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Best Untranslated Writers: Sergio Pitol

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The Best Untranslated Writers series – in which established writers select and showcase fellow writers from their own languages who are not yet widely translated or read – began with a trio of Brazilians on the writers they love most but are yet to make the leap into English. Today Valeria Luiselli introduces us to the work of one of Mexico’s most enigmatic writers, Sergio Pitol.

The first time I came across a book by Sergio Pitol was long before I knew anything about him. Long before I knew anything about anything. While travelling with my mother through Chiapas – fifteen years old, hair dyed purple, relentless melancholia, a pair of jeans I never slipped out of, and an intermittent but often rapturous inquisitiveness – we made a stop in San Cristobal de las Casas. The next day we were heading for a small community in the mountains, where we were to spend the following few weeks pretty much disconnected from everything. My mother went to buy the necessary canned food and blankets, and I took refuge in a bookstore. Browsing around the shelves, I found a copy of El vals de Mefisto (Mephisto’s Waltz) in a section labeled ‘Clásicos Extranjeros’ – foreign classics. That partly explains why, for many years, I thought that Sergio Pitol was a dead Eastern European or Russian writer whose real name was probably Sergei Pytol. (For decades, Mexican publishers had us reading works by Guillermo Shakespeare and Federico Nietzsche). During the rest of our trip, as soon as the sun set, I did nothing else but read and reread that strange foreign writer until I fell asleep.

My assumption about the author’s nationality was actually not too wild. Pitol is probably one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers. He is certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric.

Pitol was born in Puebla, Mexico, but moved away early in his life. He lived in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Moscow, Prague, Rome, Beijing and Barcelona –sometimes on diplomatic missions, at others working as a translator or teaching, but always, always writing. He is one of the most prolific and brilliant translators of Russian, English and Polish literature into Spanish: Chekov, Gombrowicz, Conrad, James, Carroll and Austen are a few of the authors he has translated.

Sergio Pitol’s stories, essays and novels do not only travel through his many places of residence. His writing – the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words – reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced –and perhaps, too, the many men he has been. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once.

It isn’t easy to explain the reason why Pitol’s imagination takes hold of his readers. Perhaps it is the way he’s able to delicately tap into the most disturbing layers of reality and turn our conception of what is normal inside out. Perhaps it’s because he’s always telling a deeper, sadder, more disquieting story while pretending to narrate another. Or perhaps it is merely that strange gift which very few possess: a voice that reverberates beyond the margins of his books.

About a decade ago, Pitol stopped talking. He just stopped talking. He doesn’t say a word now. Sometimes I wonder if he’s playing a prank on all of us, and one day it’ll turn out that he’d been silently writing his final masterpiece all this time. He lives with Lola and Homero – his two dogs – and twenty thousand books, in a house in Jalapa. ■

The Best Untranslated Writers series continues here: with three of our Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, Michel Laub, Laura Erber and Ricardo Lísias who give introductions to the work of Brazilians Daniel Pellizzari, André Sant’Anna and José Luiz Passos respectively.

By Valeria Luiselli.

Valeria would like to acknowledge the help and advice of her English-language translator, Christina MacSweeney, in producing the final version of this text.

Photo by Vasco Szinetar.

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