Reviewed: The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol Translated from the Spanish by George Henson Deep Vellum Publishing
1) Some ppl talk about writer’s writers. Sergio Pitol is a reader’s reader.
2) I tore through The Art of Flight in nearly 3 days but stopped at the last essay because I was kind of burnt out and that’s not how a book should be finished. I also wanted to read Joseph Conrad, one of Pitol’s favorites.
3) I should say that The Art of Flight is the first of a three part series of memoiristic writings that primarily deal with travel, writing, reading.
4) I had never read Conrad before. I always felt I more or less knew what to expect with Heart of Darkness. That, of course, turned out not to be true – if only in the most superficial, ornamental sense. I was not converted though.
5) Other favorites of Pitol include: Borges, Gogol, Bakhtin.
6) Pitol gave me a huge long reading list to tackle, which made it hard to finish The Art of Flight.
7) And I trust Pitol’s reading list all the more when he says things like this, “In my case, plain and naked exposition, without flourishes, without detours, without echoes or shadows, fatally diminishes the efficiency of the story, converts it into a mere anecdote; a vulgarity, when all is said and done.”
8) Here are a few titles / authors that made it onto my reading list after finishing The Art of Flight.
a) Dreams of Dreams by Antonio Tabucchi: “the imaginary dreams of characters to which he was devoted. It was the book of a curious, sharp, and refined intellectual, and, at the same time, one not locked away in an ivory tower — an author in solidarity with life.”
b) La vida conjugal (Married Life) by Sergio Pitol: “where in the very proper and measured language employed at the family dinner table when there are respected guests, I describe forty years of joyous marital breakdown.”
c) Chekhov: “the universe he created exemplified the eclipse of the hero.”
9) Pitol is very serious about his reading, but even more serious about his laughs. For Pitol, laughter wields great power. The power to disarm any authority by a snort or a chuckle. Which is absolutely true and magnificent in its truthiness. Drawing on Bakhtin’ Rabelais and His World, Pitol notes: “against the discourse of power, the philosopher and the poet would impose the supreme efficacy of the jester’s devices. The steely rigidness of the Prince – his immense power – would be ineffective to the halting step, the astonished gaze, and the vacuous smile of the clown.”
10) Originally my eye was caught by The Journey, which is the second installment in the series. This book details two weeks of travel in Russia, which combined three of my favorite things. Mexico, Russia, and literature. (review forthcoming)
11) Pitol, though originally from Mexico, spent most of his time abroad in Europe, especially Venice and Warsaw. He worked as a diplomat and translator, two sides of the same coin, I like to think. Is there any other region where writers and diplomats so frequently intersect? Or this curious phenomenon specific to Latin America? Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, to name a few.
12) Inevitably, there rises questions of nationality and literary traditions. For whom are you writing, good sir? To which, Pitol, I think, gives the best of all answers: “language is his homeland.”
13) I have become particularly interested in the literary writings of diplomats. I imagine their daily negotiations, made by circumnavigating a minefield of beurocratic-speak and formalities, somehow seeping into their writing – the care and precision. Or, quite the opposite, an ecstatic release from some trivial rituals- a certain bluntness that wears even the mightiest of pencils – the #2. Nay, the #1.
14) Pitol has moments of great poignancy, little gems that can be found on nearly every page, one of which arrives during a reflection on the act / art of writing. “Another definitive rule: never confuse the act of writing with the art of writing. The act of writing does not tend to intensify life, which is the goal of the art of writing. The act of writing will scarcely allow the word to possess more than a single meaning; in the art of writing, a word is by nature polysemantic: it speaks and is silent, reveals and obscures. The act of writing is reliable and predictable, the art of writing never is; it rejoices in delirium, in darkness, in mystery and in disorder, no matter how transparent it may seem.”
15) His thoughts of socializing and solitude are comforting. I have just moved cities and its easy to hole myself away with a friendly book and, occasionally, the frenemy blank page / screen. Many weekend nights are spent this way, with a beer or coffee to converse with my lips. And I have not minded. Really have not minded much at all, to the point that I am a tad bit alarmed. Seeing as how I am in NYC, it seems I should be doing more. But is this doing enough?
16) My reading of this was also interrupted by an afternoon of A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories on netflix which was recommended by a friend the night before. 20 minute eps based off Mikhail Buklakov’s collection of short stories by the same name. I have only read Morphine (one of New Directions beautiful pearl novellas) and it dealt with similar themes. The solitude of a snow wasteland where a newspaper and smokes make for paradise. That, and a pinch of morphine. This came to serve as a nice kind of prelude to the second installment of Pitol’s memoirs, The Journey.
17) After Heart of Darkness, I still didn’t want to pick up The Art of Flight so I read The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli. A brilliant, slim, humorous novel that tells the tale of an auctioneer’s passion for teeth and the value of stories. A book I’ve been meaning to read since I heard Luiselli read a hilarious passage on morning wood at Brooklyn Book Festival.
18) Luiselli even gave a shout out to Pitol as well as Enrique Vila-Matas, who just so happened to write the introduction for The Art of Flight. “Several years later, while eating king prawns with his friend Sergio Pitol, in the town of Portero in Veracruz State, Mr. Vila-Matas told Pitol about the episode with the tooth. however, in the middle of his story, a molar did in fact come loose, and fell into his plate of king prawns. Mr. Sergio Pitol, who is a man of great wisdom and mysticism, asked Vila-Matas to give him the molar, as he knew a shaman in the town who buried the teeth of the best men and women, and with them conducted a white magic ritual that guaranteed they would be preserved for sweet eternity in human memory. Mr. Vila-Matas handed it to him with a degree of reluctance, but finally trusting that his friend would keep his word.” Luiselli name drops just about as much as Pitol, but these literary giants are made into family members, shop owners, neighbors, etc. For Pitol, they remain giants.
19) As I seem to have demonstrated, this book isn’t exactly something you plow through. Though thats what I tried to do at first, what I wanted to do (I’d been dying for a big, long book). But that’s not doing these pieces justice. Interruptions are meant to transpire, so it would seem. Either by writing, more reading, or simply a walkabout.
20) The memoir ends with diary entries, a dispatch, and an essayistic reflection on the turmoil created by Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1994. Pitol refers to it elsewhere as “a hiccup in the Mexican economic miracle and [North American] Free Trade Agreement.” Rather than a commentary, I will give a brief summary of the events as Pitol presents them.
Pitol’s coverage begins with “ominous headlines,” Revolution breaks out in Chiapas. San Cristóbal de Las Casas and three cities fall into the hands of rebels. Jesuits write an open letter regarding the violence in Chiapas to condemn the “first and fundamental violence,” which they see as a “secular history of plunder, abuses, marginalization, and murders,” which have victimized indigenous populations in particular.” This resonates with Pitol’s impressions of “clumsy” reports produced by the government to ignore the main problem: “extreme poverty.”
If you couldn’t already tell, this is a battle played out more so in the media than in the field. For the Zapatistas part, this was a wise strategy that garnered them international attention and one which we continue to see played out today. Pitol is particularly impressed with the loquaciousness of the Zapatistas leader, Subcomandante Marcos, for his “aura of Dostoevskian religiosity,” and his uncanny capacity for humor, “Among the various registers he handles – and this truly is unbelievable! – is humor.” Marcos media savvy rhetoric perhaps made itself most pronounced when he conferred his mission to the people, “Marcos announced that his destiny and that of his troops should be placed in the hands of civil society, ceding to it all his triumphs and attributes… Fight to make us unnecessary, to eliminate us as alternatives!”
Pitol succinctly concludes that, “The Zapatista’s victory will not be military but moral.”
Connor Goodwin lives in Chicago. His writing has appeared in HTMLGIANT, Chronopolis, and Another Chicago Magazine. Follow @condorgoodwing.