-profit, publisher Deep Vellum from Dallas Texas came to the rescue in 2015, bringing the first two volumes of Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” to the English speaking world. The explanation by George Henson in his “Translator’s Note” at the rear of “The Art of Flight”; “these three autobiographical volumes, comprised of diary entries, personal musings, travel writing, and literary essays”, gives you a short idea of the make up of the initial offering in the trilogy. How to review what is basically a notebook? As Daniel Saldaña Paris says in his recent article “10 Essential Spanish-Language Books”: “To call The Art of Flight autobiography, essay, or memoir is an understatement. Life, fiction, memories, and readings intertwine in this book with astonishing ease, and the result is a volume that reads like a novel.” (see full list of the 10 “essential” books here )

With a short introduction by friend and fellow Spanish language writer Enrique Vila-Matas, the work begins with Pitol travelling and misplacing his glasses, he is in Venice, blurry eyed with mists descending. Within a couple of pages you know that the theme of a blurry memory, shadows, snippets is about to pervade throughout

We, I would venture to guess, are the books we have read, the paintings we have seen, the music we have heard and forgotten, the streets we have walked. We are our childhood, our family, some friends, a few loves, more than a few disappointments. A sum reduced by infinite subtractions. We are shaped by different times, hobbies, and creeds…

A book that not only looks at Pitol’s own narrative style, he talks extensively on his influences, as well as his own novels:

The narrator who, as a rule, appears in my novels rehearses several starting points in the pursuit of a truth, a revelation, and in the effort will lose his way a thousand times, stumble constantly, and will maintain the pace with great difficulty between suffering hallucinations and sleepwalking, only in the end to declare himself defeated. 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. The narrator might be Sisyphus and Icarus at the same time. His only certainty is that along the way he might have touched a few strands in a marvelous and deplorable tapestry, obscured sometimes by ominous stains or by a sudden and immediate iridescence that, upon seeing it, gives meaning to his efforts.

It works through first person and third person narratives, influences, ruminations on memory (of course an unreliable one);

Memory works with the same oblique and rebellious logic as dreams. It rummages in dark holes and extracts visions that, unlike those of dreams, are almost always pleasant. Memory can, at the discretion of whoever possesses it, be colored by nostalgia, and nostalgia produces monsters only by exception. Nostalgia lives off the trappings of a past that confronts a present devoid of attraction. Its ideal device is the oxymoron: it summons contradictory incidents, intermingles them, causes them to merge, and brings order in a disorderly way to chaos.

As in all autobiographical works, it is the function of the memory that comes to the fore and whilst numerous writers do not address the unreliability of their memories, merely reproducing memories as fact, Pitol does not fall into that trap, blending political thought with personal notes, commenting on the plight of Mexico, his roots. As a well-travelled cultural attaché and diplomat in cities such as Rome, Warsaw, Belgrade, Beijing, Paris, Barcelona, Prague, Moscow, and Budapest and as Mexico’s Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, his return to Mexico after each trip, his viewing of a changed nation during his absence also bubbles to the fore:

Revisiting the past means, among other heartaches, contemplating a world that is, and at the same time has ceased to be, the same. Take Mexico, for example. Think about the changes that have occurred in the last half-century—the devastation of the capital, the degradation of the atmosphere, the moral pollution—and you will have a vision that borders on catastrophe. A dystopia staged by an expressionist director. When I entered university, the city was inhabited by four and a half million people; today that number seems to top more than twenty, and I say “seems” because no one can provide an exact figure. Any common memory, every possible collective imagination, tends to be smashed to bits in these circumstances; the social link that replaces their functions is crass TV, the creator of timid mythologies. I would like to move beyond, to the extent possible, apocalyptic visions; and pause instead on areas of imprecise determination, on small details: writing, reading, dreams, anything that eschews the grandiose, the plaintive, an apostolic zeal, and didactic pontificating.

Whilst the reflections on Pitol’s life as a writer are thoroughly enjoyable and, at time, gripping, the book also includes a reading list to die for. His influences are too numerous to mention and there are anecdotes about certain influential writers, his own creative journey being altered by certain works, and in-depth analysis of other books. Not having read all of the referenced works (and in some cases they are unavailable in English or are now out of print), I did find a number of chapters beyond my reach, or understanding. But when it came to authors who I am familiar, the references or anectodes rang true:

I had admired Tabucchi since Anagrama had published The Woman of Porto Pim and Indian Nocturne. I awaited the arrival of each of his books after their release in Italy, and I arranged for their immediate delivery. I had written about them. I would have liked immensely to talk to him about one of his novels, The Edge of the Horizon, which reminded me of Conrad at his best, as elusive and multivalent as The Secret Sharer. The Edge of the Horizon possesses that absolutely intimate quality nourished by the everyday fantastic found in the best of Tabucchi’s stories. The reader is witness, and in a certain way accomplice, to a secret battle that takes place nonstop between allusion and elusion. The more precise the details, the more mysterious the story becomes.

A “novel” that covers politics (free trade, unemployment), artistic creation, critics, sociology, travelogue and so much more, as the translator notes at the end of the work “Translating—and reading—Pitol provides an incomparable humanistic education.” And in Pitol’s own words:

All of this material, by the time it reaches the novel, will come out of chaos, will be coherent and cease being formless without losing the intensity it had in real life, that is, in the diaries…

A revelation which only highlights the injustice that his first works appeared in English in 2015. I will be onto the second instalment, “The Journey”, very shortly and await the final instalment in March 2017!!!

Review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum.

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