Ricardo Piglia and the Art of Interruption

With the attendant assurance of a 22-year-old, Ricardo Piglia proposed in 1964 that “Fundamentally, to narrate means to take charge of the distance between the ...

With the attendant assurance of a 22-year-old, Ricardo Piglia proposed in 1964 that “Fundamentally, to narrate means to take charge of the distance between the narrator and the story being told.” A commanding presence in Latin American letters until his death early this year, Piglia had experimented with different degrees of separation long before the age of autofiction. As he complicated distinctions between the lived and the literary in works that often confronted the history of his native Argentina, he challenged readers to interrupt narratives that were either unfolding and unacceptable or established and objectionable.

Empowering readers, however, often meant destabilizing their practices. At the end of his 1975 collection Nombre falso (Assumed Name), Piglia included an unfinished and previously unknown story by Roberto Arlt, a prominent Argentine writer who had died more than 30 years earlier. Prefaced by a lengthy introduction detailing the convoluted circumstances of Piglia’s supposed discovery of the story, “Luba” was in fact extracted from a longer work by the Russian Expressionist Leonid Andreyev and adapted by Piglia into a Spanish that resembled Arlt’s distinctive style, which had been influenced by the reading of cheap translations of authors including Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Although Piglia scattered numerous clues about his playful plagiarism throughout the text—references to Andreyev, a Brecht quote used without attribution, a character publishing someone else’s words under his own name—some readers, critics, and even library catalogs have accepted the work as Arlt’s. Others, even without recognizing the source text, immediately understood the gesture. If, as Borges famously affirmed, “every writer creates his own precursors,” Piglia, in attributing this new text to Arlt, performs a doubly Borgesian operation.1 Combining “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” with “Pierre Menard,” Piglia both exploits the potential of the apocryphal and explores the effects of pushing the simple premise of creating predecessors by reading them to a point of absurdity: namely, by producing not a new reading but a new text.

An astute critic of the visceral Arlt and the cerebral Borges—and arguably the best example of their possible synthesis—Piglia carefully crafted not only precursors but also an essential contemporary: Emilio Renzi. Drawn from the author’s full name—Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi—this alter ego appears in Respiración artificial (Artificial Respiration), the 1980 novel that propelled Piglia to prominence in the Hispanic literary world, as well as in the 2010 Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night). In those novels, Renzi signals that any biographical elements are contained within a frame that is fully fictional, which Piglia frequently characterized with a single condition: the one who speaks does not exist.

What emerges most compellingly in this first volume is a theory of interruptions that encompasses both the lived and the literary.

Renzi’s most enduring role, however, could already be identified in the first story of Nombre falso, “El fin del viaje” (The End of the Ride), where, in circumstances that paralleled Piglia’s, he composes diary entries during a visit to his dying father. Renzi echoes Piglia, who in turn emulates Arlt, and in both cases an assumed name means assuming responsibility for the distance required to narrate.

These fictional entries were an early indication of an expansive and ongoing project: The Diaries of Emilio Renzi. Begun in 1957, the diaries ultimately filled 327 notebooks chronicling more than 50 years. In 2015 Piglia published a first volume, Años de formación (Formative Years), which now appears in an agile English translation by Robert Croll. Two more have since appeared in Spanish, completing a trilogy that was the last project Piglia saw into print.

Although four of his five novels and one short story collection have already been translated, these diaries are a welcome addition. Besides offering a compelling self-portrait of the artist as a young man, they make available to an English audience many insights from a keen critic of its literatures. Instrumental in bringing detective novels by Chandler, Hammett, and others into Spanish, this careful reader of Joyce also exhibited such an early fondness for Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano that it once led him to name a cat, which often gave the impression it was inebriated when keeping him company, the Consul.

Inverting Oscar Wilde’s famous remark about criticism as a form of autobiography, the diaries instead practice a criticism that not only perceptively evaluates the limitations of the then-dominant models of Borges and Julio Cortázar, but also insistently situates Piglia’s early fiction with respect to work by other, less famous contemporaries.

Trained as a historian, Piglia would go on to occupy nearly every possible position in the literary world. Working as an editor for both magazines and publishers, as a translator, as both a writer and critic, and as a professor of literature in Argentina and the United States, he was always acutely concerned with revising a story or argument until it found a suitable form. “Writing is, more than anything else, correcting,” he once explained when describing his practice. “I don’t think you can separate the one from the other.”2

Such a concern is on ample display in his diaries: one encounters nascent narrative ideas drawn from early readings, reflections on philosophical and political implications of narrative choices, and accounts of formative experiences like helping his grandfather, who had served in the Italian army, organize a private archive of World War I materials. Much of that collection consisted of “the half-written letters, never sent or interrupted by death” that soldiers had hoped to send to their families. It was, in other words, a set of historical narratives that shared a common end despite radically different beginnings, and this first professional experience—his grandfather paid Piglia’s college tuition in exchange for this assistance—introduced the young writer to the overlapping questions of history and narration that he would never abandon.

The diaries constitute Piglia’s most sustained effort to narrate his writing life. Consisting of both conventional entries and versions of texts he was composing at the time, Formative Years extends from the hesitant formulations of a 16-year-old to the more sophisticated reflections of a 26-year-old already working on early sketches of what would become 1997’s Plata quemada (Burnt Money). It also captures the precarity of the writer’s profession, the rewards of recognition, and the nimble navigation of an Argentine literary field in a period that includes his first publications in small university magazines and, at the very end, the release of his first short story collection.

Yet these events from Piglia’s life appear in a work whose title suggests a contradiction, since diarist and author do not share the same name. The diaries do, however, offer one possible explanation that recalls some of Piglia’s earlier work: “Literature is much more mysterious and strange than the simple physical presence of the so-called author.”3 If Piglia had produced a fake Arlt work by turning to Andreyev, here he produces Renzi’s diaries by drawing on notebooks that Piglia himself kept, rendering the relationship between text and autobiography more than a little murky.

It’s a confusing circuit of production that Renzi only ever partially clarifies. “In the end, if the diaries are all that remains, it will be possible to see them as the endeavor of a person who first decides to be a writer and then starts writing a series of notebooks, before anything else, in which he records his devotion to that imaginary profession,” he explains. “One day I’ll try to shape it into something and leave behind a loose thread, clear and strong, from which the spool of my life can be unraveled.” As the pronoun confusion and references to various readers both suggest, this conflation of writers and readers reflects an attempt to place authorship and readership on an equal footing.

What Piglia wrote in the introduction, included in Formative Years, to a collection of autobiographical writings by other Argentine writers therefore holds true for his project as well. “Like no other text, the autobiography requires the reader to complete the circle of its expression,” he suggests. “Closed in on itself, that subjectivity is blinded, and it is the reader who breaks the monologue, who bestows meanings that were not visible before.” The difference is that Piglia includes a fictional reader—Renzi—who, by breaking Piglia’s monologue, becomes the writer of the diaries.

What emerges most compellingly in this first volume is a theory of interruptions that encompasses both the lived and the literary.4 “What was I looking for?” asks Renzi when reflecting on the diary whose start coincides with Piglia’s family abruptly moving after his father, an ardent Peronist, encountered difficulties during the dictatorship that followed Perón’s first presidency. “To deny reality, to reject what was coming. To this day I still write in this diary. Many things have changed since then, but I remained faithful to this obsession.” Beginning as a space that could interrupt the everyday, the diary became an uninterrupted accompaniment.

Renzi echoes Piglia, who in turn emulates Arlt, and in both cases an assumed name means assuming responsibility for the distance required to narrate.

Ever alert to questions of form, Piglia recognizes that the diary can uniquely lend itself to considering the relationship between narration and interruption. Before his suicide, Cesare Pavese, the only other diarist consistently mentioned in these pages, understood living as a trade to be learned and practiced—he titled his diaries This Business of Living.

Renzi’s diaries instead trace a concern with the business of narrating, with maintaining a space to master narrative skills. “I understand that decisive acts or heroic moments do not exist until after they have taken place, when they are recounted,” he explains, drawing our attention to the retrospection and narration necessary to identify an interruption. “Before that, they are a confusing succession of small gestures, of chances and emotions.” The diary therefore becomes a space that records both shapeless sequences and some attempts to sort through them. As Renzi acknowledges, “Rereading my notebooks is a narrative lesson.”

Some of the more affecting entries are precisely those that address the process of rereading. In one of the first instances, Renzi describes a “search for a personal poetics that is (still) not visible here.” On another occasion, sifting through lost time in search of interruptions yields a recognizably adolescent anxiety: “At first glance, nothing has happened to me except for the uninterrupted succession of catastrophes. The slogan of the past years has been ‘I need to change, to become someone else.’” Such feelings partially explain his early attraction to an older woman who “knew, like no one else, the art of interruption (the art of being out of place), like the heroine of a novel about which we barely know the main points, brought along and carried by the weak movement of the narration.”

This use of narrative tropes to articulate his lover’s key characteristic reveals the importance of adopting different lenses. “To look at literature from life is to think of it as a closed and airless world,” explains Renzi. “In contrast, to look at life from literature allows you to perceive the chaos of experience, the lack of form and meaning, allowing you to endure life.” Just as important as the dialectic of the diary—its oscillations between the constant and the interruption—is the distance it ultimately provides.

Such separation could, however, move beyond the diary. “I am worried about my tendency to speak about myself as though I were divided, were two people,” Renzi writes in 1963. “An internal voice that soliloquizes and digresses, a sort of soundtrack that always accompanies me and sometimes filters into what I am reading or what I write here.” This concern leads him to consider something that he briefly experiments with in later volumes: keeping two sets of diaries. “A would contain the events, the incidents,” he explains, “and B the secret thoughts, the silent voice.”


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That proposal for dual or dueling diaries echoes an idea that Piglia developed in his famous “Theses on the Short Story,” which argues that every tale in fact tells two and works “the tension between the two stories without ever resolving it.”5 By blurring the boundaries between author and narrator, much of what is now labeled autofiction insists on a similar tension and leaves it to the reader to decide what distance, if any, there might be between the two. The fictional reader that Piglia brings into the text, however, helps narrate what he describes in the same piece on the short story as “the constantly renewed search for a unique experience that would allow us to see, beneath the opaque surface of life, a secret truth.”6

Where autofiction is concerned with conflation, Piglia’s project aims for an explicit separation that might bring some clarification. Suggesting that in a diary “you should ultimately write about the limits or the frontiers that make certain words or actions impossible,” he argues for literature as an intervention in the distribution of the possible, “as a way of discovering or describing these blind spots.” If autofiction lives in—and for—those blind spots, Piglia’s detachment from the diaries allows them to flash with insight.

Piglia’s death in January from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was an interruption of the worst kind. But a line from a piece published for the first time in Formative Years suggests the continued possibility of new readings: “True legibility is always posthumous.” It comes not from a diary entry but rather an early story, which imagines the interior monologue of poet and essayist Ezequiel Martínez Estrada as he contemplates signing his last works under a different name. As in the apocryphal Arlt story, Piglia creates a precursor, but here he plagiarizes himself: he had already used the same phrase in “Notas sobre Macedonio en un Diario” (Notes about Macedonio in a Diary), a piece about Macedonio Fernández in which Renzi appears.

A classic figure of the early 20th-century avant-garde in Argentina, Fernández hoped that a posthumously published experimental novel, which he had taken decades to write, would be “the book in which the reader will finally be read.”7 The phrase is perhaps a more fitting description of Formative Years, the work of one consummate reader written into existence by another. icon

  1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors,” translated from the Spanish by James E. Irby, Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964), p. 201.
  2. Ricardo Piglia, Crítica y ficción (Anagrama, 2001), p. 54. My translation.
  3. Curiously absent from the English edition of this first volume is the Proustian epigraph used in the Spanish: “Cette multiplication possible de soi-même, qui est le bonheur.”
  4. These diaries therefore anticipate something Piglia later identifies in Kafka’s diary: namely, the interruption as Kafka’s grand theme and the basis of his style. See El último lector (Anagrama, 2005), pp. 45–50.
  5. Ricardo Piglia, “Theses on the Short Story,” New Left Review, July–August 2011, p. 64.
  6. Piglia, “Theses,” p. 66
  7. Macedonio Fernández, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz (Open Letter, 2010), p. 22.
Featured image: Ricardo Piglia, escritor argentino. Photograph by Casa de América / Flickr