The Return of the Magician: A Conversation with Sergio Pitol
El retorno del mago
Pedro M. Domene
Translated to English by Angela McEwan
Sergio Pitol recently published El mago de Viena (The Magician of Vienna) and Los mejores cuentos (The Best Stories) in Spain. The latter book has a prologue written by Enrique Vila Matas of Barcelona. Both titles confirm the position of the author of Domar a la divina Garza (Taming the Divine Heron) as one of the great voices in contemporary Spanish narrative.
In the following conversation, the writer confesses his doubts in this way: “It’s possible that my novelistic ability has dried up.” Nevertheless, with the appearance this year of those two titles it becomes obvious that the productive link between life and work—so explored by Pitol— continues to nourish the wakefulness, the dreams and the insomnia of his vivid creative imagination, which now has received the most prestigious recognition which our language can bestow on its authors: the 2005 Cervantes Prize.
Sergio Pitol is the author of Tiempo cercado (Corraled Time) (1959), Infierno de todos (Inferno for All) (1965),Los climas (The Climates) (1966), No hay tal lugar (There is no Such Place) (1967), Del encuentro nupcial (About the Nuptial Encounter) (1970); the novels: El tañido de una flauta (The Sound of a Flute) (1972), Juegos florales (Flower Games) (1982), El desfile del amor (The Parade of Love) (1984), and the essay collections: El arte de la fuga (The Art of Escape) (1996), Soñar la realidad (Dreaming Reality) (1998), Pasión por la trama (Passion for the Plot) (1999), El viaje (The Trip) (2001). In 1999 he was awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize for the whole of his literary achievement.
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Sergio Pitol: El desfile del amor, and the immediate publication of the novel in Barcelona meant not only to set foot in Spain, but also to be recognized in Mexico. Shortly after the appearance of my first book of stories, in an almost secret edition, I left Mexico, and for almost thirty years I lived outside my country. I visited it sometimes, on two occasions I spent long periods, like a year, but knowing from the beginning that I was going to leave. Here in Mexico I had a few excellent friends; my books came out without my being present, and carried on a phantom life. Outside of a handful of very faithful readers and enthusiasts, for the rest of the Mexican readers I was non-existent, a shadow, an eccentric, far from the reality of Mexico and Hispano-America, cooped up in a moveable marble tower, creating audacious stories set in Venice or Samarkand. I must say that I’m not complaining; that reputation was rather fun. To suddenly arrive in Mexico to spend a few weeks and be wined and dined by very close old friends was wonderful, as well as finding a small group of young people in the most unexpected corner of the city that knew my work better than I did. After this novel a wider public became aware of me.
Pedro M. Domene: Your twisted universe is even more accentuated in Domar a la divina garza. Is your world really like that?
S.P.: Domar a la divina garza. What a story! I wrote it traveling between Madeira, Lanzarote, and Marienbad, in marvelous clinics where I was convalescing from a complicated gall bladder operation. It was a life of spas, boring, crepuscular, and gluttonous, like a Von Stroheim film. It was a period devoted to Gogol. I read and re-read almost his entire work, as well as several excellent books on his writing and bizarre life. At that time I read Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais, but more than anything I read about popular culture at the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance. Those readings, which were a hymn to liberty, and those of Gogol, became an integral part of my theme. El desfile del amor, the previous one, the prizewinning one, is a tragicomic, impudent parody, and Domar a la divina garza radicalizes all that, it converts it into something disgusting with unpleasant aromas.
At present I’m writing a little book about a trip to Georgia in 1985, in which I narrate a personal experience about the excremental slant I introduced in the novel. It was the last novel I wrote in Europe. I was in Barcelona for the presentation. Jorge Herralde went all out on that occasion, and every day in my hotel I received many journalists from the cultural sections of the Madrid and Catalan press. Some friends who had already read it praised it highly. I really felt like the divine heron. Days later, in Madrid I boarded the plane that would take me to Mexico, and the first thing I did, like everyone else, was to pick up some newspapers and magazines to glance through during the trip. I opened the first, which no longer exists, looked for the cultural section and immediately saw the brilliant cover of my book; and I began to read the commentary. The horrors being said about me and my novel, the savagery with which I was attacked, I don’t remember having ever seen, either against me or against any other author. The commentator stated that he had thrown my literary trajectory in the urinal, that I had been seduced by the money that an author collects from books as repellent as that one.
That once I had tumbled into the sewer it would be very difficult for me to get out of it. I told myself that it wasn’t possible that such a thing could happen, that I could be insulted with such violence, and I concluded that none of it was real, that I was dreaming, sunk in the middle of a nightmare. This soothed me and I was able to sleep for a while. When I woke up I again read that tirade and found that yes, it was true, it was real, but now the shock had passed. I had been carried away in Barcelona, and followed Bakhtin’s outline of the carnival: coronation, celebration and final beating. It was an exemplary lesson. The only thing that bothered me was that it would be the first review of my novel, and might be the first one to arrive in Mexico.
Shortly thereafter when I received the reviews of Masoliver Ródenas and of Mercedes Monmany I calmed down. Both started their articles with the affirmation thatDomar a la divina garza was a masterwork.
P .M. D.: La vida conyugal ends that triptych for the moment and presupposes your displeasure with the present world.
S. P.: La vida conyugal is the chronicle of fifty years of married life. There is a constantly warring couple with the backdrop of a society that has lost its energy, vitality and sense of almost everything. A world that is like a rudderless ship heading for disaster. A society resulting from many decades of corruption and decay, the flower of the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party). I feel tenderness for the protagonist, for his capacity to survive, for his chaotic rebelliousness, for his limitations, for all his fruitless efforts. At the end the couple celebrates their fifty years of marriage, their golden wedding anniversary, and what is left of it is rubble, mutilated bodies and an angry old age. The desire of each to break off with the other as soon as possible. That is what their fifty years of marriage has been; there is no cure for the couple, they will go on that way till the end.
P. M. D.: On your definitive return to Mexico in 1988, your fame as a writer has been growing and now, in a manner of speaking, you are in a process of more reflective writing. Is El arte de la fuga the synthesis of this period or perhaps of a whole lifetime? Does this book represent a kind of sentimental education and a civil education to show that ego and its exterior manifestation?
S. P.: In Mexico everyone says it’s my best book. Personally I think that if anything that I’ve written survives me it will be some paragraphs of Vals de Mefisto. More than that I find impossible. El arte de la fuga contains, if not the most perfect, the most intense and most entertaining of my work. Writing some of its chapters caused me intolerable pain, others entertained me and made me feel very happy. There are essays that turn into stories and then go back to being essays. There is trivia, winks, gossip, dreams galore, digressions about Thomas Mann, but also about my dog, Sacho. It ends with an account of my trip to the state of Chiapas a few weeks before the insurrection. I think, as I already told you, that everything I write is a kind of infused biography, oblique, and in this book the flow of life erupted more forcefully and therefore is more visible than in any of my other books.
P. M. D.: In some way does El arte de la fuga, in a country that is facing groups of differing opinions, become a kind of commitment for the independence and tolerance of the intellectual? Perhaps because of that kind of “introspective period” of which Carlos Monsivàis has spoken you have again published a book of markedly thoughtful character such as Pasión por la trama.
S. P.: You see, for the groups of Mexican literati none of them would have a problem digesting my comments on writing, reading and travel, which are the mainstays of that book. They might, of course, disagree, or perhaps one of those rigid theorists, aligned to a “scientific” current of literature might have considered my digressions on writing unnecessary, and even tossed the book in the trashcan because of finding the writing inane. But the real resistance to El arte de la fuga, although they were few, came from some organic intellectuals, those who submit themselves voluntarily to the Prince, they adore him and always receive the benefits. But at my age I have come to enjoy the possibility of having enemies. When one fights with the family or with dear friends, it is always a wound, whether one is to blame or is the victim of the event that caused the rupture. On the other hand, to be hated by someone you don’t care about, someone you despise or feel indifferent toward is like winning a prize, not a big one, of course, but third or fourth place.
P .M. D.: After reading these last texts, there are two aspects which, in some way, mark a constant in your writing: friends and travel. To what degree are both aspects important in your work although the travel for you, nevertheless, does not have the sense of exploration or sightseeing, your cities are places you have experienced which appear time and again in your writing?
S. P.: I have wonderful friends with whom I disagree about almost everything, but every time I see them it gives me great pleasure, because they remind me of certain fundamental episodes in our lives, our development, or with whom I can converse about books, travels, dogs, theatre, films of the thirties and forties, preferably those of Lubitsch and Rene Clair. The friends and the cities complement each other. My curiosity about places, both known and unknown, is never satisfied. Nevertheless, I have never been able to intelligently describe a city, not even the ones I love the most. In my novels I restrict myself to certain parts of the urban map, a plaza, a street, the facade of a church, and I make use of them as a mere backdrop, perhaps like those used by the dramatists of the Golden Age of Spain or the Elizabethans in England, mere painted cloths that indicate simply that: a street, the atrium of a church, a plaza, a garden, the drawing room of a house, a room at an inn. I try to imprint a certain reality, not by the description of the places, but rather by other details of atmosphere, which also support the structure. Recently I read a book by Félix de Azúa: La invención de Caín (The Invention of Cain), which I found fascinating and which caused me to be totally envious, because I know I could never achieve anything that would equal it when I have to mention a trip in some passage.
P. M. D.: Is El viaje based on a particular immersion in the infernos of the Slavic soul?
S. P.: Not totally. El viaje tends to be a memory of my personal relationship with the Russian culture. Its primary essence is a literary construction which seems to me to be different from the kind of books on the Communist world. I try to be a camera which photographs my emotions. I’m sick of the Soviet specialists, the political specialists, who generally situate themselves in an inflexible position of absolute rejection of the world of evil.
Of course there are exceptions, among them two eminent Poles: K.S. Karol and Ryszard Kapuseynski. In addition to Soviet politics, they were interested in the society, especially Russian individuality, its eccentricity, the impossibility of fitting everyone into the same mold; and in addition to other methods of following the temper of their culture, they observed the literature, music, films and theater. Of course, what they call the Russian soul, which is very complex, is only an imitation, a parody, a temperamental explosion. Cioran wrote prodigiously about the religious feelings of the Russians, their elevated sensibility. Cioran insinuated that the “Russian soul” was not similar to that of other populations, but rather was superior. Now, the grossness, the vulgarity, the cruelty can be extreme. You can read any work of Dostoyevski to prove it: Prince Mirsky, the merchant Rogadov.
P. M. D.: Perhaps one has to see in this book one step more in the process of making literature more literary? I say that because this little diary expresses great homage to Russian literature. Is that it?
S. P.: Yes, perhaps I tried to make it different from El arte de la fuga, which is a grandfather of El viaje. This one is less powerful than its predecessor. But that was my intention. In El arte de la fuga the movement is constant and moved by the leverage of pathos. In El viaje I restrict the pathetic possibilities. Actually, the only time it appears is in the terrible letter of Meyerhold, the great man of the theater, when he describes to a high-ranking politician the tortures inflicted upon him by the KGB. In this book, the main basis of the work is a real diary, mine, and those pages of the diary bring forth other moments: previous stays in Moscow on a diplomatic assignment, readings of Russian authors since childhood, painting, friendships, the Russian avant-garde of the early years of the revolution, dreams, games which disguise reality, parody, quotations to back up my stories, especially of two geniuses born in the Balkans who later became universally famous: Canetti and Cioran. In the background of everything, behind the words, flows a literary current, a desire to construct a great edifice in homage to Russian literature.
P. M. D.: Dreams are present, again, in this work. Is this how you justify a large part of your creative process?
S. P.: Dreams are absolutely necessary in writing, they appeared in my first stories from almost fifty years ago and they never tire me. They appear in other forms. They are almost the most brilliant and powerful part of a book. Dreams can be part of my work, but only if they form an active part of the architecture and theme of a book. Their heritage in literature is enormous. In Dostoyevski the dream element is indispensable. That dream of Raskolnikov very near the beginning where a little boy watches in terror as a crowd beats a poor old horse to death, and passersby stop to watch that carnage as if it were something normal and almost pleasant. In The Magic Mountain there is Hans Castorp’s masterful dream which gives the novel its sense of profundity. In Borges there are magnificent dreams. The dream is one of the pillars of the baroque: the dreams of Quevedo, the theater of Calderón, the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, etc. In all modesty, I align myself with that family.
P. M. D.: So, is this the path you are taking to continue trying out literature? I mean, the art of playing with the genres to compose a tale halfway between what one presupposes is a novel, a chronicle or an autobiography?
S. P.: In a surprising way for me, and not previously thought out, I began to feel that I was distancing myself from my latest novels, the ones from the carnival cycle. It seemed to me that to start another one would become mechanical, and I saw that each time I wrote an essay or a conference, some minimal narrative threads appeared in the text, and even some eccentric characters, which broke the flow of the essay. Or also, I would appear as a character to tell some rather private story. The moment arrived that I intensified those happenstances, I strengthened them so that they became fundamental parts of the structure and that is how El arte de la fugawas born, which was more far-reaching than all my previous books. It mixes various genres, the author, me, is the protagonist of some texts, then appears as a mere amanuensis. It is a novel, a life chronicle, nourished by frivolities, but also by passions. Two other titles spun off from this book: Pasión por la trama and El viaje. Now I think it’s time to end this. I’m afraid that if I follow with another book in the same style, I would be repeating myself, or rather, I would be repeating the same literary procedure I used. I feel as if I am in a no-man’s land. Soon I’ll be going to Spain, to a town on the Costa Brava, to shut myself up alone for two months to clear my mind and try to figure out what I am going to write.
P. M. D.: An obligatory question: What project are you working on now if you have awakened from that long dream implied by your latest books?
S. P.: I have some themes, I need to ponder them. It’s possible that my novelistic ability has dried up. Next year I’ll be seventy years old. To help me accept the fact, I tell myself that two of the novelists I have admired, E.M. Forster y Julien Graq, who produced marvelous novels, stopped doing them before they were fifty, without giving up writing. We’ll see what happens!