The release of the English translation by Robert Croll of the first of three volumes of Ricardo Piglia’s acclaimed autobiography, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Formative Years (Restless Books), is the excuse to bring his obsessions into focus. In the Spanish-speaking world, he is a classic. Indeed, not since Roberto Bolaño did a Latin America writer exert such influence on younger generations. After teaching for years at Princeton, Piglia retired to Buenos Aires, where he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died in 2017, at the age of 76, having spent his last years transforming 327 notebooks he had written throughout his life into the Diaries. He himself often referred to the notebooks as his magnum opus. Emilio Renzi, by the way, is Piglia’s alter ego and the protagonist of his novels. (His mother’s maiden name, by the way, was Aída Renzi.)
Ilan Stavans: Calling Piglia a writer’s writer might be misleading. I actually think of him as a writer’s reader. Or maybe as a reader’s writer. By this I mean that the act—and art—of reading is at the core of his endeavor.
Carlos Fonseca: I think the diaries were the underground mythical work that fed his more visible literary production, a masterpiece in which his long-standing goal of blurring the distinctions between life and fiction, author and protagonist, finally gets realized. Piglia used to say that everything he wrote—his novels, his short stories, his essays—were a mere excuse in order to one day publish his diaries. So, by the time he finally sat down to transcribe them, they had become mythical. The impressive thing is that they didn’t disappoint at all. On the contrary, they remain perhaps the clearest expression of his conceptual poetic. A shinning exploration of what it could mean both to devote a life to literature, as well as read a life as literature. They provide a wonderful final touch to his life’s work and, despite their absolute singularity, I think they should be read in tradition of the best diary writers, authors that Piglia admired, like Pavese, Kafka, and Gombrowicz. In the Diaries of Emilio Renzi, one finds a man willing to keep writing until the very end, even while struggling with the illness that ended up paralyzing him.
Juan Villoro: In this peculiar variation of the autobiographical mode that are The Diaries of Emilio Renzi, the author reads himself and unfolds himself into someone else. Certain passages are narrated several times, putting in question the labors of memory and its capacity to retell them. Also, in a selection of his work called Antología personal (2014), he modifies his texts while reading them: the chapter of a novel shows up as a short story and a lecture he delivered in class becomes an essay. Authorship isn’t stable; Piglia’s act of reading himself is a changing, mercurial operation. In the Diaries, we follow a life that seeks to become a destiny. As Onetti wanted it, we are witnesses to “vidas breves,” brief lives, contradictory, in permanent tension, a process that demands to be interpreted. The experience as problem.
IS: Borges was a lover of detective fiction, a genre considered second-rate when it comes to literary quality. Piglia inherited that obsession. For a while, he edited a literary series of classics of detective fiction. He also wrote profusely on the topic. The detective, for him, is a surrogate for the public intellectual attempting to understand what makes Argentina tick. That, precisely, is the topic of his novel Artificial Respiration (1994). But the detective is also a literary critic who scans the world as if it was a text.
CF: Beyond everything, Piglia was first of all an acute reader of the type of fictions that structure our perception of the social and the political. In this sense, I think he saw in detective fiction the genre that—starting already in the 19th century—could best depict what he liked to call, in a clear allusion to authors like Philip K. Dick and Don DeLillo, our paranoid reality. In fact, Piglia’s own texts—what he sometimes called his “paranoid fictions”—are marked by his particular reading of the American literary tradition. A reader of both Faulkner and Raymond Chandler, Piglia found in the American hard-boiled crime fiction a way of discussing many of the political topics that interested him and that marked his political experience as an emerging writer during the Argentine Dictatorship of the 1970s. One of his big ideas is that literary traditions are always dual: they spring out of a mixture of two different lineages. In his case, he decided to mix this brand of detective fiction with the conceptual fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Arlt and Macedonio Fernández. What came out of this, I think, is one of the most innovative brands of conceptual literature published in the second part of the twentieth century. Sometimes reminiscent of Pynchon or DeLillo, his work remains however an absolutely singular take on the classical detective plot. Perhaps, now that I think about it, his diaries could also be read like this: as a detective novel that uncovers the secret plot of his life.
JV: In Piglia’s fictions, criticism is a narrative strategy; the theme might be the text itself and the various readings it can be opened to. Against the monolithic and oppressive discourse of the state, the man who sometimes was Piglia and sometimes Renzi conceived strategies to retell lost plots, necessarily unfinished, of a private, secret life. It isn’t an accident that he saw the detective as a popular variant of the intellectual. The loose ends of reality need an interpreter, a reader.
Robert Croll: Beyond his participation in the lineage of detective fiction, Piglia was deeply interested in writing and reading as acts of investigation in their own right. The three volumes of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi, like much of Piglia’s writing, are richly woven with both allusions and explicit references to literature and history. And just as this layered quality makes the diaries so rewarding with each successive rereading, it makes the translation a fundamentally investigative task as well. There is, of course, the immediate issue of tracing Piglia’s quotations from countless novels and philosophical texts, each of which may or may not have their own separate legacies of translation and interpretation in English. At the same time, the more subtle political and cultural references to Argentina, which lie in the implicit backdrop of the original, are often far less familiar to readers outside of that context and so must be researched and distilled in a way that allows the outsider a point of entry. And, naturally, the conditions of this investigation become more complex over the course of the diaries: as the author continues to read and to mature, his depth of expertise in literary traditions and genre is constantly developing, so that the wealth of cultural referents expands from chapter and even from entry to entry. Akin to mimicking Piglia’s own fascination with the written lives of authors—he is, after all, constantly revisiting diaries by the likes of Pavese and Kafka and sifting through notebooks filled by his younger self—translating Piglia demands an elaborative reading and rereading of the text.
JV: Among the astonishments of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi, I want to emphasize a passage I heard him tell a number of times with some variants. One of Piglia’s most admirable characteristics was to insert stories in his lectures and conversations and to leave them unfinished, in suspense. Orality represented for him a well of possible themes but also a workshop where he sought to find solutions. One of his late illusions consisted in building a bungalow in a piece of land he had bought in Uruguay where he could tape dialogues with his friends. He talked with the joy of exploring himself and he didn’t need grand external stimulators in order to devote himself to speculation. In interviews and panels, he never considered that a question could be imprudent or insignificant. In the face of the simplest of curiosities he would respond with immense curiosity. A nimble issue could take him to a potential theory. In this mode, I heard him refer the following scene a number of times: when he still didn’t know how to read, he would sit outside his house in Andrigué, with a book in hand. Nearby was the train station. He would enjoy seeing those who were coming back from work. But he especially enjoyed being seen by others who would think that he already knew how to read. The habit continued until a man came to him and said: “Tenés el libro al revés,” you have the book upside down.” His pretentiousness was replaced with shame. The episode reveals what Piglia sought from the beginning: “leer de otro modo,” to read in a different way.
IS: It is no surprise, of course, that Piglia is Argentinean. He couldn’t be anything else. Argentina has a long and illustrious tradition of readers. Borges is at the heart of this tradition, of course, which is also populated by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, and Juan José Saer. At any rate, Piglia’s lifelong quest was to create a reader’s map of Argentina. The Diaries of Emilio Renzi bring that quest to fruition. To me one of the most illustrious members of the tradition is Beatríz Sarlo, Piglia’s first wife. She reads Argentine letters in equally enlightening fashion, although her interests, once could say, are more sociological. This is interesting to me because Piglia has an emasculated voice.
CF: Yes, Piglia was perhaps the Argentine writer who—since Borges—best read the Argentine tradition. He understood, like Borges, that every author rewrites—in each of his publications—the tradition and in light of that he decided to “rewrite” the Argentine tradition. He started with Borges but, faithful as always to his idea that every tradition is dual, he decided to mix it with what until then had been read as the opposite tradition: that of Roberto Arlt. Roberto Arlt, the son of immigrants, the “reader of foreign translations,” the writer who didn’t care about “writing well” as Piglia says, allowed him to render impure a tradition that due to the towering heritage of Borges feels sometimes a bit claustrophobic. In his work, this tradition is always lead elsewhere, towards exile. Gombrowicz, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Joyce: these are the allies of Piglia. The marginal authors that somehow influenced the major traditions. At last, Piglia is interested in how to write in the tradition of the avant-garde movements. His interest in Cortázar, Puig and Saer comes from there, as well as his interest in perhaps the most enigmatic figure of Argentine literary history, the author who according to Piglia is Borges’s true antecessor: Macedonio Fernández. Following the steps of this strange writer, Piglia asks: what could it mean to be an avant-garde writer today? As well as, what would this mean in political terms?
IS: In a conversation with Roberto Bolaño published in Spain’s newspaper El País published on March 3, 2011, they talked about switching languages. This is a topic that is dear to my heart. Do we become someone else in another language? Piglia said: “Cambiar de lengua es siempre una ilusión secreta,” to change one’s language is always a secret illusion. He lived part of the year in New Jersey for decades yet he never wrote in English, at least not significantly, not to my knowledge. That may be because switching languages means getting lost. It represents, at the beginning at least, or else partially, a diminishment of the self.
CF: I think Piglia was obsessed with two seemingly opposing yet similar ideas: the idea of a possibility of a private language and the idea of a universal language. He saw in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a perfect example of the utopic coincidence of these two poles: a novel where the writer decided to lead his own language towards a universal horizon, while at the same time sketching the possibility of writing a novel in a private language. For him, Finnegans Wake was the utopic attempt of bridging different languages. In fact, in his novel The Absent City, he imagines an island—suitably called Finnegans Island—where a group of scientists and artists are searching for a machine that will be able to reach the origin of language and signification. There is, however, no exaltation of linguistic purity in his work. Rather, to the contrary, culture is always the product of impurity, of displacement, of exile. As he states in Artificial Respiration: “Exile is the true utopia.”
RC: The tension between a private and universal language is, I think, central to reading The Diaries of Emilio Renzi and likewise to reproducing it in translation. A diary affords us an opportunity for a truly sustained look at a writer, within a text that can be at once deeply personal and yet aware of the potential presence of other readers. In a given week of his life we often encounter multiple registers, dealing with the mundane to the confessional to the philosophical. But, more critically, in translating a work composed over the course of a lifetime, the task of trying to echo the voice of the narrator in another language becomes complex because that voice is not static. We cannot perceive the evolution of the writer from page to page, and yet there are points of inflection, signs of an author in a continuous state of becoming himself. At some points, as in beginning of The Formative Years, there is a visible gap between the mature writer and the young man experiencing his first inklings that he is to become a writer: the one enjoys the benefits of time and intentionality, while the other’s writing is more flawed, more aleatory, and often more direct. The process of translation must, to some extent, mirror the chronological order in which the diaries were written in order to allow that natural transition of tone to come across. It must also be systematic in cataloguing and reproducing the spontaneous inconsistencies of day to day notes, the variety of ways that dates and places are registered. Translating the diaries becomes a kind of exercise in empathy, a close reading of the work as a comprehensive human document.
IS: The decision to publish the three volumes of Piglia’s autobiography under the authorship of Emilio Renzi is emblematic. Of course, Piglia’s name is still in the cover. He remains responsible for the task. But he his creation, Emilio Renzi, is the protagonist. This means that fiction supersedes reality. Or that reality exists in order for fiction to sweep it away. I would even go further: by calling them The Diaries of Emilio Renzi, Piglia acknowledges that all human experience is a concoction of the mind, that memory is an invention, and that truth can only be found through a recognition of that invention.
CF: Yes, I think that alongside his idea that every story is two stories and every tradition a dual tradition, the other important way this theory of the double enters into his work is through the figure of Emilio Renzi, his literary alter-ego. Piglia’s real name is Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi, so one can see that Emilio Renzi is a playful displacement of his own identity: a literary rewriting of his own persona. I think this was Piglia’s own way of tackling the perennial quest of the avant-gardes to overthrow the distinction between life and art. In Piglia, life always becomes transmuted into art. Life becomes something to be narrated, something readable. This is perhaps most clearly evident in the Diaries of Emilio Renzi, where he decided to gift to his alter-ego the authority over his own life. In doing so, he not only questions the traditional genre of the diary, but signals that is life must be read as fiction. This, to me, is extremely suggestive and is one of the many aspects that make the diaries so fascinating. By introducing Emilio Renzi, he blurs the border between author and fictional character, and suggests that life is really a fictional construction.
RC: Piglia was incredibly adept at blending and blurring the boundaries between first- and third-person narrative, as well as shifting between the present moment of the writing and a retrospective examination of what has led to that moment. Therefore, one of the technical aspects of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi that proved most difficult to render in English was Piglia’s careful use of ambiguity. While it is always challenging to render the simultaneously durative and iterative sense of time that comes naturally in the Spanish imperfect tense, a greater issue here proves to be finding a way to replicate the way the actions in that tense can float, free of subject. Beyond the construction of the language itself, many of the most engaging moments for me in translating the diaries also come when Piglia interrogates the act of translation, which he does increasingly in The Happy Years. As the narrator grows increasingly aware that the text will one day be read, the question of how Piglia wants us to read—and, by extension, to translate—becomes ever more present. Most readers will, I suspect, come to The Diaries of Emilio Renzi with an understanding of Piglia’s fiction or essays and have some knowledge of his life (or, at least, of its culmination), so that the diaries become an exploration of the unknown process leading to a known end. We trace his ideas and observations, recognizing seeds (such as the anecdote in The Formative Years that would inspire Money to Burn) that will ultimately grow to become familiar stories and novels.
IS: Is it a sin to confess that I like Piglia’s essays perhaps more than his fiction? I should put it in another way. Piglia is at his best when he uses literary criticism for artistic purposes. But the novels as such feel belabored. They are hyper-constructed. They don’t impress me precisely because Piglia seems intent on wanting to impress me as a reader.
CF: I don’t think it is a sin as much as sign of the brilliance of his work. I think what baffles us about his novels is their hybrid nature: halfway between the essayistic mode and the narrative mode, Piglia’s narrative world defies generic conventions. Like Duchamp before him, removing art from the realm of the retinal and the purely aesthetic, Piglia’s novels, diaries and essays place narration at the very border with philosophy. Like Duchamp’s conceptual art, his novels must be read as conceptual fictions. It suffices to say that, following Valéry, he was fond of quoting the idea that Descartes’ Discourse on the Method was the first modern novel precisely because it told the story of a passionate investigation of an idea. His novels remind me, in this way, of something Don DeLillo once mentioned in an interview: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” I think few authors have taken this intuition further than Piglia and in doing so, have changed the genre in the way he did. I think it is beautiful to think that his essays can be read as fictions and his novels as essays. A bit like DeLillo. I think that, in this way, they profoundly disrupt the more traditional plot-driven novels that perhaps have marked the American tradition.
Ilan Stavans is the Publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include On Borrowed Words, Spanglish, Dictionary Days, The Disappearance, and A Critic’s Journey. He has edited The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, the three-volume set Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, among dozens of other volumes. Juan Villoro’s journalistic and literary work has been recognized with such international prizes as the Herralde de Novela, Premio Xavier Villaurrutia, Rey de España, Ciudad de Barcelona, and Vázquez Montalbán de Periodismo Deportivo, and Antonin Artaud. He has been a professor of literature at UNAM, Yale, and la Universidad Pompeu Fabra de Barcelona. He is a columnist for the newspapers Reforma and El Periódico de Catalunya. Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, The White Review, and Asymptote. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London. Colonel Lágrimas is his first novel. Robert Croll is the translator of The Diaries of Emilio Renzi. A writer, translator, musician, and artist originally from Asheville, NC, 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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