[Deep Vellum Publishing; 2022]

Tr. from the Spanish by G.B. Henson

A few minutes into the 1929 Ernst Lubitsch film from which Sergio Pitol takes his novel’s title, the dissipated military attaché Count Alfred (played by Maurice Chevalier) is called back from Paris to his fictional homeland of Sylvania. Chevalier stands on his balcony to sing adieu to the city of love: Paris, your ladies were good enough for me. Winking and shimmying through the number, Chevalier seems to be laughing at his exaggeratedly chewy accent. The serenaded ladies themselves appear in a reverse shot: six of them, in lingerie, raising champagne coupes from a balcony opposite. The joke deepens in the second verse, as Alfred’s valet appears at his own window. The servant has goodbyes to make, too: Both shy and sporty / Tried all under forty, he croons, and in a reverse shot eight women in maids’ uniforms open tenement windows in mute response. And for the finale, Lubitsch kicks the gag up to sublimity (and into the gutter). Count Alfred’s bulldog, which we’ve seen cavorting through a few scenes, steps to his own little attic window and barks out the song’s melody in imitation of his human keepers. In the inevitable reverse shot, a collection of pups gazes back longingly, one getting up on her hind legs as human and canine join in a cacophonous climax.

Lubitsch’s movie has nothing thematically in common with Pitol’s novel, but it’s not hard to see why this scene’s vision of human society as essentially doggy in nature — and its marriage of formal elegance to crude content — would appeal to the Mexican writer. Pitol’s delicately designed fiction is transfixed by the grotesque. His characters are often sophisticates (travelers, artists, aesthetes) or would-be sophisticates, but their pretensions belie the most vulgar obsessions. (In one novel, a soap opera-watching housewife talks herself into a scheme to murder her inoffensive husband; in another, a man ruins a dinner party when he can’t stop talking about a remote tribe’s coprophilic rituals.) Pitol’s obsession with the ways polite social intercourse comes undone may be something of a professional deformation. During the five decades in which he produced the novels, stories, criticism, and translations that made him one of Mexico’s most admired writers, Pitol’s day job as a cultural attaché and ambassador took him to Warsaw, Budapest, Paris, Moscow, Rome, Beijing, and Tbilisi. One pictures him in attendance at a thousand awkward receptions, heavy with stultifying ritual, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and the sheer inconvenience of bodies and psyches. Reading him, I can never quite rid myself of the image of an embassy dinner at which everyone has to pretend they don’t notice the crowned prince of somewhere or other can’t stop farting.  

The Love Parade, from 1984, is the inaugural novel in what Pitol called his “carnival triptych.” The reference is to Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary theorist of the novel as the genre of “heteroglossia” and “dialogism,” and the analyst of Rabelais as the poet of the “lower bodily stratum” exalted in medieval carnival. Bakhtin’s work is ubiquitous in academic culture, and every English major has nodded along to these terms. Not the least of the pleasures of reading Pitol is seeing Bakhtin’s ideas taken with the smelly seriousness they deserve. Dialogism, Pitol reminds us, requires an open mouth, and an open mouth connects us to our excreting and rutting nether parts. Talking is deeply messy in Pitol, and nobody resists indulging.

The talk in The Love Parade is motivated by the classic structure of the detective plot. Our investigator is Miguel del Solar, who teaches history in the U.K. and is visiting Mexico City in 1973. He’s just published a monograph entitled The Year 1914 — a key year in Mexico’s long revolution, the interregnum between Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza’s periods of rule: “the story of a city without a government,” Pitol’s narrator reflects, “the capital that, though in the hands of different factions, is controlled by none of them”: carnival, in other words, a world up for grabs. On his trip he’s come across a cache of documents about a 1942 murder at the Minerva, an apartment building in which del Solar himself was then resident as a ten-year-old guest of his aunt and uncle. He dimly remembers the events of that night — a party, an argument, the death by shooting of a young German emigré. Or was he Austrian? Del Solar’s informants differ on every possible detail. Each of the novel’s chapters takes the form of a conversation between del Solar and a Minerva resident connected to that night: more precisely, the chapters comprise conversations that yield to monologue, as each speaker pushes inevitably into their private obsessions.

For del Solar, these long-ago events hold out the promise of national meaning. Like 1914 before it, 1942 represents a turbulent moment in Mexico’s politics: the country, on the brink of joining the Allied war effort, is awash in refugees with murky foreign ties and obscure allegiances to internal political movements. The Minerva, which then housed European refugees, Mexican nationals doing business with German industry, right-wing devotees of the defeated Cristero uprising, and various middle-class residents in possession of old and new money, seems to del Solar a readymade meaning-making machine. But his attempt to make national significance from the murder can’t get off the ground. It’s not just that the events themselves are confused. It’s that his informants’ stories tend to bottom out in that lower bodily stratum. Indeed, one of the key participants in the events of 1942 is the Jewish refugee intellectual Ida Werfel, whose major work on the Baroque playwright Tirso de Molina focuses on the “connections between the picaresque . . . and the gastrointestinal functions,” As her daughter Emma puts it to del Solar, offering a précis of her mother’s lifework: “The body of the picaro was, first and foremost, the stomach, several meters of intestines and, you must forgive me, an ass from which to defecate.” The argument is of course a pastiche of Bakhtin’s: Pitol’s sly gambit is to give his theoretical guide an avatar in the plot of the novel, from which position even the theorist must submit to the carnivalesque. Ida Werfel is not a lofty philosopher queen but just another in the embodied gallery of grotesques.

The Minerva residents can’t keep their minds on the murder, their testimony circling around two apparently tangential figures. The first, a crook named Martínez, reputedly fancied himself a ladies’ man, in possession of a “golden baton” that hypnotizes the fair sex. This fantasy was undermined, del Solar learns from one character, “by a single tragedy: he suffered from hemorrhoids.” (This complaint causes a ruckus at the 1942 party when Martínez, attempting to charm Ida, is enraged when the literary theorist starts cracking jokes about “chiles and their pernicious effects on the disaster area.”) The second figure is an indigenous opera singer — rumored to be either one of the last castrati or a young woman being passed off as such by her handlers. Del Solar insists that this person has nothing to do with the events he’s investigating, but he keeps hearing about stray pages of the singer’s memoirs held by one of the Minerva residents. What matters most about these figures is the lower-body chatter that swirls around them. In insisting on bringing the conversation around to the hemorrhoidal Romeo and the maybe-castrato, del Solar’s informants conspire to keep his ambitions to capital-H History stalled out in the crotch-zone.

In a journal entry on his creative process for The Love Parade, Pitol records an ambition that his novel will “shed light on certain political issues.” But he continues: “Unfortunately the characters I’m thinking about are too parodic and could only serve as incidental figures.” In the process of writing, Pitol clearly decided to fold this problem into the form of the novel itself. The Love Parade — and, Pitol implies, history itself — is all incidentals, all scurrilous gossip and minor characters and scatological jokes. At the novel’s end, del Solar, exhausted and even terrified by the meaninglessness that has opened up everywhere around him, rushes to a bookstore to gaze on the stacked copies of The Year 1914, the cover image of Zapata’s hat offering a vision of a tamed history, enclosed in hard covers and in the comfort of cliché. Their consolation, we gather, will be fleeting.

Pitol’s work is coming into English in a funny chronology: Dallas-based Deep Vellum published an excellent selection of his crucial short fiction in 2019, and between 2015 and 2017 they brought out his late-career “Trilogy of Memory” — all in fine translations by G.B. Henson. The “Memory” books — The Art of the Flight (published in Spanish in 1996), The Journey (2000), and The Magician of Vienna (2005) — are a curious mashup of memoir, criticism, travelogue, and fictional sketches. The voice animating them is impossibly erudite, critically generous, a little psychologically obscure; the far-flung locales make for plenty of evocative scenes, and the literary essays are uniformly insightful. But the trilogy is a bit of a hodgepodge. Its fascination partly depends on one’s knowledge of the earlier career, in the light of which the trilogy emerges as evidence of a strange artistic evolution: the loosening of the narrative impulse in a writer who had spent decades perfecting it. The Love Parade inaugurates the publication of the earlier “carnival triptych,” and Anglophone readers will finally be able to see the story-obsessed mulch — relentless, outrageous, funny, tacky — to which the later books are the meditative postscript.

The translation timeline isn’t the only challenge to a precise Anglophone apprehension of Pitol’s place in Spanish-language literature. Deep Vellum is justifiably keen to promote Pitol’s credentials as a serious author; The Art of Flight boasts a blurb from Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas calling him “the greatest Spanish-language writer of our time.” But in Mexico, at least, Pitol’s secure place in the literary firmament is also shaded with a more intimate, knowing sense of the sociological coordinates of his sensibility. As a Mexican friend put it to me in an email, Pitol’s work visibly partakes of “a (deeply queer-coded) tradition of telling semi-fictional tall tales at parties, often exaggerating people’s traits until they become caricatures.”

That’s to say: in Mexico, as my correspondent’s very lightly coded message indicates, Pitol’s gayness is an unremarkable but central fact about him. Even without such clarifications, that queerness is visible to anyone with an eye for it. You can sense it in Pitol’s literary canon, which gives pride of place not just to semi-closeted masters like Mann and James but also to eccentrics like Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett: decidedly minor in any list of Great Writers, these two are eyebrow-raisingly indispensable to the camp canon. And anyone who has ever seen a Tennessee Williams play or an Almodóvar film (or a drag performance, or an Andy Cohen interview with a Real Housewife) knows that a deep, vicarious, and sometimes cruel pleasure in (usually) feminine outrageousness has long fueled a central strain of gay male cultural production. Impossible to suggest Pitol belongs in this lineage without risking the accusation of being reductive, crass, vulgar — of trying to pull an icon off his perch with irrelevant biographical hints. I could hedge the suggestion with polite indirection. But then, according to Bakhtin, and Ida Werfel, such de-sacralization is art’s secret vocation. Better — more honest, more Pitolian — to let it stand as prurient gossip. The line between such vulgarity and “real” history, The Love Parade suggests, is vanishingly thin.

David Kurnick teaches English at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He is the author of Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton, 2012) and The Savage Detectives Reread (Columbia, 2022), and the translator of Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires (Semiotext[e], 2014). His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Public Books, Politics/Letters, and Bookforum.

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