The Magician of Vienna

The Magician of Vienna

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By Sergio Pitol
Translated from the Spanish by George Henson

Nominated for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

In this Cervantes Prize-winner, fiction invades autobiography—and vice versa—as Pitol writes to forestall the advancement of degenerative memory loss.

Publication Date: March 21, 2017

Paperback: 9781941920480
eBook: 9781941920497


"We can read The Magician of Vienna not just as a work of literature but as one of the Holy Books in which we store humanity’s imaginary.” —Mario Bellatin, author of Beauty Salon

The heartbreaking final volume in Sergio Pitol's groundbreaking memoir-essay-fiction-hybrid "Trilogy of Memory" finds Pitol boldly and passionately weaving fiction and autobiography together to tell of his life lived through literature as a way to stave off the advancement of a degenerative neurological condition causing him to lose the use of language. Fiction invades autobiography—and vice versa—as Pitol writes to forestall the advancement of degenerative memory loss.

"Pitol’s writing – the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words – reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced. Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once.” —Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth

Biographical Note

Sergio Pitol Demeneghi is one of Mexico's most acclaimed writers, born in the city of Puebla in 1933. He studied law and philosophy in Mexico City. He is renowned for his intellectual career in both the field of literary creation and translation and is renowned for his work in the promotion of Mexican culture abroad, which he achieved during his long service as a cultural attaché in Mexican embassies and consulates across the globe. He has lived perpetually on the run: he was a student in Rome, a translator in Beijing and Barcelona, a university professor in Xalapa and Bristol, and a diplomat in Warsaw, Budapest, Paris, Moscow and Prague. Pitol is a contemporary of the most famous authors of the Latin American "Boom" and began publishing novels, stories, criticism, and translations in the 1960s. In recognition of the importance of his entire canon of work, Pitol was awarded the two most important prizes in the Spanish language world: the Juan Rulfo Prize in 1999 (now known as the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages) and the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language world, often called the "Spanish language Nobel," in 2005. Deep Vellum will publish Pitol's Trilogy of Memory in full in 2014-2015 (The Art of Flight; The Journey; and The Magician of Vienna), marking the first appearance of any of Pitol's books in English.

George Henson is a literary translator and assistant professor of translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. His translations include Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, The Heart of the Artichoke by fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska, and Luis Jorge Boone’s Cannibal Nights. His translations have appeared variously in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, BOMB, The Guardian, Asymptote, and Flash Fiction International. In addition, he is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and the translation editor for its sister publication Latin American Literature Today.


Nominated for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award
Received the Juan Rulfo Prize in 1999 (now known as the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages)
Author Sergio Pitol was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize in 2005 for a lifetime of literary contributions

“Pitol is a writer of another kind: his importance lies on the page, in the creation of his own world, in his ability to shed light on the world.” Daniel Saldaña Paris, author of Among Strange Victims

"Pitol is probably one of Mexico’s most culturally complex and composite writers. He is certainly the strangest, most unfathomable and eccentric. . . . [His] voice . . . reverberates beyond the margins of his books." Valeria Luiselli, author of Faces in the Crowd

"Reading him, one has the impression . . . of being before the greatest writer in the Spanish language in our time." Enrique Vila-Matas

"A gorgeous, insight into literature, history, and a life lived through words. Sergio Pitol is one of Mexico's greatest authors." Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore (Houston, Texas)

“Reading Sergio Pitol will make any serious writer want to write—and write better. . . . In Pitol’s life and his writing, neither images nor thoughts flow naturally and automatically to their logical associations." 3:AM Magazine

“Sergio Pitol is a legendary Mexican writer, whose ability and fame are best explained by noting that he has won both the Herralde and Cervantes Prizes.” Tony Malone, Tony’s Reading List

"Sergio Pitol is not only our best active storyteller, he is also the bravest renovator of our literature." Álvaro Enrigue, Letras Libres

The Art of Flight has none of the obsessive, Proustian detail of Knausgaard, or the metafiction of Lerner. It resists the light-heartedness of Bolaño’s depictions of youth and escapades, and the moroseness of Hemingway. Instead, it resembles a cloudy gemstone: at once glimmering and opaque, layered and precise.” Rosie Clarke, Music & Literature

The Art of Flight is an homage to the value of stepping out of your comfort zone, to the difficult imperative of staying true to yourself, to living a life consumed with an intense quest for knowledge and perfection, and above all, a paean to a love of life and the power of books.” Jennifer Smart, The Dallas Observer

“A dense, fascinating world, both familiar and strange, a world where different times, spaces, texts, journeys, ideas, and memories fuse and re-create one another.” Rafael Lemus, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas

The Art of Flight reads like a long overdue celebration for a timeless art form that is constantly changing, constantly reinventing itself through the years, but rest assured, will never die.” Aaron Westerman, Typographical Era

“The reflections on Pitol’s life as a writer are thoroughly enjoyable and, at time[s], gripping.” Tony Messenger, Messenger’s Booker

The Art of Flight is a book bursting with energy and curiosity. It is a collection of observations, set of diaries, travelogue and much more. It defies categorisation and cannot be summarised. Only experienced.” Tulika Bahadur, On Art and Aesthetics

“Pitol is an inspiring teacher, and the experience of reading The Journey is akin to conversing with an admired professor, after which one hastily jots down the myriad writers and books mentioned in hopes of retroactively catching up on missed references. It feels like an honor as well to stumble on notes Pitol makes for future novels—as if we’re trusted confidants.” Anne Posten, Words Without Borders

"Told in intelligent and warm prose, Pitol once again shows the reader the profound importance of literature and travel in living a meaningful life. Bursting with wisdom and memories, The Journey is another unforgettable trip with a masterful guide." Brazos Bookstore Staff Pick

"Witty, engaging, and regularly dizzying with its shifts between the real and the absurd, The Journey lives up to Pitol’s reputation as one of Mexico’s most intriguing writers." World Literature Today

"Pitol is a tactful writer who masterfully handles hundreds of different subjects in a compact, novel-like form. . . . One of his great strengths is to turn from comic sentences to those of poetic resonance with a seamless and subtle finesse....this and the preceding volume—[The] Art of Flight—are some of the best to be published by a small press in the last few years." Matt Pincus, Bookslut

"Simultaneously bewildering and fascinating. . . . 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." Jeffrey Zuckerman, The Quarterly Conversation

"In order to enjoy The Journey, the second volume of revered Mexican author Sergio Pitol’s idiosyncratic autobiographical trilogy, the reader must abandon expectations: of genre, of structure, of distinctions between the aesthetic “truth” of dreams and fiction, and truth in the sense of literal accuracy. Those who take this leap will find Pitol a warm companion and an erudite guide through both his own artistic process and a compelling moment in history that has much to say to our own." Anne Posten, Words Without Borders

"Its richness and complexity as a book of memories and ideas are unmatched by any other work of literature written in Spanish in the last 25 years and available in English.” Ignacio Sánchez Prado, The Los Angeles Review of Books


Only connect…


THE MIMETIC APE. Reading Alfonso Reyes revealed to me, at the appropriate time, an exercise recommended by one of his literary idols, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Letter to a Young Gentlemen Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art, consisting of an imitation exercise. He himself had practiced it, and with success, during his period of apprenticeship. The Scottish author compared his method to the imitative aptitude of monkeys. The future writer should transform himself into an ape with a high capacity for imitation, should read his preferred authors with an attention closer to tenacity than delight, more in tune with the activity of the detective than the pleasure of the aesthete; he should learn by which means to achieve certain results, to detect the efficacy of some formal processes, study the handling of narrative time, of tone, the organization of details in order to apply those devices later to his own writing; a novel, let us say, with a plot similar to that of the chosen author, with comparable characters and situations, where the only liberty allowed would be the employment of his own language: his, that of his family and friends, perhaps his region’s; “the great school of training and imitation,” added Reyes, “of which the truly original Lope de Vega speaks in La Dorotea:

How do you compose? I read,
and what I read, I imitate,
and what I imitate, I write,
and what I write, blot out,
and then I sift the blottings-out.”

An indispensable education, provided the budding writer knows to jump from the train at the right moment, untie whatever tethers him to the chosen style as a starting point, and knows intuitively the right moment at which to embrace everything that writing requires. By then he must know that language is the decisive factor, and that his destiny will depend on his command of it. When all is said and done, it will be style—that emanation of language and of instinct—that will create and control the plot.

When in the mid-fifties I began to sketch my first stories, two languages exercised control over my fledgling literary vision: that of Borges and that of Faulkner. Their splendor was such that for a time they overshadowed all others. That subjugation allowed me to ignore the telluric risks of the time, the monotone costumbrismo and the false modernity of the narrative prose of the Contemporáneos, to whose poetry, at the same time, I was addicted. In this splendid group of poets, some—Xavier Villaurrutia, Jorge Cuesta, Salvador Novo—also excelled for their essays. They had availed themselves during their early years of the lessons of Alfonso Reyes and of Julio Torri. Nevertheless, when they made incursions into the short story, they inevitably failed. They believed they were repeating the brilliant effects of Gide, Giraudoux, Cocteau, and Bontempelli, whom they venerated, as a means of escaping the rancho, the tenebrous jungle, the mighty rivers, and they succeeded, but at the expense of careening into tedium and, at times, into the ridiculous. The effort was obvious, the seams were too visible, the stylization became a parody of the European authors in whose shadow they sought refuge. If someone ordered me today, pistol in hand, to reread the Proserpina rescatada [Rescued Prosperpina] by Jaime Torres Bodet, I would probably prefer to be felled by bullets than plunge into that sea of folly.

I must have been seventeen when I first read Borges. I remember the experience as if it happened just a few days ago. I was traveling to Mexico City after spending a holiday in Córdoba with my family. The bus made a stop in Tehuacán for lunch. It was Sunday so I bought a newspaper: the only thing about the press that interested me at the time was the cultural supplement and theater and movie guide. The supplement was the legendary México en la Cultura, arguably the best there has ever been in Mexico, under the direction of Fernando Benítez. The main text in that edition was an essay on the Argentine fantastic short story, signed by the Peruvian writer José Durand. Two stories appeared as examples of Durand’s theses: “The Horses of Abdera” by Leopoldo Lugones and “The House of Asterion” by Jorge Luis Borges, a writer completely foreign to me. I began with the fantastic tale by Lugones, an elegant example of postmodernismo, and proceeded to “The House of Asterion.” It was, perhaps, the most dazzling revelation in my life as a reader. I read the story with amazement, with gratitude, with absolute astonishment. When I reached the final sentence, I gasped. Those simple words: “‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ Theseus said. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself,” spoken as if in passing, almost at random, suddenly revealed the mystery that the story concealed: the identity of the enigmatic protagonist, his resigned sacrifice. Never had I imagined that our language could reach such levels of intenseness, levity, and surprise. The next day, I went out in search of other books by Borges; I found several, covered in dust on the backmost shelves of a bookshop. During those years, readers of Borges in Mexico could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Years later I read the stories written by him and by Adolfo Bioy Casares, signed with the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. Delving into those stories written in lunfardo posed a grueling challenge. One had to sharpen his linguistic intuition and allow himself to be carried away by the sensual cadence of the words, the same as that of fiery tangos, so not to lose the thread of the story too quickly. They were police mysteries unraveled from an Argentine prison cell by the amateur of crime, Honorio Bustos Domecq, a not-so bright man with a healthy dose of common sense, which linked him to Chesterton’s Father Brown. The plot was of least importance; what was superb about them was their language, a playful, polysemic language, a delight to the ear, like that of the serious Borges, but nonsensical. Bustos Domecq allows himself to establish a euphonious proximity between words, to surrender to a bizarre, rambling, and torrential course, that gradually sketches the outlines of the story, until arriving in an invertebrate, secretive, parodic, and kitschy fashion to the long-awaited climax. On the other hand, the verbal order of the books by the serious Borges is precise and obedient to the will of the author; his adjectivization suggests an inner sadness, but it is rescued by an amazing verbal imagination and contained irony. I have read and reread the stories, poetry, literary and philosophical essays of this brilliant man, but I never conceived of him as an enduring influence on my work, as was Faulkner, although in a recent rereading of my Divina garza [Divine Heron], I was able to perceive echoes and murmurs close to those of Bustos Domecq.

To establish a symmetry, it’s necessary to mention the language of Faulkner and its influence I willingly accepted during my period of initiation. His Biblical sonorousness, his grandeur of tone, his tremendously complex construction, where a sentence may span several pages, branching out voraciously, leaving readers breathless, are unequalled. The darkness that emerges from the dense arborescence, whose meaning will be revealed many pages or chapters later, is not a mere narrative process, but rather, as in Borges, the very flesh of the story. A darkness born of the immoderate crossing of phrases of a different order is a way of enhancing a secret that as a rule the characters meticulously conceal.

THE MAGICIAN OF VIENNA. “Of all man’s instruments, the most wondrous, no doubt, is the book,” says Borges. “The other instruments are extensions of his body. The microscope, the telescope, are extensions of his sight; the telephone is an extension of his voice; then we have the plow and the sword, extensions of his arm. But the book is something else altogether: the book is an extension of his memory and imagination.”

The book accomplishes a multitude of tasks, some superb, others deplorable; it dispenses knowledge and misery, illuminates and deceives, liberates and manipulates, exalts and humbles, creates or cancels the options of life. Without it, needless to say, no culture would be possible. History would disappear, and our future would be cloaked in dark, sinister clouds. Those who hate books also hate life. No matter how impressive the writings of hatred may be, the printed word for the most part tips the balance toward light and generosity. Don Quixote will always triumph over Mein Kampf. As for the humanities and the sciences, books will continue to be their ideal space, their pillars of support.

There are those who read to kill time. Their attitude toward the printed page is passive: they repine, revel, sob, writhe in laughter; the final pages where all mysteries are revealed will ultimately allow them to sleep more soundly. They seek those spaces in which the elementary reader always takes great delight. To satisfy them, the plots must produce the greatest excitement at a minimum cost of complexity. The characters are univocal: ideal or abysmal, there is no third way; the former will be virtuous, magnanimous, industrious, observant of every social norm; they are excessively kind-hearted even if their superficial philanthropy sometimes tarnishes the whole with cloyingly saccharine registers; by contrast, the wickedness, cowardice, and pettiness of the indispensable villains know no bounds, and even if they attempt to turn over a new leaf, an evil instinct will prevail over their will that is sure to haunt them forever; they’ll end up destroying those around them before turning on themselves in their desire for unremitting destruction. In short, readers who are addicted to the struggle between good versus evil turn to the book to amuse themselves and to kill time, never to dialogue with the world, with others, or with themselves.

In popular novels, beginning with the nineteenth-century feuilletons of Ponson du Terrail, Eugène Sue, and Paul Feval, female orphans appear in abundance, defenseless all; to the tragedy of orphanage the narrator sadistically adds other troubles: blindness, muteness, shrewishness, paralysis, and amnesia, above all amnesia. When these female orphans lose their memory and are rich to boot, they become easy prey for fortune hunters. Clearly the wide array of male fauna who wander through these stories have Ph.Ds. in evil. One of their specialties is pretending to be deserted husbands or lovers. When they happen upon one of these fragilely forgetful young women, and discover their circumstances, they go about laying claim to nonexistent children whom the aforementioned amnesiacs took out for a stroll years ago, never to return; they almost always convince them of, and threaten to denounce them for, having brutally murdered the children whom they detested; they inform them that during the weeks prior to their disappearance they did nothing but talk about the visceral hatred they displayed for the accursed offspring born of their womb and that they implored God with the ferociousness of hyenas that He rid them of these detestable children. Thus, seizing on the horror they feel for themselves and the panic they instill in them, these lotharios enslave the damsels carnally, seize control of their assets, force them to sign before a notary a thick stack of papers that consign to them their real estate, their jewelry deposited in safe deposit boxes, their bank accounts, investment documents scattered in national and international banks to these insatiable wolves, which were precisely that, counterfeit husbands and lovers who had so suddenly and suspiciously surfaced.

Some, the most credulous, were convinced that in their previous incarnation—a term they used to allude to their existence prior to their amnesia—they had been nuns, and in that capacity had committed unspeakable blasphemies and countless depravities, such as strangling the portress of the convent, the gardener, or even the Mother Superior, only to wander the world lost, for years thereafter, until being found, identified, and reunited with the vast fortune that their deceased parents had deposited into some banking institution.