The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol (tr. George Henson). Deep Vellum Publishing. 424pp, $15.95.
The Journey by Sergio Pitol (tr. George Henson). Deep Vellum Publishing. 192pp, $12.95.
In Spanish, the word for wound is herida, a noun derived from the verb herir, itself drawn from the Latin ferire, which means to wound, to injure, to hurt. The image is clear: a bloody cut or scrape. This word, herida, appears throughout Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight in a specific locution: the wound of time.
The phrase is incarnated upon one of Pitol’s return trips to Italy: “When I passed the bookstore, it was closed; what’s more, it was nonexistent . . . The sign with the bookstore’s name had disappeared. I felt the wound of time, its malignancy, with terrible intensity.” In this moment, Pitol’s wound appears congealed and crusted over, but also simultaneously fresh and raw and bleeding. If there is a way to stanch this wound, Pitol’s The Art of Flight suggests, it is through the active recollection of memories that otherwise would be gutted by the blunt reality of the present moment.
And so Pitol writes early in the first volume of his “Trilogy of Memory” that “Lately, I have been very aware that I have a past. Not only because I have reached an age when the greater part of the journey has been traveled, but also because I now know fragments of my childhood that until recently were off-limits to me.” What results from this declaration is a very unusual book that diverges from the standard tropes of memoir. Rather than attempt to divulge personal details or set the record straight, Pitol seeks to do something more personal and internalized: to fill in the gaps and holes of his memory before they grow bigger and deeper. The end result may have been aestheticized after the fact, but we are ultimately reading something that was written for the author alone. We are invited to forget ourselves, to put on the persona of Pitol himself and close up the wounds of time and memory by reading these words of his various travelings, readings, and meetings across the Western world.
After some four hundred pages of The Art of Flight, readers could be excused for thinking of The Journey’s 165 pages as a continuation of or an appendix to its predecessor. But to do so would be to underestimate the canvas on which Pitol is now working. When herida reappears in the middle volume of the “Trilogy of Memory,” it does so on a broader scale. In describing a Czech woman who would teach him Russian, Pitol writes that “Like all Czechs, she felt the wound of history in her marrow; she no longer believed in the possibility of a revival of socialism.” In this light, Pitol’s account of his travels across Eastern Europe read less as a memoir of singular, personal memories and more as a document that seeks to fill in the gaps history itself will create. Looking backward from our present moment in the year 2015, Russia and its dominion over adjacent lands has been greatly curtailed by the events of the post-Soviet era. Just as Ostalgie has risen in Germany—a nostalgia for the Communist relics of the years the country was split into Westen und Osten—so has a similar sentiment remained for the years of the Iron Curtain. But maybe the soft veil of nostalgia should not be permitted to obscure all that was difficult and unpleasant during those years, and it is this reality that The Journey seeks to preserve like a mosquito in amber.
“[I]t was just two years ago that Gorbachev began to cautiously introduce new terms into the official discourse,” Pitol explains in The Journey. “At that time the Baltic republics were the best allies, and there are now conflicts with them.” It is 1986, and “a number of writers [have now] become frightened by the pace of change.” The book covers the span of sixteen days—from May 19 to June 3—as Pitol travels from Prague to Moscow to the southern city of Tbilisi, near the border with Iran, encountering the soon-to-collapse Communist realm as a traveler wholly new to the experience. The cultural divide is disorienting: back home in Mexico, he tells us, “if someone brings up a political topic, even strangers say what they think. They are either followers or enemies of something.” But these foreign cities harbor equally foreign people: “When I have tried here to cautiously talk about what is happening in the country, I encounter evasion, silence, polite changes of subject . . .”
These moments that would easily, preferably be cloaked in silence give rise to The Journey’s strongest and strangest scenes. While staying in Moscow, Pitol realizes that he has misplaced a novel. He asks the matron (or, to use George Henson’s word, matryoshka, calling to mind the rigidity and curvature of Russian nesting dolls) holding all the door keys for his hotel floor if he might have left the book on her desk while retrieving his key. She pulls out “two Finnish pornographic magazines—one was obviously Tom of Finland, [featuring on its cover a policeman with] a tool capable of destroying an elephant’s vagina.” She threatens him for attempting to spread propaganda—I will refrain from quoting here because the full description of the incident is so funny and so impossible to excerpt in part—until he unwittingly reveals that he is a diplomat and therefore to be respected. The overbearing woman transforms into a quiet, almost-pleading shell of herself, and remains that way as a wealthy Finnish couple arrives, contemptuously unburdens her of the pornographic magazines, and leaves for their rooms. What has happened? Even Pitol wonders at the silence of these wealthy guests, who do not seem to be under diplomatic immunity. But he is in a country where things go unexplained.
For much of the book Pitol is more or less trapped in Moscow, waiting to travel to Tbilisi. There are inexplicable delays—delays that would be less likely in this hyperconnected decade, but which would still persist to some degree in any country with the massive bureaucracy the USSR boasted in the 1980s—and so Pitol invokes the final scenes from The Tempest to explain his resultant feeling upon entering Tbilisi. “If they had read Shakespeare well, Russian writers would not have placed so many obstacles and difficulties in my way to reach Georgia. Their strategy was wrong. They destined that I find all the virtues of the world in this place.”
At times, the book feels like a record of so many dreams. And dreams themselves do figure in the text. “Nowhere have I dreamt so much as in Russia,” Pitol insists. “I would wake up at night and write down the outline of a dream, I would climb into a car and although the ride would last only ten minutes, I would dream something. I dreamt during the siesta, in a boring meeting, at a movie, anywhere. Dreams appeared in bulk.” Why would so many descriptions of actual dreams ensue over the next few pages? Because Pitol’s stay in Moscow tends so closely to the nightmarish that he has difficulty dissociating his experience from the ones he undergoes as he sleeps? Perhaps dreams indicate another kind of wound that Pitol seeks to mend.
To close The Journey, indeed, is to feel as if a dream has ended and the reader is finally returning to the real world with its harsh surfaces and clear light. There are hints and clues throughout that we should read Pitol’s experience as some sort of fulfillment of a dream. The most notable comes when he describes, in a chapter called “Goldfish,” the rapturous experience of seeing a small reproduction of Matisse’s Goldfish as a child, and then much later how “as I entered a room in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which houses some of Matisse’s most extraordinary oils, I suddenly came across the original of my goldfish. It was more than an aesthetic experience—it was a mystical trance, an instant reassessment of the world, of the continuity of time.” The key to the whole book, to the dreaminess of Pitol’s Moscow days and the relationship between The Journey’s historical canvas and The Art of Flight’s personal one, is only to be found in the very final chapter, where he describes his identification with a Russian face in a children’s textbook of human races. “Intuitively, I feel that my intimate relationship with Russia goes back to that distant source,” Pitol writes. “My problems with mythomania lasted a few years longer . . . The only exception was my identification with Iván, the Russian boy, which at times still seems to me to be the real truth.”
In this light, we might read The Journey as an attempt to repair both the wound of history and the wound of identity. Pitol is inextricably bound with his homeland of Mexico—so much that the famed critic Christopher Domínguez Michael made Pitol’s entry a crown jewel in his Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature—but his visit to the lands behind the Iron Curtain amounts to a grappling with his deep-rooted sentiment that he is perhaps more Russian than Mexican. The result, encapsulated in The Journey is simultaneously bewildering and fascinating.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is the digital editor at Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in such places as The White Review, The LA Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, and Vice.
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