He was perpetually on the run – a student in Rome, a translator in Beijing and Barcelona, a university professor in Xalapa and Bristol, and a diplomat in Warsaw, Budapest, Paris, Moscow and Prague. Born in 1933 in the Mexican city of Puebla to a family of Italian descent, Sergio Pitol went on to become one of his country’s most acclaimed writers, ultimately winning the prestigious Cervantes Prize – the highest literary honour in the Spanish-speaking world – in 2005.
Pitol’s childhood was difficult and painful. His mother drowned and died when he was just four. And he soon contracted malaria that kept him bedridden until the age of 12. In the early 50s, Pitol studied literature and law at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City and by 1960, had begun working for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. His publishing career – which would, over the years, include stories, novels, criticism and translations – also started in the 1960s. He continued to serve as a cultural attaché in Mexican embassies and consulates across the globe for more than thirty years.
The Dallas, Texas-based Deep Vellum Publishing (@DeepVellum), a not-for-profit literary arts organisation that seeks to “enhance the open exchange of ideas among cultures and to connect the world’s greatest writers with English-language readers” recently released Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight (first published in Spanish in 1997) – the first in a “Trilogy of Memory”. The Art of Flight is a book bursting with energy and curiosity. It is a collection of observations, set of diaries, travelogue and much more. It defies categorisation and cannot be summarised. Only experienced. Here we find discussions on the “interpretation of dreams” and the “fossilisation of mindsets”. As Pitol goes around the globe constantly losing and finding his glasses, he is able to effortlessly talk about Sartre and Marx, Hieronymus Bosch and Rothko, Borges and Thomas Mann, the Romantics and the Expressionists, neo-Nazis and the Cold War, the Arabian Nights and Shakespeare, Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino, the Bible and everything/everyone else.
Pitol says that his time abroad can be divided into two periods. The first is “anarchic, insane, amazing, and always extraordinarily enriching”. It lasted twelve years, during which he supported myself however he could and managed to survive with minimal assistance, classes, and editorial activities. For the remaining years, of course, he was a member of the diplomatic corps.
All his personal experiences, he writes, in the end, have converged. Traveling, reading and writing have blended into a single experience. The trains, the boats, and the airplanes have allowed him to discover worlds that were either wonderful or sinister, but all of them were surprising. While travel was the experience of the visible world; reading, on the other hand, allowed him to undertake an inner journey whose itinerary was not confined to space but rather let him move freely throughout time.
At one place in his writings, he is aware that there is a kind of shallowness attached to the nomadic existence. He confesses: “I’ve never achieved more than glimpses, approximations, mutterings in search of meaning in the narrow space that runs between light and darkness.” But then he immediately and euphorically declares the sense of unity he feels with the entire world. He expresses his “at-homeness” with astonishing and impressive conviction. He states: “All times deep down are a single time. […] Each one of us is all men. […] I am my grandfather and those who will be my grandchildren. I am the vast stone that lays the foundation for these wonders, and I am also its cupolas and estipites! I am a lad and a horse and a piece of bronze that represents a horse! Everything is all things!”
The Art of Flight is an inexhaustible, extremely stylish meditation on life, travel and culture. It will be greatly relished by those who easily find their dwellings in foreign cities and see friends in foreigners.
Lines I liked:
- Venice is boundless and unfathomable. There is always something to see on the next trip, because a church is under restoration, a painting is on loan, the museums are on strike, a thousand reasons. Each trip means corrections, amplifications, surprises, dedications, and demystifications.
- What are we, and what is the universe? What are we in the universe? These are questions that leave us speechless, and that we are accustomed to answering with a joke so as not to seem ridiculous.
- 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.
- When I observe the deterioration of Mexican life, I think that only an act of reflection, of critique, and of tolerance could provide an exit from the situation.
- I am convinced that not even the lack of readers can banish poetry. Without that conviction, it would unbearable to continue living.