MEXICO CITY >> Sergio Pitol, a celebrated Mexican author, essayist and translator and winner of the most prestigious award for literature in the Spanish-speaking world, died today. He was 85.
Pitol died of natural causes at his home in Xalapa, Veracruz state, said family members and Alberto Salamanca, a spokesman for the Mexican government’s Department of Culture.
Born March 18, 1933, in the city of Puebla, Pitol was known for such works as “Mephisto’s Waltz” and his “Trilogy of Memory,” which included “The Art of Flight,” ”The Journey” and “The Magician of Vienna.”
He won Spanish literature’s prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2005. He was awarded Mexico’s National Literature Prize in 1983 and the Juan Rulfo Latin American and Caribbean Prize in 1999.
Luis Demeneghi, a cousin who said he considered Pitol more of an older brother, said the writer had been ill for a long time with kidney problems and underwent surgery last year.
“I think he was one of the great writers that Mexico had in the last century and in this one,” Demeneghi told The Associated Press by phone. “‘The Magician of Vienna’ is truly a masterwork.”
“It is a great loss,” Mexican author Jorge Volpi said. “He is one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language, an author of exemplary stories and novels … (who) broke down genres between the memoir, travel writing, the essay and fiction. I loved him very much.”
Pitol, whose grandparents came from Italy, was orphaned as a young boy. His sister died around the same time, and Pitol contracted malaria, which led to health problems for years.
He and his brother Angel went to live with their maternal grandmother in Veracruz state, and it was she who introduced him to the world of literature: Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and others.
“I think reading saved my life,” Pitol said in a 2002 interview with Radio y Television Espanola. “I am sure that if I had not read Verne, of which I read almost everything, I would have been consumed, I would have died very quickly or I would have stayed ill forever.”
Pitol studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, but preferred to audit courses in the school of philosophy and letters.
He also became a diplomat, serving as cultural counselor in Mexican embassies in Warsaw, Budapest and Moscow as well as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and cultural attache in Paris.
Known for his slow and deep speech and for dressing in elegant tailored suits, Pitol radiated vivacity and humor in his writing.
He translated works by English-language authors such as Jane Austen, Henry James and Joseph Conrad as well as Polish writers Kazimierz Brandys and Witold Gombrowicz, an exercise he considered vital to his craft.
“I know no better instruction on structuring a novel than translation,” Pitol wrote in a 2011 autobiography.
He also had little use for following fashion in writing.
“It would be monstrous if all writers obeyed the rules of a single decalogue or followed the path of a single master,” he wrote. “It would mean paralysis, putrefaction.”
Other influences came from Anton Chekhov, Laurence Sterne, Miguel de Cervantes, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett.
Pitol did most of his writing overseas, in the capitals where he served as diplomat and also while living in Rome, Beijing, London and Barcelona.
“Sergio Pitol’s stories, essays and novels do not only travel through his many places of residence. His writing — the way he constructs sentences, inflects Spanish, twists meanings and stresses particular words — reflects the multiplicity of languages he has read and embraced — and perhaps, too, the many men he has been,” Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli wrote in a 2013 essay for the literary magazine Granta. “Reading him is like reading through the layers of many languages at once.”
Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Economica, which published a number of his works in Spanish, called Pitol a “wise novelist who innovated literature in Spanish, introduced and translated masterfully the work of great universal writers and exerted a generous influence over several generations of Mexican and Hispano-American authors.”
Pitol returned to Mexico for good in the late 1980s, first to Mexico City and then to Xalapa, where he resided until his death. Late in life he suffered from aphasia, which prevented him from being able to talk normally.