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from the August 2015 issue

Sergio Pitol’s “The Journey”

Reviewed by Anne Posten

In order to enjoy The Journey, the second volume of revered Mexican author Sergio Pitol’s idiosyncratic autobiographical trilogy, the reader must abandon expectations: of genre, of structure, of distinctions between the aesthetic “truth” of dreams and fiction, and truth in the sense of literal accuracy. Those who take this leap will find Pitol a warm companion and an erudite guide through both his own artistic process and a compelling moment in history that has much to say to our own.

The occasion for the book—part travelogue, part intellectual diary, part essay collection—is the author’s sudden realization that in all his writings, he has devoted little more than passing mention to Prague, a city in which he spent six years on diplomatic assignment. In a move typical of this anti-linear text, Pitol immediately goes on to muse about the relationship between chance and inspiration, the complexities of human nature, and the importance of timing, making reference to a slew of books and authors in the process. Reminiscences of Prague ensue, interspersed with more authors and books, dream sequences, and critical commentary, all with the upshot: time to write a book about Prague—“Not the essay of a political scientist . . . but a literary chronicle in a minor key,” “a long essay that [does] not specialize in anything, but that approximate[s] a history of ways of thinking.” Yet to his horror, Pitol finds that even in his diaries he’s written very little about the city, nothing more than casual mentions of a night at the theater or a restaurant with outstanding hors d’oeuvres. What he finds instead are notes on a two-week trip to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union in early 1986. So, with no more than a backward glance to Prague, Pitol comes to write a book about his time in Russia instead.

And what a fascinating time it is to engage with, especially from the vantage point of a contemporary landscape in which Russia once again reads to the West as an inscrutable, vaguely threatening, monolithic Other. In Pitol’s account, Russia is a place of contradictions and concealments, not of diplomatic intrigue but of petty machinations and turf wars. Uncertainty abounds, and one is never quite sure of one’s interlocutor’s motives or sympathies. Luckily, Pitol doesn’t care, and uses the fact that he is visiting in a literary rather than a diplomatic capacity to innocently praise glasnost to those he knows to be its skeptics, and to stubbornly demand the trip to Georgia he was initially promised in the face of bureaucratic demurrals. In the throes of massive change, this Russia feels nonetheless timeless, “an empire that had taken centuries to forge and whose impending collapse neither [Pitol] nor anyone else could foresee.”    

The journey of the title, however, refers to much more than this physical journey; rather, it is a description of a mode of writing that constellates, gathers, and wonders, instead of chronicling or addressing its subject in a unified manner. The book is divided into chapters, some of which are titled with dates that suggest diary entries, others of which have more traditional essay titles like “Family Portrait” (on the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva). Yet other chapters, like “Feats of Memory,” are excerpts from literary works, in this case Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Into each essay—for that is what each chapter truly is, regardless of title—multiple other tiny essays are enfolded, some no more than a wandering thread of an idea or even an aphorism.

This form, which in truth can sometimes be difficult to follow, is not at all accidental. By writing in this way, Pitol invites the reader to take part in a creative process akin to Walter Benjamin’s in The Arcades Project, an intellectual flânerie in which anecdotes, fragments, and critical ruminations mirror and circle each other but do not necessarily conclude or fully signify. Although the text is personal much more than it is didactic, Pitol is an inspiring teacher, and the experience of reading The Journey is akin to conversing with an admired professor, after which one hastily jots down the myriad writers and books mentioned in hopes of retroactively catching up on missed references. It feels like an honor as well to stumble on notes Pitol makes for future novels—as if we’re trusted confidants—especially since Pitol’s extensive bibliography suggests that those books did often come to fruition.

It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the trilogy to which The Journey belongs is the first of Pitol’s many works to be published in English. George Henson, the book’s thorough and devoted translator, has rightly championed the work and its author, and publisher Deep Vellum’s inclusion of it in their debut catalog is a commendable, but in some ways puzzling, choice. Though certainly interesting, the book feels more like supplemental material than one of the central works of an illustrious, decades-long career—the Between Parenthesis instead of the 2666, if the comparison to another itinerant Latin American author, here Roberto Bolaño, doesn’t seem too crude. By the same token, the experience of reading both The Journey and The Art of Flight, which is the first volume of the trilogy, would have been deepened by firsthand experience of the author’s fiction. Still, The Journey is a worthwhile read, delivered in a loving and capable translation, which preserves Pitol’s eccentric, barely-paragraphed prose without pandering to a reader’s desire for order or explanation.

At the end of the day Pitol, winner of both the Juan Rulfo and the Cervantes prizes—the two most important in the Spanish-speaking world—is a writer to whom one should quite simply surrender. The suspicion that his fiction is no less eccentric, and no less pleasurable, makes one grateful for this primer on his life and thoughts, and hopeful for the publication of more of his oeuvre.

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