November 2015

Matt Pincus

nonfiction

The Journey by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson

The Journey, the second volume in Sergio Pitol's Trilogy of Memory, is part diary, part memoir, and part literary criticism. Deep Vellum, having already published the first book and planning to publish the trilogy in its entirety, is bringing a major Mexican author (winner of the prestigious Cervantes prize in 2005) to English readers for the first time. Most of the text is a diary, which takes place over the course of two weeks in 1986, during which Pitol was working as the Mexican Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

What is most striking to readers, unless they are extremely well versed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature, are Pitol's descriptions of cities, and his personal relationships to them. He admits in his introduction that, even though he believes Prague to be "an observatory and compendium of the universe," the city is absent in his notebooks. Ironically though, he has no trouble recalling: "In August, the residents of Prague go on holiday; if forced to remain in the city, they tend to withdraw into their homes and drink beer until the heat subsides. " One of his great strengths is to turn from comic sentences to those of poetic resonance with a seamless and subtle finesse.

He says of Moscow, when he first arrives: "The city imposes its urban design on me, its spectacularness and power. " When he arrives in Leningrad, "contrary to all expectations the weather is gorgeous, perfectly bright and almost warm. " There are constant waves of emotion for Pitol -- from boredom, wonder, anger, and melancholy to meditative brooding. After discussing the brutal life of Marina Tsvetaeva, one of Russia's greatest modernist poets, in the first of a two-part essay, titled "Family Portrait I," he says in the following chapter, "In the afternoon, a work of contemporary Russian theater about family problems, the lack of communication between generations; it bored me so much that I took advantage of the intermission to sneak out. " Despite his official government position, and his exhaustingly intensive knowledge of literature, one is empathetically drawn into the emotional malaise of conflict presented as personal confession.

Pitol as first-person narrator has a difficult time with the stark contrasts between a city's structures and its citizens. He believes Prague to be one of the world's most gorgeous cities, though simultaneously "[t]he hopelessness of its inhabitants creates a gloom that permeates everything and penetrates to the marrow." Álvaro Enrigue, in his introduction, emphasizes a scene in Pitol's own introduction, where the narrator sees a man in Prague who slips in his own excrement and continues to stumble, due to his intoxication. If this were not an apt enough metaphor for current global and domestic politics, Enrigue also makes the observation that The Journey is "like a hall of mirrors, in which a series of narratives reflect on each other: eschatological tales."

There is a personal, extended irony that carries throughout the text. In the last journal entry he says, "I left Moscow in a torrid heat." A sentence later, "They just announced over the loudspeaker that the temperature in Prague is 54 degrees. And it's also raining." Pitol is a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects in a compact, novel-like form. George Henson eloquently translates the text, and has done the immense undertaking of bringing Pitol's Trilogy into English for the first time. I doubt I have done this book justice, but that is only because this and the preceding volume -- Art of Flight -- are some of the best to be published by a small press in the last few years.

The Journey by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson
Deep Vellum Publishing
ISBN: 978-1941920183
192 pages