Mark Haber, writer, Best Translated Book Award judge, and bookseller at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore, has interviewed Dallas’s own George Hensonabout translating Sergio Pitol. Read the full interview at Brazos’s website:
Henson remembers the first time he was exposed to Hispanic literature in translation. It was in 1983 at a panel discussing Carlos Fuentes. Henson heard one of Fuentes’ translators, Margaret Sayers Peden, speak. “I thought, Oh, this woman translates. I’ve read Carlos Fuentes in Spanish and this woman translates him into English. And I remember specifically going and buying a book, one of Carlos Fuentes’ novels that Margaret Sayers Peden had translated.”
Now, Henson is a popular translator himself, most recently known for translating Mexican author Pitol for Deep Vellum, the independent literary publisher based in Dallas (where Henson also lives). Before I’d ever read Pitol—before he’d even had a book translated into English—my Spanish-speaking friends had told me about this writer, a recipient of both the Juan Rulfo Prize and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize. They raved about his coveted place in Mexican letters, his brilliance and originality. Thus, there was already a sense of anticipation, even an expectation, when I finally held THE ART OF FLIGHT in my hands this past March. I expected to like the book, but I didn’t expect to find a library of authors contained inside a single novel, one that combines travelogue, essay, memoir, and literature effortlessly—in other words, I didn’t expect to love Pitol. Reading him feels like sitting beside your favorite uncle, the one who has traveled the world and read everything, yet wears his intelligence loosely and comfortably. Now, with THE JOURNEY, Pitol’s newest book translated into English, the author looms even larger.
THE JOURNEY, the second book in Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, is forthcoming onAugust 18th. We’ll be sending review & subscriber copies out this week. It’s the first time one of our books has been delayed, but bear with me, it’s not easy publishing this many books as a one-man show (and we’re still ahead of schedule for all of our fall season of amazing books!). Enjoy an excerpt from THE JOURNEYfrom our friends at the Houston-based Literal Magazine as you wait for your copy to arrive:
Faced with centuries of cruelty and an unrelenting history, against the robotic nature of contemporary life the only thing they have left is their soul. And in the Russian’s soul, I include his energy, his identification with nature and eccentricity. The achievement of being oneself without relying too much on someone else and sailing along as long as possible, going with the flow.The eccentric’s cares are different from those of others—his gestures tend toward differentiation, toward autonomy insofar as possible from a tediously herdlike setting. His real world lies within. From the times of the incipient Rus’, a millennium ago, the inhabitants of this infinite land have been led by a strong hand and endured punishments of extreme violence, by Asian invaders as well as their own: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Stalin; and from among the glebe, among the suffering flock, arises, I don’t know if by trickle or torrent, the eccentric, the fool, the jester, the seer, the idiot, the good-for-nothing, the one with one foot in the madhouse, the delirious, the one who is the despair of his superiors. There is a secret communicating vessel between the simpleton who rings the church bells and the sublime painter, who in a chapel of the same church gives life to a majestic Virgin greater than all the icons contained in that holy place. The eccentric lends levity to the European novel from the eighteenth century to the present; in doing so, he breathes new life into it. In some novels, all the characters are eccentrics, and not only they, but the authors themselves. Laurence Sterne, Nikolai Gogol, the Irishmen Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien are exemplars of eccentricity, like each and every one of the characters in their books and thus the stories of those books.
And the introduction to THE JOURNEY was written by none other than Álvaro Enrigue, author of the Herralde Prize-winning Sudden Death (coming soon from Riverhead). Enrigue used to be the editor of Letras Libres, one of, if not THE, most important literary review outlets in Mexico and the entire Spanish-speaking world (check out Enrigue’s original review of The Journey after it was published in Mexico, from 2001). From Enrigue’s brilliant introduction to THE JOURNEY, called “Sergio Pitol, Russian Boy,” which I think helps contextualize the entire Trilogy of Memory for the English-language reader in an important way (and which you can read in full in Spanish at Letras Libres):
The Journey is at once a lesson in subtlety and in destruction. It is a book that, in order to rescue one tradition, dynamites another. It is a volume about how a writer constructs. About freedom and its lack; that final, indomitable freedom which is letting go, allow- ing things to come out: narrating. This is why the book does not function, like almost all the others, as a progressive sequence of stories, ideas, and images, but rather like a hall of mirrors, in which a series of narratives reflect on each other: eschatological tales; a body of essays on the humiliations suffered by Russian writers who chose to pay the price for speaking their mind; a collection of documentary vignettes in which the reader watches live the Soviet generation that was becoming emancipated, fertilized by the sacrifice of those authors and the autobiographical framework of the writer who chose not to comply with any parameters to become who he wanted to be: a Russian boy.
Remind yourself why you love Sergio Pitol so much, like in the young Mexican novelist Daniel Saldaña Paris‘s “Sergio Pitol: Mexico’s Total Writer,” which was published in English translation by the Literary Hub (and Saldaña Paris’s debut novel, Among Strange Victims, is forthcoming from Coffee House next year!):
Pitol is one of those authors whom one never leaves. There is always a corner of his work that can be read under a new lens. It is not for nothing, it seems to me, that he is held as a clear example of a “writer’s writer” in recent Latin American narrative. The fact that authors such as Enrique Vila-Matas and Mario Bellatin have turned him into a character in their own fiction only confirms what any reader senses upon reading him: that Pitol is unfathomable; it could almost be said that he is a literature entire of himself.
Or remind yourself that Pitol is one of the major influences on so many of the greatest Spanish-language authors of our time, like Enrique Vila-Matas, who says in his introduction to THE ART OF FLIGHT:
In these anecdotes of rainy days past lies the silhouette of his Cervantesesque life, since, as he says, “Everything is all things.” Reading him, one has the impression of being in the presence of the best writer in the Spanish language of our time. And to whomever asks about his style, I will say that it consists in fleeing anyone who is so dreadful as to be full of certainty. His style is to say everything, but to not solve the mystery. His style is to distort what he sees. His style consists in traveling and losing countries and losing one or two pairs of eyeglasses in them, losing all of them, losing eyeglasses and losing countries and rainy days, losing everything: having nothing and being Mexican and at the same time always being a foreigner.
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.
August 18th, get yourself a copy of Pitol’s THE JOURNEY (from your local indie bookstore, or preorder from Brazos Bookstore) and enjoy one of the world’s greatest, most influential, and most fun to read authors take you on a trip from Prague to Moscow to Leningrad to Tbilisi and to the depths of your imagination. Enjoy, amigos.