The Ghost of Piglia: A Conversation with Emilio Renzi

TOWARD THE END of his life, Ricardo Piglia (1940–2017) and I planned on writing a volume of conversations for the publisher Anagrama in Spain. He had taught at Princeton for decades and was back in Buenos Aires after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. We had only written a few pages (I shall make them public one day) when he told me he no longer had the strength. He said he wanted to concentrate on editing the 327 notebooks he had written throughout his life — or rather, notebooks that were written by his alter ego, Emilio Renzi, who shows up as the protagonist in a number of Piglia’s novels, including Artificial Respiration (1980) and One-Way Road (2013), the recipient of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize. A couple of years earlier, the first of three volumes of his autobiography, containing the edited version of his notebooks, had appeared in Spain from Anagrama under the title Los diarios de Emilio Renzi. He made sure I got a copy. 

These and the two subsequent volumes are an astonishing intellectual feast. When news came, in 2017, that Piglia had died, I was deeply saddened that our conversation was not to be. But then, magically, Emilio Renzi himself contacted me, suggesting he could be a surrogate for the dialogue. (I should say I have a passion for interviewing literary characters. My first was Erik Lönnrot, the detective in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Death and the Compass” [1942].) While our tête-à-tête is ongoing, in what appears below Renzi and I have concentrated on his “formative years” — that is, the period from 1957 to 1967, during which the young, broke, and overconfident Renzi was, in his own words, “a youth drifting through the city, begging for a place to lock himself and make love.”

Throughout our conversation, Piglia loomed like a ghost in the background. I started by asking Renzi about Piglia’s obsession, in his final days, to prepare his legacy for posterity. Renzi replied that, at 73, “my creator” still thought in the same way he always had, criticizing the same things he had criticized when he was 20. Renzi added: At that point Piglia was “surrounded by converts who change their minds with every season to adapt to the common general mood. They have abandoned their convictions and their libraries again and again, while I remain faithful to my ideas.” By reading his notebooks, Renzi said, readers will be able to know, or to guess, or to imagine what Piglia’s life had been, although on several occasions he made sure to emphasize that it was he, Renzi, and not Piglia, who had authored the diaries.

The following is an edited version of our exchange.


ILAN STAVANS: Why such focus on yourself? 327 notebooks is a lot. I get the sense you might have replaced life with literature. Some say I am guilty of the same sin, though my life has been plentiful.

EMILIO RENZI: In order to write, it is necessary to feel uncomfortable in the world; writing is a shield to confront life (and to explain it).

My best writing so far has arisen from a minor autobiographical reality transformed into a different story, wherein the lived experience only persists in the form of the feelings and emotions expressed in the story.

In literature, I believe, the fundamental thing is to possess a personal world. In my case, the material is secretly autobiographical and depends upon the multitude of family stories that I have heard over the course of my life. In this way, the novel works to diverge from a reality that has already been told, and the narrator tries to recall and reconstruct the lives, the catastrophes, the experiences that he has lived through and the things he has been told (for me, things lived through and told about are the same).

“Things told,” as you put it, is the maneuver that turns reality into language. Reality becomes a text.

A language is an arbitrary system through which members of a community interact with each other and thereby learn a particular way of living. Reality as we know it is conditioned by the grammar and syntax we use (they decide the order, the continuity, the verbal tenses — that is, our awareness of the distinction between present, past, and future). Grammar organizes the organization of the world and proposes a morphology (which is responsible for the structure of the words) and a syntax (which is responsible for the ways in which the words are combined into clauses and sentences).

The notebooks make you appear like a hyperrealist. Everything you say is the subject of meta-consciousness: what you know that you know, what you know that you don’t know, what you don’t know that you know, and, more importantly, what you don’t know that you don’t know.

The tone of the prose in these notebooks derives from the inversion of the act of writing consciously. There is no preparation; you sit down abruptly and write a few words about something that has happened, or that you remember, or something you have thought; everything happens in the midst of life and action. To write a diary is to establish an interval, a personal temporality, defined by the chronological entries. Writing down the date is the only formal sign that identifies a diary. Everything written there is truth; it is a contract, yet, nevertheless, you often write what you believe happened and reality contradicts it. You have to overcome inertia, sit down at the table, and write. That is all, just a movement of the body, an intention without a clear aim or antecedent.

Do you still recognize yourself in your first literary efforts?

The first book is the only one that matters; it takes the shape of an initiation rite, a passage, a crossing from one side to the other. The importance of the thing is merely personal, but you can never forget, I’m sure, the emotion of seeing a book of your writing printed for the first time. After that, you have to try not to turn into “a writer.”

You are part of a generation of Argentine writers that came of age in the wake of Peronism. The 1960s were the age of Tacura, the urban, anti-Semitic guerrilla group. It was the decade in which Peronists and communists participated in elections, a period of economic growth that concluded with yet another coup d’état like the many that defined Argentina in the 20th century.

When speaking about new writers (Rozenmacher, Briante, I myself), it is important to remember that they are not made so because of a generational issue, but rather because they have a different idea of art than that of the writers who preceded them. Is it about studying Argentine culture in the wake of Peronism? Yes, with the Pavesean concept of “lived history.”

It is fair to consider us a generation, that is to say, a group of people with common experiences (Peronism, for example), who have read the same books and chosen the same authors, because age — or youth — is also a cultural problem. In our case, we are outsiders to the established and dominant forms of cultural development. We break from reading Roberto Arlt, who for us is a contemporary. They want to represent us as petulant young people who rebel and attempt yet again to turn the problem of a new literature into a matter of sociology and the zeitgeist. … We are, stated ironically, a group of writers who toil for a new culture in Argentina. A new culture that rebuilds tradition and chooses its own point of reference.

I sense ambivalence in your words. Do you really feel part of that generation? Or are you an individualist?

To speak about a generation is to make a cultural judgment, Gramsci said; discovering your age is a way to determine what you must have read and learned in your youth. The concept of generations ceases to have a purpose: the artist is no longer analyzed in terms of the cultural horizon of his age (that is, of his epoch). More than his opinions or declarations, a writer’s age is a fact of the epoch to which he belongs. Age, in terms of literature, is a symptom. Each generation reads its own pared-down series of books, and that is what identifies it and becomes visible in its writing.

Nevertheless, I am skeptical of associations and leagues of intellectuals. It implies the belief that a specific field of study, in and of itself, gives common interests. It would be more logical to organize writers according to their literary poetics and thereby view their political positions.

Politics has its own registers and modes, which cannot be applied directly to literature or culture. It doesn’t mean they are autonomous, it only means that they have their own ways to discuss and “do” what we call politics, or rather that they have their own power relationships. But we cannot forget that literature is a society without a state. No one, no institution or form of coercion, can obligate someone to accept or enact a certain artistic poetics. The material decisions of art belong to their own sphere; in fact, more than talking about politics in general, it is necessary to talk about the dynamic between the museum and the market. The museum as site and metaphor for consecration or legitimacy, and the market as the sphere of circulation for the works, always mediated by money. In that frame, the problem of “creation” becomes at once more clear and more complex. That must be the crux explaining the meaning of a new publication.

In some way, the central mistake of Argentine writers can be detected in their “tremendous” and falsely literary metaphors. They always give a definition for each situation — that is, they always define and give a meaning to characters’ actions as they occur.

For a history of literature, the only valuable criterion must be the present, meaning that what justifies a writer historically is not his or her permanence in the zeitgeist; instead, his or her reality is a kind of continuous present, becoming contemporary in some times and obscure in others. Because for no one, at any time, are there absolute values.

The writer’s life isn’t only made of the books he writes but of the books he reads. My own life as a reader, for instance, is marked by the friendship I’ve established with Don Quixote. A version of my autobiography could be made of chronicles of when precisely I reread Cervantes’s masterpiece and the unique ways it changed me again. Books, books …

They are not simply all of the ones I have read but rather those for which I clearly remember the setting and the moment in which I read them. If I can remember the circumstances under which I was with a book, that proves to me that it was decisive. They are not necessarily the best or the ones that have influenced me most; they are the ones that have left a mark.

Tell me about meeting Borges. You’ve said that the experience changed you forever. Much of what you’ve written is an attempt to come to terms with his legacy. You have also devoted your career to mapping Argentine literature, looking at the work of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Roberto Arlt, Julio Cortázar, and Juan José Saer. But Borges is the gravitational force. I can’t begin to count the number of times his name appears in your oeuvre, especially in your essays.

Meeting with Borges. The feeling of standing in front of literature, or rather, seeing the workings of a marvelous literature-making machine. He speaks slowly, with strange cutoffs in the middle of sentences. Absurdly, I felt tempted to give him the words, as though he paused because he couldn’t come up with them. In the end, he always brought out a different word from the one I had imagined, more beautiful and more precise than mine. He touched his head to indicate the scar from the accident that gave rise to “The South.” It was impossible to perceive any mark, but I felt that the act was, in some sense, a ritual for him. The same thing when I left: he held my hand for a while and I feared that I was the one holding him prisoner, but finally he gave it a soft squeeze and smiled again. He is not as tall as I remembered and more handsome: gray eyes, smooth smile. Impossible to make him say anything different from what he always says, which doesn’t change the magic he creates by speaking, saying the same thing you have read. I was moved every time I heard him use a sententious and intense tone to recite his and other’s texts.

When I read Borges, at times he seems to me to be an English-language writer who happened to write in Spanish.

Technically, Borges is connected to the cleanest narrative in the English language: the same reasoning behind the narrative material, the clear presence of a common narrator in all of the work (Borges himself), the framework that primes the action. His intelligence consists in erecting complex and unreal worlds upon those structures of meaning. Another of Borges’s qualities is that reality is never presented; it is always obscure and intriguing, and therefore it becomes the object of an investigation, giving rise to the searches (most often bibliographic ones for him) that conclude the events. His “humility” turns him into a perfect transmitter for books written by others, for stories that don’t exist, for fantastical characters whom he encounters, recreates, and displays. The greatest example of this method is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the best thing Borges has written. A small bibliographic reconstruction leads into a parallel world. The story, painstakingly put together with chronometric precision, is blended, falls into the void, into unreality, into dream and nightmare. The most valuable part of Borges is the path that climbs up the hillside of the world toward that unreal, magical confirmation.

He had an immediate and warm way of creating intimacy, Borges … he was always that way with everyone he talked to: he was blind and did not see them, and he always spoke to them as if they were near, and that closeness is in his writings; he is never patronizing and gives no air of superiority, he addresses everyone as if they were more intelligent than he, with so much intimation that he has no need to explain what is already known. And it is that intimacy that his readers sense.

Does belonging to the Argentine literary tradition tire you?

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.

What do you think of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? It came out in Buenos Aires in 1967 and since then nothing has been the same. To me it justifies the existence of the Spanish language.

I read it too quickly and with uncertain feelings. On the one hand, it seems too — professionally — Latin American to me: a kind of celebratory local color, with something of Jorge Amado and also of Fellini. The prose is very potent and also very demagogic, with calculated punch lines for the paragraphs to produce an effect of surprise.

Too bad. You’re a chauvinist who is blind to beauty that isn’t Argentine. How about Carlos Fuentes — say, Where the Air Is Clear? I don’t like Fuentes even though I’m Mexican — or perhaps because I’m Mexican. Your nationality ought not be a prison. It should set you free. I say this perhaps because I’m Jewish.

Fuentes works with a structure similar to that of John Dos Passos, where individual lives and social histories are mixed. He has trouble escaping from a certain superficial schematism. The characters are explained and not narrated. On the other hand, he only describes, or rather, tends to describe exclusively the extraordinary (wars, revolutions, catastrophes). He has trouble finding the short, brief dimension, the meaningful moment, the detail that lends reality. The most attractive thing is the breadth of possibility in Fuentes’s prose, which ranges from the essay (“For the first time in Mexican history a stable middle class exists, the surest protection against tyranny and unrest…”) to poetic, almost surrealistic illustration (“City of motionless pain … city of the violated outrage…”).

In no way is he a better short-story writer than Cortázar. Good control of insignificant and frivolous situations, but grisly and sensationalistic resolutions.

In that we agree, I’m happy to say. Let’s talk about “foreign” influences. Like Borges (or maybe thanks to him), you’ve been infatuated with English-language writers: Fitzgerald, Capote, Faulkner. And with hard-boiled detective fiction. Or did you come to these writers by means of generational devotion? I should say that you also make room for Kafka and Pavese. 

We are interested in American literature because it allows us to see how great artists (Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers) are also popular. A unique case in contemporary literature. There are three reasons, I think. The breadth of the educational system, which places works on the obligatory reading list, and a very developed literary industry. The third reason is the great narrative tradition, which incorporates formal experimentation into the novelistic tradition.

Fitzgerald was able to realize the fantasy of being a writer better than anyone. One would never be as famous as a film actor, although the notoriety would probably last longer. Neither would one have the same power as a man of action, although he would certainly be more independent. Of course, we are always unsatisfied in the practice of this work, but I, for one, would have chosen no other fate, whatever the reason.

I am reading Faulkner’s “The Bear,” a story of learning that, for me, has slight secret echoes of Melville’s Moby-Dick. Stories with wild animals are the only ones worth telling, even though you sometimes come across peaceful and familiar stories with cats or dogs as protagonists. The best animals in literature are those of Kafka: “Investigations of a Dog,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” “A Report to an Academy.” In fact, in Kafka the animals are intellectuals or artists. Whereas Faulkner’s bear and Melville’s whale are forms of untamed nature. Having said that, what can be said about the horses that abound in Argentine literature?

I should connect the notion of “destiny” in Pavese with the “past” in Faulkner. They are crystallized ways of defining motivations that the characters act out without understanding. Faulkner writes as though the reader belongs to the story he narrates, never explaining anything that the characters already know.

The list of writers influenced by William Faulkner is shocking: Onetti, García Márquez, Rulfo, Sabato, Dalmiro Sáenz, Saer, Rozenmacher, Miguel Briante. I keep myself away from that wave, seeking a laconic and elliptical prose. In that, at least, I am unique in the rhetoric of these times.

How about Joyce? There is something in the Irish (I think of Yeats, O’Casey, Beckett, Heaney) that mimics the experience of defeat we have in Latin America.

In his short stories, Joyce deliberately avoids all events; they have almost no plot, except for an oblique vision that shows a fragment of a broader theme. He does not seek adventures or dramatic incidents, is interested in the routine of the everyday, and attempts to present the greatest possible amount of otherwise implicit material so that, in the stories, there is always a glimmer, a light that fleetingly but clearly illuminates the whole world. The measure of success for such an open form resides, of course, in its level of concentration. Even if Joyce — in bad faith, from what I understand — claimed not to know Chekhov, his stories are connected to those of the Russian writer in terms of his effort to write stories without endings, which signified the first important transformation of the genre after Poe.

Who do you write for? I know it’s a trite question but, for Piglia, there was frequently the question of censorship: what was published, what could be published, what should have been published.

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?

Is a writer born or made?

A writer is self-appointed, he self-promotes at the flea market, but why does this position occur to him? How does one become a writer? Is one made to become a writer? For the person that it happens to, it is not a calling, nor is it a decision; it seems instead to be an obsession, a habit, an addiction; if he stops doing it he feels worse, but to need to do it is ridiculous, and ultimately it becomes a way of living like any other.

Really like any other? There is a sense in us writers that only literature matters, that through literature we grant order to chaos. In doing so, we become actors whose lines we ourselves, as playwrights, write. It’s all a game called life. Is Piglia the playwright and you the actor?

The other way around.


Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in the Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.