The publication this November of the first volume of Ricardo Piglia’s Diaries of Emilio Renzi from Restless Books marks the arrival of a major work of Latin American literature into the English language. A three-volume “autobiography” of Piglia doppelgänger Emilio Renzi that the author raced to finish before his death from ALS in 2017, the work grew out of some 300 notebooks Piglia kept throughout his life. It has been hailed as a masterpiece throughout the Spanish-language literary sphere.
The majority of the diary is composed of short, chronological bursts of daily life, philosophical reflections, quotations, anecdotes, politics, and the working out of literary problems. Interspersed with these journal-like pages are short bits of Piglia’s fiction that were written at the time and, presumably, not published until the arrival of the autobiography. Below we present one such self-enclosed story drawn from the diaries’ first volume.
A classmate from the National High School of Mar del Plata, Ezequiel Martínez Estrada’s nephew, told me one day that his uncle sometimes came to visit them in the city. I asked him to tell me when, and one afternoon in 1959 the writer received me in a house facing Plaza Dorrego. His frailty and cadaverous air left an impression on me; he entered the living room supporting himself against the walls, but, as soon as he sat down and started to speak, his tone was the same as it was in the extraordinary diatribes that he was writing at the time (¿Qué es esto?, his “catilinarias,” Las 40), which I read with persistent fervor. When I returned home I tried to record what I remembered from the interview, and some years later I wrote—based on those notes—the story that I publish here for the first time.
The government’s intelligence services monitored him for months, censored his correspondence, controlled his visitors, and once in a while a nocturnal voice would threaten him over the phone. He would not treat it as a threat; in fact, he kept up a philosophical and theoretical conversation on the meaning of civil duty and moral responsibility with those deceitful voices. Those men were the new intellectuals, the thinkers of the future; any Argentine knows that a mark will be placed on his life if he dissents, which may be invoked at some future moment to track down and incarcerate him. The services had turned into the political version of the Oracle of Delphi; they decided in secret the fate of entire populations. Now they are the witches from Macbeth who control the power! They suppress everything that can threaten mediocre and average life; they attack diversity in all of its aspects, control it and surveil it, write our biographies. Conformism is the new religion, and they are its priests.
He had reached a point at which he argued directly with the state, with the spokesmen for the state’s intelligence. Smash and grab exchanges in the depths of night; the voices came and went, through wireless circuits. They hounded him, cornered him, wanted to turn him into an intellectual outlaw. They know that I know; they want to destroy my thought.
He had made the decision to go into exile. Now he was preparing his Address to the University, in which he would announce this decision. They were planning an homage to his work; he was going to use that event as the stage for his final invective. Would I like to attend? I was invited. He had begun to give shape to his speech: “It would not be untimely nor boastful, ladies and gentlemen, if you permitted me to speak about myself for a moment and employ the first-person pronoun,” he would say. He was obliged to take a personal detour; that was what he would say in his Address to the University. He had been very sick, an unknown ailment of the skin, which could be called the white plague. Five years without being able to read or write! Light scabs that gave off ashes like pale butterflies and smelled of death. His body had acquired a gray tonality. The worst of it, however, the most ridiculous and offensive part, had been the continual itching, an unbearable irritation for twenty-four hours each day.
During the years of his illness, he had been unable to devote himself to anything but thought. Stretched out on the bed, in clinics, in hospitals, in convalescent homes, in his own residence, with his skin in a state of sweet putrefaction, minuscule burning spots scattered down the length of his body, he allowed his thoughts to flow. During those years, he had thought everything; no thought could surprise him now. My situation was much like that of Job, and rather than reflecting on good and evil I fell into a meditation on my country. For if I was suffering a small illness, it suffered a great illness, and if I was able to commit a small error in my life, it had committed an enormous one. I and my country were sick. In those years of pure thought, he had refined his intelligence to the extreme point at which a cultured man could. Several times, he had confirmed that his thought was like a diamond that could pierce the purest crystal. Because reality was transparent, clear as the air, but invisible. He must pierce through that transparent clarity, never pause before the enigmatic knots around which dozens of thinkers crowded, reclining upon the air. As he advanced, the reclining thinkers dispersed into each wall of glass. New corridors and transparent passageways opened up endlessly before the dagger of his intelligence. The first point on which he had to employ his intelligence, during the deepest throes of his weakness, when he was on the verge of being vanquished, was coming up with a strategy to prevent them from treating him like a madman. Ladies and gentlemen, they thought my illness was mental, a schizophrenic attack, the real realization of a lunatic’s fragmented body. When, in reality, it was nothing more than exasperation at my connection to my country. My body was the explicit representation of the general situation of my homeland, not metaphor or allegory. Economic, geographic, climatic, and historical decisions can, under very special circumstances, be concentrated and act upon an individual. He had asserted this and studied it and demonstrated it before his illness. He had dealt with the hypothesis regarding Sarmiento, his book about Sarmiento, written in eleven days, in a fit of inspiration, at a working rhythm of three pages per hour, in his country house on Pedro Goyena, his feet sinking into the dust of the plains; he says that a man can represent a nation. And I am not speaking of mediations here; I don’t believe in mediation, I believe in the collision of analogous constellations, the direct relationships between irreconcilable elements.
From music, he had learned to think without mediations. Because he was an eminent performer on the violin. And music is an art without mediations: tones, rhythms, contrasts, counterpoints. An individual determined, conditioned, affected—directly and immediately—by the state of a nation. If one can crack the cipher to a political destiny in his personal life, he will understand the motion of history. He had said this in many of his books. But he had now decided to treat himself as the object of investigation and in this way to complete his work, begun more than thirty years ago, that Argentinian meditation that the academic community would honor in the final days before his exile.
The book that I announce to you today will deal with my own life, the life of a deprived poet and tinker who replicates with his existence the deep tendencies of his country. That book will be at once an autobiography, a treatise on science, a manual of strategy, and the description of a battle. The history of the final anarchist and the final thinker.
During the years of his illness, he had entered a territory of absolute darkness. A territory given over to witch doctors and neuropaths, but a territory also inhabited by living beings, stuck between inert misery and the vastness of the plain. He had not thought about that territory as someone superstitious but rather as one terminally ill. And arriving at terminal illness can be a lifelong work. There is an extreme lucidity in extreme illness. Not for its content but for its form. There are sick thoughts that exist because they are false, and there are healthy thoughts that nevertheless hold the form of an illness. Ladies and gentlemen, knowledge is like an abstract ailment, produced by an organ that is not fated to think, he would say in his Address to the University. But it is not a metaphor; it is an ailment of the body, the white plague. Like the pearl and the oyster, if once again you insist that I express myself through metaphors.
In order to think you must stop making decisions. You must strain your intelligence in the useless exercise of pure thought. Indecision is now an illness of thought. And that is the origin of philosophy. Therefore, thought is of the same order as illness and paralysis. I understand this illness as supreme indecision. After thirty years of practicing perfect thinking, my body was won by thought and took on the form of thinking in place. My entire body transformed into the pure thought of the homeland.
I am the final Argentine thinker, but still I have not been annihilated; I was on the verge but managed to save myself.
Once he understood the theoretical meaning of his illness, he managed to enter that world populated with material and death with its incredible and varied transformations, clearing away from the materials of civilization the prejudices, the cruelty, the interests that have accumulated like detritus, like white ashes, amid the engineering and bricklaying, and there remained the work of the man interred: earth, water, winds, and dear voices. They survive on a plain of ashes, just enclosed in transparent capsules, a dreaming crystal lost in the great salt mines.
Now he thought about woven patterns. Do you know the creole weave? Thread, knot, cross and knot, red, green, thread and knot, thread and knot. Sarmiento’s mother, under the pear tree, weaving on the loom of sorrows. The phrase from Fierro: “the life of every gaucho you see is woven thick with misfortunes.” It chills to the bone to see how things are woven into the loom of unknowable spiders. His prime concern was to catch the secret of that game. Just there, in the book he would write in exile, the final book of the final thinker, which he had begun to call The Book of the Looms, he would try to sketch out the machine of impersonal events. The mechanical spinning and bookkeeping of fate! Before, it had been believed that it was essential to know something of mechanics, of physics, in order to explain social phenomena; today, biology, cut off from the physical world, is the only thing that can assist us. Can you imagine what the meta-mechanics of colloids could be, for example? Of course you can imagine it. Well, there is the discovery of great social embryos that were once called looms. They are weaving somewhere; you have to figure out where! And our lives are woven; the plot is flowery. It will still cause an institution to take the form of a wasp, another that of a crab, another that of an eagle, and there is no more than a single factory for everything! Ah, if he could break through again, even if for an instant, to once more see the workshop where all the looms work. Would he then waste time watching the weave under a magnifying glass? The vision lasts a second. Then I fall into the brutal dream of reality. I have so many terrible things to tell.
I am the last anarchist and the deprived thinker par excellence. No one is more deprived than I (of everything). He worked on his definitive book, which would be a detailed exposition of his discovery, superimposed and woven and intermingled with a musical history of his life.
Out of pure testamentary willpower, he had decided that his book would not be published until a date he would leave in an envelope, which was to be opened twenty-five years after his death. Not before or after. True legibility is always posthumous. We write for the dead, and also for the secret police. Because they read everything, record everything. Deep down, we write for state intelligence. How could we prevent them from reading us? He would like to become an unpublished author. In his Address to the University, he was going to hint that he was thinking of publishing his book under a pseudonym, but not just under a pseudonym, under a name that no one could even remotely associate with his own. Nobody would know what name he was thinking of using. For example, he had thought of publishing it as an anonymous book, but that would draw attention. Wouldn’t it be better to publish it as a previously unpublished book by a well-known author, to attribute it to another, allow it be to read as if it came from another? He would like it if any book published after his death could be read as his work. That was his bequest to the stupefied youth of Argentina. That was the enigma that he left to the inquisitive. No better act than to change his name and be lost in the plains like Fierro’s children. A book lost amid the sea of future books. A riddle launched into history. A work envisioned in order to pass, so to speak, unperceived. So that one might discover it by chance and understand its message. That was his strategy in the face of the politics of ignorance, isolation, menace, and warfare that the dominant intelligentsia had initiated.
Where all grow rich and shower themselves with honor, I construct a plan to annihilate myself. The decision was symmetrical to one he had made when he got his start: just when he received the highest honors and was recognized as Argentina’s greatest poet and the most virtuosic master of the language, he had stopped writing poetry. The willingly unknown masterwork, encoded and concealed among the books.
Sometimes, he said, he would imagine that night, when little time remained before his Address to the University; he was already walking toward the podium and had, resignedly, already listened to the praise from his enemies. He was going to climb the steps with grace and ease. Standing before the multitudes, when the applause quieted down, with the light of the lamps on his face, seeing no one, dazzled and lucid, he would begin by saying:
I have come here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, to speak to you of a unique discovery, and also to bid you farewell. I thought of giving you a little musical performance on my violin. It would have been an excellent means of synthesizing my thought, if I performed before you a discourse made of music. You would be able to see my mastery in the art of violin as a reprise of my mastery in thought. But I have cast that possibility aside, because I would not have been able to make one of the announcements I wish to make tonight—strictly personal announcements. We are at war. My combat strategy can be summarized by two principles. First, I only attack those things that triumph; sometimes I wait until they succeed. Second, I only attack when I find no allies, when I am alone, when I compromise myself alone.
I think, and that changes nothing. I am alone. I am comfortable in this solitude. No light thing weighs upon me. I am robbed by the pain. I am here in gratitude. Would it not be opportune, then, to be so bold as to point out the final part of my nature?
I have lived exposed to the crude light of the Argentine language for too many years not to suffer burns on my skin. Because the light of language is like a chemical ray. That clear light, the purest water of the mother tongue, kills the men that expose themselves to it. The spots on my skin were proof of my alchemical pacts with the national language’s secret flame. That light is like gold. The light of language distills gold from poetry. That has been another characteristic of my illness, which many have considered a symptom of madness. Few have known that excessive exposure to the light of the Argentine language, that clarity, and those who have all pay the price with their bodies, because the light of language martyrs everyone who is exposed to its subtle transparency.
If I am going to begin and so on and so forth, he told me, I will humbly expose my thoughts to all who have gathered to listen to me in the Great Hall of the University, on the edge of Patagonia, within the bounds of austral thought. And I will end thus: I renounce my seat, which I have referred to as Sociology of the Plains. Does such a suggestive title not call your attention? It is plain space, it is the desert, it is the endless outdoors, as the poet said, and it is there, ladies and gentlemen, where I plan to lose myself. Thank you very much.
Ricardo Piglia, professor emeritus of Princeton University, is unanimously considered a classic of contemporary Spanish-language literature. He published five novels, including Artificial Respiration, The Absent City, and Target in the Night, as well as collections of stories and criticism. Among the numerous prizes he received were the Premio de la Crítica, Premio Rómulo Gallegos, Premio Bartolomé March, Premio Casa de las Américas, Premio José Donoso, and Premio Formentor de las Letras. Robert Croll is a writer, translator, musician, and artist originally from Asheville, North Carolina. He first came to translation during his undergraduate studies at Amherst College, where he focused particularly on the short fiction of Julio Cortázar.
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