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Sergio Pitol: El tañido de una flauta [The Tune of a Pipe]

The Spanish title of this book uses the word tañido which is the sound a flute makes when played and for which there is not a good English equivalent. The book has not been translated into English though other English-language commentators have used the title The Sound of the Flute. I have opted for The Tune of a Flute. The reason for this is that Pitol quotes and references Shakespeare throughout this book. Apart from naming a character Francis Flute in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Shakespeare only uses the word flute twice in his work, in both cases in Anthony and Cleopatra. One use reads:

The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

In standard Spanish translations of this passage, the term armonia is used for tune but I would not be surprised if Pitol chose tañido as it more resembles the English term and sounds more poetic than armonia. I may well be being too clever.

I have since learned, thanks to Dr. George Henson, translator of Pitol, that the quotation comes from Hamlet Act III Scene 2 and that the original Shakespearean wording was ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Dr. Henson found that out because Pitol, in his book El mago de Viena (The Magician of Vienna) , translated into English by Dr. Henson, mentions that he took the line from Hamlet. Not surprisingly, given that Shakespeare used the word pipe, while Pitol used the word flauta, normally translated into English as flute Dr. Henson had difficulty in tracking it down but finally did. I will leave my previous research above but credit to Dr. Henson for finding the real source. Incidentally, I discovered that the normal Spanish for reed pipe is indeed flauta de caña so it seems that the Pitol was right to translate pipe as flute. I have also discovered that Spanish translations of Hamlet use the word flauta when translating the word pipe into Spanish so I have changed my translation of the English title of this book accordingly.

I am going to call the main character our narrator but the novel is told in the third person. As he does not have a name and we see the story from his perspective, he is, in effect, our narrator. Pitol’s first novel is somewhat fragmentary but focuses on three people. Our narrator is a Mexican film director/producer who has had some success and has also inherited some money, so he is comfortably off. When young, he got to know Carlos Ibarra (he calls him Charlie). Initially, as Ibarra was somewhat older, they did not hit it off but later became friends. Ibarra first liked to hang out with the rich crowd and then, later, with the bohemian crowd. In short, he never really found his niche.

Ibarra was always going to write a great novel. He lived in various places around the world and the narrator would meet him now and then in these places. For example, he went to see him in what was then Yugoslavia, with a view to travelling around the country with him. To his surprise. Carlos was still writing but only bits and pieces and had seemingly abandoned his novel. The travel was curtailed. When he visited him next time in Belgrade, Carlos look awful. Our narrator never saw him again and did not really regret it. He remarked, that time, that Carlos was showing the silence not of Duchamp (who effectively abandoned art) but of defeat. We know early in the novel that Carlos has died. Much of the book is about the vagabond life of Carlos.

Our narrator used to regularly attend the Venice Film Festival and at one festival met his usual friends. He had known the Japanese director Hayashi for some time. Hayashi had always been ambitious and wanted to film Kappa, the novel by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which he finally did. Our narrator was not too keen on Hayashi’s style as it was Spartan, like the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Nevertheless, he went to see Hayashi’s new film and was amazed. It seemed to be a biography of Carlos Ibarra and, more particularly, showed his last days, about which the narrator knew nothing. How did Hayashi know so much? He does not want to confront Hayashi immediately so speculates on how Hayashi might have learned of Carlos’ last days.

There had been another film about Ibarra, made some time ago by our narrator. The film was called Frontier Hotel. Carlos was still alive when the film was made, so Hayashi’s film covers more of his later life. We gradually learn a bit about the two films. For example the Spanish woman Paz Naranjo, Carlos’ girlfriend, appeared in Frontier Hotel. Our narrator compares her to the Japanese woman who played a similar role in Hayashi’s film, with that segment filmed in Macau.

The third key person is Ángel Rodríguez, a painter and we follow much of his life as well. Rodríguez, like Ibarra, has spent much time abroad. (One of the themes is the vagabond nature of Mexican artists.). He has had a certain amount of success as an artist in Europe. However, when he returns home to Xalapa, he is not recognised so much so that when a magazine publishes an article on Xalapa and the artists who came from there (you can see a list here, though few are known outside Mexico), he is not even mentioned.

Paz Naranjo is also key. She is older than the others. Indeed, she had been married to Ángel Rodríguez’s uncle. As well as knowing Ángel, she has a long-time relationship with Carlos (though she is much older) and even a fling with our narrator. Ibarra and Ángel also know him so we have triangles throughout the book.

Pitol himself has said the book is about artistic creation. Not only do we follow the creative lives of a painter, a film director/producer and a writer, there are numerous references to works of literature, films (particularly, but certainly not only clastic US films) and comments on them. Indeed, one of the themes may well be the search for artistic perfection. (The search for perfection seems to be an issue at the moment – mid 2018 – as this and other articles are claiming.)

As mentioned above, this book is certainly fragmentary, even rambling as we follow the lives of the main characters. The main plot – what happened to Ibarra at the end? – gets lost at times but we do find out more towards the end. However, it is certainly an interesting and bold work for a first novel, not least with its theme of a novelist who never finishes his novel. Pitol is held in high esteem in Mexico but none of his novels has been translated into English. The French title, incidentally, makes reference to a minor character, a Mexican civil servant from the Ministry of Culture, who pops up now and then and is nicknamed the Mock Turtle, sometimes given (in English) as Muck Tortle.

I mentioned Ryūnosuke Akutagawa above and a film Hayashi made of one of his books. In cinematic terms, Akutagawa is far better known for his story In a Grove, made into a successful film by Kurosawa while using the title Rashōmon, from another Akutagawa story. The key theme of the film is various characters giving different accounts of the same incident. This is, to a certain degree, the theme of this novel, with the two films about Ibarra.

Publishing history

First published by Ediciones Era in 1972
No English translation
First published in French as Les apparitions intermittentes d’une fausse tortue by Éditions du Seuil in 1990
Translated by Francis Pleux
Also available in Polish