Sergio Pitol, Acclaimed, Inventive Mexican Author, Dies at 85

Sergio Pitol, Acclaimed, Inventive Mexican Author, Dies at 85

An essayist, translator and prolific author recognized for breaking barriers between genres, Mr. Pitol was considered one of the great voices in contemporary Spanish literature. He received the most prestigious award for literature in the Spanish-speaking world, the Cervantes Prize, in 2005. At the awards ceremony, King Juan Carlos I of Spain said Mr. Pitol’s works had “seduced us with the truth.”

Mr. Pitol’s short stories, essays and crime novels merged fiction with memoir in an imaginative swirl of contemplation and reflection. He spoke seven languages, and his many translations brought the works of Jane Austen, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, as well as the Polish Nobel laureate Witold Gombrowicz, to Spanish-speaking readers.

Among his most acclaimed works is “Trilogy of Memory,” a collection of essays that amount to a fictionalized autobiography, a product of both his broad travels and his dreams — “the totality of my intelligence and literary ability,” he told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada in 2007.

Photo

Mr. Pitol in Mexico in 2005. He reached a new readership when his “Trilogy of Memory” was published in English in 2015.

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Carlos Ferrer/Associated Press

In an essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books last year, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, described the trilogy as a “set of three hybrid works that masterfully combine the memoir, the essay and fictional prose.” The books, he said, present Mr. Pitol’s “fascinating life as a traveler and diplomat, his literary ideas and his readings.”

The first the three volumes, “The Art of Flight,” was published in 1996. In the second, “The Journey” (2000), Mr. Pitol mixed accounts of his travels in Russia and Eastern Europe with his study of the region’s writers. The third, “The Magician of Vienna” (2005), “chronicles his life in a dialectic between real and false memories,” Mr. Sánchez Prado wrote.

Mr. Pitol reached a new readership when the trilogy was published in English in 2015.

“Lately,” he wrote in “The Art of Flight,” “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.”

In an interview for Literal magazine shortly before his 70th birthday, in 2003, Mr. Pitol called “The Art of Flight” “the most perfect, the most intense and most entertaining” of his works. He described it as a mix of “trivia, winks, gossip, dreams galore, digressions about Thomas Mann, but also about my dog.”

His work broke from the predominant styles of Latin American literature, like magic realism, Ms. Glantz said.

“He didn’t write the way that was expected from a Latin American writer, like García Márquez,” she said. “His work broke all those molds, and it is one of the reasons his literature was less read and translated to other languages.”

Writing in Granta magazine in 2013, the Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli called Mr. Pistol “certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric” of Mexico’s writers.

“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,” Ms. Luiselli wrote. “Perhaps it’s because he’s always telling a deeper, sadder, more disquieting story while pretending to narrate another.”

Mr. Pitol was born on March 18, 1933, in the city of Puebla, about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City. His parents, Ángel Pitol and Catalina Demeneghi, died when he was 4 years old, and his sister, Irma, died about the same time. He and his brother, Ángel, moved further east to the city of Córdoba, in Veracruz, to live with their grandmother Catalina, who owned a sugar mill. No immediate family members survive him.

As a child Mr. Pitol contracted malaria and was bedridden with numerous health problems for long periods. His grandmother introduced him to the works of authors like Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. Reading, he told Spanish television in a 2002 interview, saved his life.

“I am sure that if I had not read Verne, of which I read almost everything, I would have been consumed,” he said. “I would have died very quickly or would have stayed ill forever.”

He studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and sat in on literature and philosophy classes, Ms. Glantz said.

He never practiced law. After he finished his studies, he began almost three decades of travel.

He joined the Mexican diplomatic service in 1960 and was sent to Beijing, where he worked as a translator in the brief moment of cultural openness before the Cultural Revolution.

In 1963 he was posted to Warsaw, where he met the leading intellectual figures of the time, including the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski and the film director Andrzej Wajda. He became one of the foremost foreign experts on Polish literature.

Mr. Pitol resigned from the diplomatic service to protest the Mexican government’s massacre of student protesters in 1968. He then worked for the Barcelona publishing house Tusquets Editores, directing an imprint of translated works.

Eventually rejoining the diplomatic corps, he served in Prague, Paris and Moscow before returning to Mexico in 1989 to teach at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa and to write.

His first novel to be well received, “The Sound of the Flute,” was published in 1972.

As time went on, Mr. Pitol’s style evolved into what Ms. Glantz called a more “complex, ironic and extravagant phase, with a very accentuated element of humor that was rather unusual for a Mexican writer.” It was his 1984 novel “The Love Parade,” a historical detective story named after a 1929 Ernst Lubitsch film, that brought him widespread recognition at home.

Mr. Pitol became a mentor to a younger generation of Mexican writers.

“Sergio Pitol made a religion out of friendship,” one of them, Juan Villoro, wrote in the Spanish newspaper El País last week. “He reached out to others with an unusual gregariousness and fiercely believed in others.”

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