Pitol’s Blurred Lines: A Review of “The Magician of Vienna” by Felix Haas

Prose, Reviews


Sergio Pitol - The Magician of Vienna, available now from Deep Vellum press.
Sergio Pitol – The Magician of Vienna, available now from Deep Vellum press.


M and I were living in a spacious apartment on the edges of one of the Barrancas (ravines) which embrace the old town of Cuernavaca just an hour south of Mexico City. L was M’s girlfriend at the time. She would come down from the capital, where she lived, to see us on weekends, or we would see her and her friends in and around their small apartment near the Coyoacán Metro station. No one I knew had read quite as much as she had. Usually I would do OK when it came to book-talk, but L had me beat by a mile. Of course, I had read the obvious ones: Borges, García Márquez, Cortazar, Llosa, but the names she pulled out of her hat – most of them I had never heard of.

Picking up Sergio Pitol’s The Magician of Vienna today reminds me of our conversations back then. Pitol’s book, translated from the Spanish by George Henson, is the last in a trilogy of autobiographies. However, you can easily follow its narrative without touching the first two (I hadn’t). Saying that it is loosely chronological is an overstatement. It is arranged in little snippets and anecdotes, which at times flow into one another and at other times don’t. Pitol effortlessly shifts from an anecdote of Walter Benjamin attending the theatre in Moscow, to a critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the life of Evelyn Waugh, to memories of his own days in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. This is one of the many enchantments of his book: You never quite know what the author is going to give you next. Sure, there are plenty of authors which offer you the unexpected, but rarely do you come across a piece of literature which moves so freely in and out of genres, be it criticism and literary history or autobiography and diary entries.

Pitol’s life drastically changes, when he leaves his native Mexico in 1961 to spend three weeks in Europe. Three weeks turn into twenty-eight years, a period which the majority of The Magician of Vienna is dedicated to. In Europe, Pitol changes cities and countries every few years, living on both sides of the Iron Curtain at the time of the Cold War. But his moves are not only geographical in nature; his jobs also vary, with him working as translator, editor, lecturer, and finally, cultural attaché, all whilst staying true to his real vocation: reading and writing.

The distinction between what he lived in books and what he lived in life is blurred, it seems, not only by the arrangement and presentation in his autobiographical work. Growing up in Mexico, Pitol contracts malaria at an early age which leaves him bedridden for many years. When other children build their lives between school and the playground, young Sergio lives in the books of Jules Vernes, a reality that, instead of outgrowing as an adult, he integrates into the world around him.

Much like Pitol, L too had a childhood filled with books. She would spend weekends and vacations at her father’s farm somewhere in Antioquia, far outside her hometown of Medellín. In her stories about that young girl’s life amongst her books and animals, I found many similarities with Pitol’s childhood. Although he was confined to his home in Veracruz rather than roaming around rural Colombia, both childhood memories stirred the same kind of wonder and magic in me.

When leafing through Pitol’s pages, not only do you grow increasingly awestruck by the long lists of authors he knew and read, you also get to know a man who is hungry for life – who doesn’t try to control life, but instead follows it, surrendering to its arbitrariness, all while remaining true to his passions.

Through the ideas and stages of life illustrated in his book, we gain insight into the circumstances and processes that created many of Pitol’s works. We come to realize that, much like the line between reality and fiction, so too the line between reading and writing is blurred for Sergio Pitol, with one almost inevitably leading to the other: “Writing is, after all, a result of chance, of instinct, an involuntary act of thousands of hours of reading…” he writes.

Does L write today? Has reading so naturally shifted to writing for her as it did for Pitol? When you have lost sight of someone, someone that you felt close to for a time or maybe just a day, and when all you know of that person now is whatever distilled bullshit Facebook has got to offer, your mind then begins to spin its own realities for that person, realities that don’t stop now, but reach well into the future, telling you who that person is and will be.

I have since seen M, who is now married to L. He is still where I left him: with mathematics. We met in Bonn, a few years back, while he was attending a conference on Topology or Geometry or both. But I haven’t seen L since our days in Coyoacán. All I have, to tell me who she is now, are Pitol’s stories and my own mind to extrapolate.


Felix Haas grew up in Berlin and went to grad school for physics and mathematics. Besides science and languages he has always had a passion for literature. His writing has appeared in World Literature Today and the Fair Observer, among other places. After years in different European, Northern and Central American countries, he now lives in Zurich.