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Finding Value in Fiction

Ricardo Piglia's fiction offers insights on the human condition, from companionship to indiscriminate evil.

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: A Day in the Life, by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Robert Croll (Restless Books: 2020), 368 pages.

“What are you working on?” I was talking with a friend—not in person, alas, but in what we old hipsters used to call “cyberspace.”

“I’m reviewing The Diaries of Emilio Renzi.”

“Who’s he? Never heard of him.”

“Well, he isn’t a real person. He’s the alter ego of the Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia, and he appears as a character in Piglia’s fiction.”

“Piglia? Never heard of him either. But wait . . . you are reviewing the ‘diaries’ of a fictional character? So a novel, really?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well, whatever it is, you couldn’t pay me to read it! It sounds like one of those convoluted things that used to appear in little magazines under the banner of ‘experimental fiction.’ Ugh!”

I pointed out to my friend, not for the first time, that human beings, even close friends, differ wildly in what they find interesting. 

A lot of readers, of course, would react as my friend did if urged to read The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (in three volumes!). That’s fine. It’s a free country, or freeish anyway. Still, I think it’s worth trying to describe what Piglia does in this curious project, which differs both from what those who will never read him imagine and from what some of his admirers say about the work.

Ricardo Piglia (1940-2017) was born in Argentina to a family of Italian descent. His birth name, as Ilan Stevens notes in his introduction to the Diaries, was Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi; Renzi was his mother’s surname. Precocious, he began publishing early and never stopped: short articles on a wild range of literary figures, stories, novels, literary criticism, and more. His five novels have all been translated into English; the best known is Artificial Respiration, published in Argentina in 1981 and in English translation in 1994. Its “theme,” the translator Daniel Balderston wrote, “is the Argentine Republic, its tragic history,” from the early 19th century to the era of the Dirty War during which the book was written. This description is at once accurate and misleading; perhaps the heavy word “theme” is to blame. Above all, the novel communicates a sense of the uncanny, and like all of Piglia’s novels, it is informed by his passion for American crime fiction. Later, Piglia lived for some years in the United States, teaching at Princeton University. In 2011, after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he returned to Argentina.

The first volume of the Diaries was published in Spanish in 2015, with the following two volumes appearing in 2016 and 2017. Restless Books, blessed be their name, issued the first volume in English translation in 2017, the second in 2018, and the third this year. This project comes with a complicated backstory, elaborated by Stevens in his introduction:

His most enduring effort, the one likely to earn him a place in posterity, is the 327 notebooks he crafted day in and day out between 1957 and 2015 in which he imagined himself not as Ricardo Piglia but as alter ego, Emilio Renzi. As he switches from the third person to the first person and back, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi generates a sense of alienation, displacement, and wonderment in the reader.

Following Stevens’ introduction, the first volume features an author’s note dated April 20, 2015, in which Piglia talks about the work (“He had begun to keep a diary at the end of 1957 and continued writing it still”) and includes some details about the specific kind of notebooks in which these diaries were written.

All of this feels slightly off to me. I have no idea whether Piglia will “earn a place in posterity,” though I certainly hope he will; if he does, I doubt that these extracts from the diary will be the only texts that keep his flame alive. I wondered as I read (“Rumors about this magnum opus circulated long before the volume were released,” etc.) if there might not be an element of deception at play here, very much in keeping with Piglia’s sensibility.

Another oddity: Stevens writes that the entries in Volume 1 are drawn from 1957 to 1967; Volume 2, ironically subtitled “The Happy Years,” 1968 to 1975; Volume 3, 2011 to 2015. But there is a substantial section of entries at the start of Volume 3 covering the period from 1976 to 1982, preceded by a strange, beguiling, and somewhat mysterious short chapter, titled “Sixty Seconds in Reality,” set in 2014-15 and describing Renzi’s efforts (or should it be Piglia’s efforts?) to gather his notebooks in systematic fashion, followed by his deliberate decision to scramble them chronologically so that they were completely out of order—and then reading them in that altered sequence. Such puzzles and shifts characterize, quite deliberately, the whole business. What we get in the Diaries as published is only a slice of the whole, we must infer, though this “slice” fills three good-sized books, as if to satiate and tantalize the reader at the same time.

If you have followed me this far, there is a good chance that you will at least want to open one of these books and read a bit. Stevens describes Piglia as “an assiduous reader,” a very odd adjective to choose if you’re using just one. Not that Piglia wasn’t assiduous, in at least one sense of the word, but to the extent that it connotes a dutiful attention, it is misleading. Piglia was a profligate reader, extraordinarily receptive and perceptive, with a range as wide as any reader I’ve known (and Stevens certainly sees this too). That is what most attracts me about these Diaries. Their double-consciousness—Piglia, Renzi, Piglia speaking through Renzi—isn’t a prime attraction for me; now and then it’s mildly annoying. The range of reading, the quick comments on this or that writer, interwoven with Piglia/Renzi’s everyday life, including his work for magazines, publishers, and such: this is ambrosial.

To read three such volumes, you need to find the writer companionable. (At least, I do.) This doesn’t at all entail seeing the world from the same angle. I felt dozens of times as I was reading the Diaries how much I would have liked to meet Piglia, to sit with him over dinner and drinks and talk about Peter Handke and Raymond Chandler and Borges (whom Piglia met, of course, and wrote about; there’s a wonderful passage in the first volume about a conversation between them). Friendship plays an important part in these chronicles. At the same time, there is an untethered quality to the life rendered here. Most of the time, it seems, Piglia is attached to some degree to a particular woman, to be succeeded by another, then another, with transitory libertine encounters on the side.

There are plenty of reminders of indiscriminate evil, as in this passage from the third volume:

Dinner with Beatriz Lavandera. A brilliant career as a linguist in the United States, abandoned after the horrible experience of torture. Absurdly arrested while aimlessly taking photos with a friend around the city and accused of having photographed a secret detention center. She is tortured and sees others die. From that point onward, no more interest in linguistics even though she’s one of Chomsky’s favorite disciples. She becomes a crusader for human rights, and this action is supported by the activist Chomsky.

No facile commentary is included in such entries; they speak for themselves.

If you are inclined to give Piglia’s fiction a try, you might start with The Way Out, published by Restless Books in 2020 and translated by Robert Croll, who did the Diaries as well. First published in Spanish in 2013 as El Camino del Ida, this is among other things an academic novel, but as usual with Piglia it blends conventions from several genres; I read it in a single night, unwilling to put it down.

John Wilson is contributing editor at the Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at the Marginalia Review of Books

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