Short Story Review – Sergio Pitol – Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale (trans. George Henson)

I’ve heard it said that my father is the devil, and though I’ve never seen any external mark that identifies him as such, my conviction that he is who he is remains incorruptible. Even so, at times it’s a source of pride; in general, it neither pleases nor frightens me to be one of the evil one’s offspring.

I came to Sergio Pitol late – sadly after he passed away, in April of 2018.  I owe my awareness of Pitol to Deep Vellum, who took to Twitter to commemorate his works and offer them at a cheaper rate to the world (which as of today, 19 May 2018, remains in force), and George Henson, the translator of his Trilogy of Memory (and this piece), who touchingly paid tribute to his friend in a public, honest and heartfelt way which speaks volumes to the impact Pitol had upon him and the literary world.

All of this is to say that, as soon as I saw this story on Latin American Literature Today I was immediately drawn to it and wanted to write about my own feelings towards this writer, who even in the month since I started reading his work, has become important to me, too.

…beneath the heavy mahogany dresser dozens of mice have built nests. The desire to catch them and feel their beating death on my lips torments me. But such pleasure is, for now, forbidden me.

It is a commoners sense of evil, the Satan and the Hell that might be created by an uneducated person who only half-listened to sermons.  A comprehensible evil, an evil of man, which is to say – violence, depravity, death.  Something we can all understand.  Which of course then means it isn’t truly a satanic evil, because those depths are incapable of being truly plumbed, and our eyes and mind and heart needs must shy away.

Victorio is a mad child, and to suggest that he has delusions of grandeur is to dramatically understate one of his many problems.  This is a young man with significant problems, and I suppose today we might diagnose and medicate.  But in the 1950s when Pitol wrote this, set in a poor region of Mexico, the townspeople and his family instead turn to religion to attempt to explain the child.

The perspective is from Victorio, and not that of the town or his family.  This means, then, that we sympathise with his interpretation of his life, while simultaneously becoming nauseated by his embrace of the corrupting influence of evil.  This is an individual who relishes in violence and the smell of blood, and who believes he will inevitably inherit the mantle of satanic rule.

But, hang on.  What of his father?  Is this a child’s attempt to understand, say, the complexities of slave/master, or servant/owner?  How would a five year old, for example, interpret a master flogging a servant for stealing or laziness?  Perhaps they would internalise the church teachings and assume their father is evil.  Children see the world differently to adults; their frames of reference are much smaller, narrower, but infinitely more vivid, and their capacity of imagination is immeasurable.

What, then, the nature of evil?  I am reminded of the story of Auschwitz, where Commander Rudolf Hoess’s wife would complain of the ashes falling on to her carefully tended roses, and of children playing on one side of the barbed wire fence, with the other side devoted the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of people.  Did they know?  Everyone knew.  But how did the children interpret this?  What elaborate stories did their minds create to ensure an even sense of reality, to avoid unbalancing themselves?  Was their father, too, a devil of some kind?

Pitol’s language is strongly contained within the physical realm, as though solidifying evil into ordinary words might in some way help to explain it.  Victorio’s story of his life is rooted in that which can be touched and felt and seen and heard, which helps to blur the lines between what is true and what is not.  Are the wings on his back real, or are they the manner in which his diseased mind attempts to explain his situation to himself, and thus the reader as well?

The end is perfect, because it keeps the confusion alive and leaves us wondering as to what was real and what was the product of a very damaged young man.  To decide is to realise something within yourself – namely, do you believe in evil?  Do you believe in psychology and trauma?  Can they commingle, and if so, how?  And what does that say about us, and those who have lived in centuries past?

Poor Victorio.

Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale is a short story by Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, and was translated by George Henson.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Sergio Pitol
Title Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale
Translator George Henson
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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