Literature and respiration: Ricardo Piglia (1940-2017)
We read as if gasping for breath. To keep on reading is at times a strange, imperious need, something like a burst of energy late in a run, when there seems to be no air left in one’s lungs.
The writer is a reader in extremis, someone for whom stopping is not part of the game. When the Stoics wrote about virtuous death, the fact is that they did write about it, not die about it. They spoke of absence by filling it with letters. What is truly odd, in the end, is to remain on this side of the veil, with the living, those who are daily abandoned by the dead.
Ricardo Piglia died on Friday, January 6th. Like so many who knew and admired him, I had been thinking for some time about the meaning of a life that extends out to the limit, as if teetering on the threshold of death. Ever since he was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease a few years earlier, his body had been shutting itself down, and the news from close friends who visited him were startling. Ricardo was paralyzed by degrees until only his eyes and ears were left. Thanks to eye tracking technology, and despite a tracheotomy and a severe dependence on the machines and people who surrounded him, he was able to write until nearly the end, directing his gaze at the keys displayed on a screen. He kept on reading, listening, and writing, increasingly connected to machines.
For his readers, it is impossible not to recall the legendary metaphor of the storytelling machine that remains stubbornly turned on, on the margins of the official discourse. In La Ciudad Ausente (1992), the narrator returns to the machine imagined up by Macedonio Fernández in the Museo de la Novela de la Eterna – which is responsible for preserving the author’s beloved – and transforms it into a device that can keep on relating that which escapes the attention of the city’s inhabitants. Hopelessly enchanted by the songs of the sirens of state and commercial propaganda, the city is deaf to the story of those who were forced to leave it. The exercise undertaken by Piglia, as a reader of Macedonio, is to turn an ear to the gadget that has kept alive the voices of the banished. That which dialectical theory would call counter-ideological is revealed to be the product of the imagination of those who no longer find space for themselves inside the city. Exile is a precondition for poetry, or at least has been ever since politics have been used to frame life in the city, as truth became a philosophical problem in the struggle over the right to speak out in the public arena.
Ricardo was not a Platonist, but he was fascinated by the discourses that emerged on the margins of celebrity. In his literature, all that is overly evident is subject to the warping of the fictional: within every story there are always two stories, something which is not revealed immediately. At the same time, his flirtations with detective stories represent a belief in the duplicating power of narrative: something real is unfurling before our eyes without our noticing it, or without us understanding how or why. And yet Piglia’s detective is not a Sherlock who, fueled by magic powder and rationality taken to the point of delirium, comes to unveil reality. Less exceptional, or perhaps less heroic, but modern all the same, Renzi is prosaic in his adventures, never completely given over to them – as if pursued by a Bartleby, he is always on the verge of declaring that it isn’t worth getting to the end of it all.
Literature comes before the end of it all. On the Saturday after his death, at a conference in Philadelphia dedicated to studies of the 19th century in Latin America, a friend recalled her last visit to Ricardo in Buenos Aires. Having been warned about the terrible scene she was about to find, she was surprised: even in the absence of movement or speech, literature was still a great fiesta, surrounding the machines keeping the writer alive. A writer without a body, Piglia joked, seriously.
Memory, the overarching theme of politics, which Ricardo took to its limit: how to deal with the voices of the dead, how to reconfigure narratives and write the history that was never told? The festival of literature is our chance to delve into the archives, to frolic in the face of oblivion, jumbling up the memories before us.
Another friend recalled his last visit to Piglia, in September. Awed by Ricardo’s proverbial gentility but also by his prodigious memory, able to recall the tiniest of details of events transpired decades earlier, this friend exclaimed: “What a memory you have…” And there, on the screen of the machine, before a paralyzed body, there appeared the words “los recuerdos persisten.” Memories persist.
Over the past few days, it has been a difficult exercise to revisit the emails I exchanged with Ricardo. Just over ten years ago, when I was awarded tenure, he sent a message of congratulations. The subject line is like an invitation to reflect, and hits home: “Permanence and fluidity.” Then there is his curiosity, and his request for me to recommend three young (“o no tan jóvenes”) Brazilian narrators, because his “most recent points of reference [were] Osman Lins, Silviano Santiago, Clarice Lispector, etc.” And the time when, as we were scheduling an interview with him before his return to Buenos Aires, he told Paul Firbas (copying me) that he had seen James Irby, who had been moved upon recalling a conversation about Lezama Lima (“¿O era sobre Vallejo?” Piglia wonders). That was Ricardo: brief conversations and short messages invariably accompanied by a small gesture, a more or less enigmatic literary nod, and warmth distilled into one or two lines.
Piglia never went to Flip, the major literary Brazilian festival, but he loved Fliporto, an alternative venue in the Brazilian Northeast. Margins were his passion, as we read in another email, from 2010: “In Recife I hope to meet the ghosts of Osman Lins and Clarice” (both writers born in the city). In 2011, as we were editing our interview with him, he wrote to me and Paul Firbas: “the interview has come out very nicely, very fluid, with multiple resonances. It has the virtue of crystallizing thoughts yet to be thought, which are the best sort, and the most intriguing. Moreover, it produces the illusion of a conversation, as if it hadn’t been recorded and filmed. Aside from this illusion of immediacy and improvisation (à la jazz), I would like to revise it or at least adjust a few details (underlined in green), but I haven’t got much time these days. Let me know what plans you have for the conversation. For my part, I have been thinking about preparing a Crítica y Ficción II with interviews from recent years, and of course I would like very much to include it. But that will be a long way off… I hope that your summers have been serene and that you are well. I have just spent a week in Caracas, where everything is quite accelerated and quite chaotic.”
Today, I have the impression that there is something cinematic in these messages, something of a passion in Ricardo for fluid messages in which only memories remain, like excerpts from a film whose plot is never quite made clear. Jumping ahead to 2015, when the disease had already taken hold of his life – from what I know, these messages may have already been dictated or “written” with his eyes on the machine. Or was he still working with the aid of an iPad? In this case, I’ll reproduce the message in full: “Dear Pedro, I’ve been thinking about you often these days as I reread the conversation we had at your house with Fermín and Paul on the night of the will. The images came back as if in a dream. You know that I’m in a bit of a bad way with my health – nothing serious, I’m not in pain, but the condition is affecting my movement, so I haven’t left home and am taking advantage of this compulsorily sedentary lifestyle to work. Much love to Andréa, and a warm hug for you. Regards, Ricardo. Sent from my iPad.”
He was referring to the interview we’d conducted in 2010 at my house in Princeton, with Paul Firbas and Fermín Rodríguez (Fermín took part while in California, over Skype), and which had begun with the improbable scene of Ricardo arriving in the company of not only his wife Beba, but also the notaries who had come to make his will official. Ricardo was retiring from the university, and for legal reasons had had to write his will; it was signed right there, in our kitchen, with us as witnesses. Afterwards we spoke at length about “middles and ends,” speed and reading, literature and the end.
Later came brief messages, some “signed” by him, others by Luisa Fernández, his assistant, who would be transformed into a “Mexican muse” in the Diarios de Emilio Renzi. He wrote to say he was touched by the essay I had published in the Brazilian magazine piauí about the Diarios in 2015; and finally, in March of 2016, he had been enthused by the Portuguese-language publication of A memória rota by Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, which I edited and translated, and took it upon himself to write a blurb for the back cover.
What does it mean for Ricardo to have kept on writing, ever more deeply entangled in his machines? Of course he had a small legion of people around him, from his nurses and assistants to those who simply loved him. But what meaning lies in maintaining one’s “voice” as final recourse and instrument, now completely contained within the speck of one’s gaze, in the solitary gesture of looking at a keyboard and activating letters?
Literature as a prison, as the paranoid search for the perfect narrative… Here I recall Prisión perpetua, from 1988, which opens “in another country,” as the narrator passes on an unforgettable piece of advice from his father: “Even the paranoid have enemies.” The storyteller goes on: “It wasn’t advice, but I always took it that way: a whole life’s experience, boiled down into a private maxim. The saying was the end of a story, the glass where the reflection of a catastrophe could be seen.” We then follow along with the story of the narrator’s father, a Peronist who is first thrown into jail and then sunk in despair, until we come to this brief reflection: “The light of Flaubert. The modern novel is a prison novel. It narrates the end of experience. And when there are no experiences, the narrative moves onward towards paranoid perfection. The void is covered with the persecutory fabric of perfect connections, airtight structure, le mot juste. Flaubert sets out the path, Steve used to say. A man shut up for days at a time in his work cell, isolated from life, who constructs the pure form of a novel under unimaginable pressure. The laborious light of his room, left burning all night, served to guide the boats crossing the river. Those sailors, Steve said, were of course better narrators than Flaubert. They constructed the flow of their narrative along the river of experience.”
We have been left behind, as if the fantastical metaphor of artificial respiration, now resignified, were trying to remind us that literary narrative is also withdrawal, selection, obsession, and a fierce way of fleeing from the world in order to grapple with it. We, who grow little bit lonelier by the day, cornered in this contemporary world on the verge of catastrophe, are left with the glass of memory, which takes shape in the “compulsorily sedentary lifestyle” of the literary machine that we are tasked with keeping alive.
Or perhaps – whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not – the machine may remain alive, keeping us breathing for the time being.[Translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux]
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