The literary world lost one of its greats this year when Mexican author Sergio Pitol died at age 85. Known for transcending genres and styles, Pitol’s writing stretched beyond the traditional magical realism of Latin America to include surrealist, irreverent turns that were both dark in their truth and light in their playful structure.
It’s a great joy, then, to read “Mephisto’s Waltz,” his posthumously published collection of short stories — just translated into English and made available in the States through Texas-based publisher Deep Vellum.
These 13 stories are Pitol’s most treasured, arranged in order of publication. From his earliest story “Victorio Ferri Tales a Tale,” to his favorite of all time, “Mephisto’s Waltz,” this vivid collection showcases just what Pitol is famous for: stories filled with hints and memories from his own rich and exciting life, which cause readers to reflect on their own narratives, dreams, and senses of self.
“The Return,” for example, follows a gravely ill man who is forced to find a new living situation when he’s suddenly evicted from his rented hotel room. The story includes a number of mirrors that reflect Pitol’s own experience, though placed at sharp angles to provide only a small shimmer of truth against a backdrop of fiction: orphaned at age 4, Pitol suffered from malaria and other illness throughout his childhood, leaving him bedridden for long periods of time (“His head is about to burst; he wants to hurry events along, to end everything once and for all.”)
The general location, too, is familiar: Pitol spoke seven languages and for years served as a diplomat and translator in Poland, China, the Czech Republic, and other locations featured prominently in this collection.
Travel and illness, longing and dreams are consistent themes here. In “Westward Bound” an exhausted narrator boards the Trans-Siberian Express searching for peace, but must first suffer through a series of cultural misunderstanding and difficult reflection before coming to a serene conclusion. The narrator in “The Panther” has a powerful dream that clarifies her life, but in the morning concludes that not all is as it seems.
Each story in this collection is its own kind of gem, but in “Mephisto’s Waltz” Pitol’s extraordinary style moves to another level. It’s a master class in narrative structure, as Pitol first establishes the mood of the scene before peeling back the layers of connection between characters, resulting in the reader continually reevaluating the story, an act which parallels the narrator’s action as she examines a story within the story.
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A welcome addition to a powerful canon, “Mephisto’s Waltz,” is like a strange, wonderful dream, filling readers with a sense of wonder and foreboding.