Ricardo Piglia’s Books of Disquiet

The Act of Recounting

Novelist Ricardo Piglia’s struggle for freedom in 20th century Argentina.


In 2013, the Argentine novelist Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative disease that eventually killed him. He retired from a teaching position at Princeton two years earlier and had just returned to his native Buenos Aires, where he set about completing what he considered his life’s work: editing the diaries he had been keeping since he was 16 (he was then 72) into a series of publishable books. At that point, Piglia had written five novels, six short story collections, and five books of essays and criticism and was considered one of Argentina’s foremost contemporary writers, although he was largely unknown outside Latin America and certain corners of New Jersey. The journals were to be the crowning achievement of a celebrated career.

As the disease progressed, Piglia came to rely on eye-tracking software and a team of five assistants to finish the project. When his health insurance refused to pay for an experimental medication, nearly 125,000 people signed a petition that ultimately got him the treatment. After several years of 12-hour workdays, he finished collating and editing the diaries. He then released them in three volumes, with the final installment arriving in Spanish-language bookstores eight months after his death in 2017.

Before they were published, Piglia’s journals had taken on an almost mythical status in the Spanish-speaking literary world. For decades he had hinted at their scope in interviews, and they became the subject of a 2015 documentary. But when they came out, they were hardly recognizable as journals. A lifelong fan of police procedurals, he would often borrow terms from the genre to describe his own work, casting the critic as detective, the author as criminal, and the text as the crime. And he insisted that narratives, like an arson or a murder, require active investigation. His diaries inhabit this vision down to their attribution. Piglia published them as The Diaries of Emilio Renzi in three volumes: Formative Years, The Happy Years, and A Day in the Life. (Renzi is the name he gave his detective alter ego in his first book, the 1967 short story collection The Invasion.)

The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa once described his Book of Disquiet as “a factless autobiography,” and Piglia might call his Diaries a fact-based work of fiction. While they are certainly derived from his life, this is only the starting point. After opening with autobiographical essays, each volume moves between stories and diary entries, punctuated by surreal encounters between Piglia the author and Renzi the character. (Whenever anybody walks into a bar, it is likely to be the author himself.) Inserting himself into an Argentine literary tradition pioneered by Macedonio Fernández and Jorge Luis Borges—who makes an early appearance in the journals—Piglia refuses to differentiate between genres, instead insisting, as he wrote in his book-length essay The Last Reader, that “everything can be read as fiction” and, in turn, used as fodder for it. Here is Piglia describing his alter ego, who is in the midst of a long autobiographical soliloquy that explains why he (and by extension, Piglia) became a writer:

Renzi paused a moment and looked at the street, almost empty that summer afternoon, and then went on talking with the same enthusiasm with which he had started to tell the story. If I became a writer, that is, if I made that decision that defined all of my life, it was also due to the stories that circulated in my family; it was there that I learned the fascination and power that hides in the act of recounting a life or an episode or an incident for a circle of familiar listeners.

The temptation to read Piglia’s books as straightforward journals—despite the author’s insistence on treating them as fiction—can occasionally be maddening, as if their readers have been unwittingly enlisted in a postmodern game. And indeed we have, though much more is at stake. As Piglia witnessed the dissolution of Argentine society under a series of repressive governments, he sought new models of writing and representing reality. In metafiction, he found a means to subvert the conformity and censorship that flourished under these regimes. While he rejected the idea that fictional “coding” was possible only when living and writing under a restrictive government, he believed, as he told an interviewer, that “political contexts define ways of reading.” Through indirection and other literary techniques, Piglia revealed the frightening mechanisms of state power that had subjugated Argentina and the ways in which they might be resisted.

Born in 1940 into a lower-middle-class family, Piglia grew up in Adrogué, a once fashionable suburb of Buenos Aires. His early years were defined by the rise of the populist Juan Perón, whose presidency radically expanded the middle class and whose base included a shaky coalition of radical leftists and right-wing nationalists. But Piglia’s narrative does not begin there. Rather, he opens his first volume, Formative Years, in 1957, after Perón was ousted in a coup and Piglia’s father was jailed for defending the former leader. (Because any mention of Perón’s name was forbidden in public, the media took to calling him “the fugitive tyrant.”) To avoid harassment from the new regime, Piglia’s father relocated the family “half in secret” from Adrogué to the coastal city of Mar del Plata, where his son finished high school and started to develop his anti-Peronist views.

After enrolling in university, Piglia turned more strongly toward politics. He joined left-wing groups, studied Argentine history, and obsessed over the Italian communist poet Cesare Pavese, whose work inspired him to become a revolutionary and a writer. At the same time, he engaged in the traditional activities of self-serious literary men in their late teens: He agonized over philosophical questions, tried to entice women into bed, and grappled with his insecurities—all while paying for his studies by organizing the archive of his grandfather, a World War I veteran. “I vacillate between declaring myself a Platonist and a Hegelian,” Piglia writes at 18. “An empty, useless day,” reads another entry. “I did nothing…. Sitting in bars, I watch the girls go by.”

Sitting in bars, however, gave him a lot of time to write, and he began jotting down ideas for fiction, such as an account of a writer’s final hours before he commits suicide in a hotel room in Turin, a story about a couple’s breakup that consists only of the titles of the books they fight over, and “a short story beginning like this: ‘Later, my father killed himself.’” At 21, Piglia notes that “politics, literature, and toxic love affairs with other men’s wives have been the only truly persistent thing in my life.”

After graduating, he gave himself over almost entirely to the first two of these pursuits. He moved to Buenos Aires and founded a cultural magazine. He read constantly, taking a special interest in certain 20th century novelists—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Malcolm Lowry. Piglia spent much of his 20s in corner bars and jazz clubs, accompanied by a rotating cast of girlfriends and colleagues. Bouts of depression were followed by bursts of intense productivity. “Entire days working without leaving the room, and when I lose the thread, I find a series of pages written passionately, which I can’t read again until a few days have passed,” he writes.

This vacillation between tedium and intellectual exhilaration takes up much of the first volume of the Diaries and eventually results in Piglia’s first book, Invasion, a short story collection full of literary pyrotechnics that would presage his later writing. One of the pieces, “Mata-Hari 55,” opens with this disclaimer: “The most uncomfortable aspect of this story is that it is true. Those who think that it is easier to tell a true story than to make up an anecdote, with all of its interrelations and laws, are wrong. Reality, we know, has…a logic that seems, at times, impossible to narrate.” The book was well received, its author hailed as a rising star. But life was about to change, for both Piglia and Argentina.

In the late ’60s, the cultural life of Buenos Aires was flourishing. A decade of Peronism had produced a stable and well-educated middle class, an explosion of publishing houses (160 by the start of the decade), and an unprecedented number of college-educated citizens. Intellectuals were out in bars arguing about their country’s future, and Piglia was usually among them. When he wasn’t working on fiction, he wrote impassioned editorials against the ideological dogmatism of “social literature” and on the need to find new aesthetic forms with which to render politics. In his mind, the two were inextricable.

These were “the happy years,” as Piglia titled the second volume of his journals. He was publishing regularly and living with his girlfriend in Buenos Aires. His income wasn’t stable, but the future looked bright.

Then, in 1972, the junta that ruled for the previous six years started to collapse. The economy floundered, and in response to the growing unrest, the government lashed out against suspected dissidents. One afternoon, Piglia returned to his building to learn that he had received some unexpected visitors: “The doorman tells me that they came through, people from the army, asking about the young couple who lived on the sixth floor…and since we lived in that room, we gathered some things—my notebooks, my papers, the typewriter—and left, not meaning to return.” Piglia never learns why the soldiers were there, and as he and his girlfriend shuffle among temporary homes, their relationship disintegrates.

Up until this point, the diaries only indirectly chart the gathering political storm. There are allusions to student and worker strikes, debates about the resurgence of Peronism, concern over the shuttering of a magazine that Piglia calls “the voice of a floating middle-class.” But by the early 1970s, politics were no longer as abstract. While less brutal than the junta that would later take power, the military generals running Argentina after Perón were far from benign. They banned opposition parties, ended the autonomy of universities, and imposed strict censorship on anything deemed a threat to “traditional” society (including miniskirts).

For years after the “people from the army” came looking for him, Piglia lived in a state of constant anxiety, moving from one location to the next, often taking very little with him but his notebooks. Not only was he worried about being targeted by the junta’s secret police, but his future as a writer also appeared to be in limbo. “It is clear,” he writes in this period, “that my project has always been to become a well-known writer who makes a living from his books. An absurd and impossible project in this country. And so the need to find another path, but which? Not journalism; perhaps I will end up dedicating myself to teaching, but for now I live off my work as an editor. The risk is always that of being so present in the media as to turn into someone ‘well-known,’ someone with a name but not work.”

During this time, Piglia made ends meet editing Serie Negra, a crime fiction line that introduced Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, James Cain, and other hard-boiled authors to Spanish-language audiences. (Detective stories had been popular in Argentina since the early 20th century, but in the 1940s Borges recast them as literature.) And it was through this work that Piglia began to come into his own as a writer. From Chandler, he took the idea of using a single “hero-narrator” in his books so they could “be read as a single, vast novel.” In genre fiction, Piglia found a means to develop his belief that every story must contain a subterranean element, a hidden narrative that is “constructed out of what is not said, out of implication and allusion.” Unlike earlier waves of detective fiction, in which law and order prevail over crime, this new generation of noir offered a grimmer outlook, presenting the world as a playground for malevolent, cynical forces. In this, Piglia found an atmosphere that increasingly reflected his own. “Many times,” he observed, “I’ve felt tempted to write the Don Quixote of police novels.”

Piglia’s work suited the moment while drawing on Argentine literary traditions. In an assessment that must have delighted him, the critic (and former colleague) Noé Jitrik described Piglia as an heir to Borges and Roberto Arlt, a novelist and journalist celebrated for his grotesque depictions of early 20th century Buenos Aires. Though often framed as representatives of different literary currents—Borges the avant-garde Europhile formalist, Arlt the abrasive realist—Piglia embraced aspects of both, merging the metaphysical experimentation of the former with the working-class orientation of the latter. (Piglia’s 1975 collection Assumed Name even includes a novella he falsely attributed to Arlt, whom he describes in the Diaries as “a dyslexic, guttural stutterer.”) As the society around him became more constricted, Piglia began to develop a new style—“paranoid fiction,” which embraced noir conventions to mirror life under state surveillance. In this mode, “everyone is a suspect, everyone feels pursued,” and faith in the system has been thoroughly exhausted.

In 1973, while hemorrhaging support, the junta’s leaders made a fatal mistake: They held a national election. Perón was forbidden to run, so his party put forward a proxy candidate and won an overwhelming majority. Weakened by years of infighting, the military leaders grudgingly stepped down. That summer, more than 3 million Argentines assembled at Buenos Aires’s Ezeiza Airport to welcome Perón back from more than a decade of exile in Europe. While they waited, members of his party’s right opened fire on the leftists, killing at least a dozen people.

Piglia had never liked Perón’s taste for populism and authoritarianism, but the former leader was also the junta’s most powerful adversary. Perón resumed the presidency soon after landing in Argentina, though his reign wouldn’t last long. On July 1, 1974, less than nine months after taking office, he died of a heart attack. “Perón’s death has erased all meaning,” Piglia wrote of the public’s response. “The mourning is endless and stories proliferate.” Perón was replaced by his third wife, Isabel Perón, who held power for a year and a half before the struggle between the warring Peronist camps plunged the country back into chaos. In 1976, military officers (with US support) orchestrated yet another coup, the sixth in less than a century.

“The worst,” Piglia wrote in the days after the coup, “is the sinister feeling of normalcy; the buses are running, people are going to the movies, sitting in bars, leaving offices, going to restaurants, laughing, making jokes: everything seems to go on as usual except you hear sirens and cars without license plates speed past carrying armed civilians.” That feeling of normality didn’t last long. Under the pretext of uniting the country around “Western and Christian values,” the junta’s leaders began targeting what they deemed the “subversive” elements of society, which included anybody who might disagree with their rule. Unlike many of his colleagues, Piglia chose to stay in Argentina during this period, which would come to be known as the Dirty War, and went into a kind of self-imposed exile. With the universities closed, he taught classes in secret. He cycled through girlfriends, self-medicated with amphetamines (the proliferation of cocaine, he said, was “an effect of the end of politics”), and moved from apartment to apartment.

During its seven years in power, the junta conducted thousands of extrajudicial killings, ran clandestine detention centers across the country, censored the press, and gave the infant children of the “disappeared” to junta loyalists. While the government never publicly acknowledged what was going on, it was following a strategy. As Buenos Aires Governor Ibérico Manuel Saint-Jean told colleagues during a state dinner in 1977, “First we’ll kill all the subversives, then we’ll kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, and after them those who remain indifferent, and finally, we’ll kill the timid.” By the end of the Dirty War, as many as 30,000 people had been murdered, and Argentina found itself with $45 billion in foreign debt. As these events unfolded, Piglia began to fantasize about killing himself. “When the catastrophe” came, he writes, it was “worse than he could have imagined.”

In 1980, in the midst of all this, Piglia published Artificial Respiration, a nesting doll of a novel that implicitly critiqued the dictatorship through its account of the 19th century autocrat Juan Manuel de Rosas. Narrated by Piglia’s alter ego, Emilio Renzi, the novel tells the story of his correspondence with his estranged uncle, who is researching the archives of Rosas’s eccentric former secretary. Written during a time when thousands of people were disappearing, the novel never addresses the Dirty War directly. Instead, Piglia indicates his intent with an epigraph by T.S. Eliot: “We had the experience but missed the meaning, an approach to the meaning restores the experience.” In drawing a line between Rosas and the dictatorship, Piglia sought to tacitly depict the horrors of life under the junta.

The parallel was not lost on readers. In his introduction to the English edition of the book, translator Daniel Balderston writes that immediately after its publication, the novel was taken up as “a strange sort of best seller: despite the considerable difficulty of the text, it became an essential reference point for readers hungry after years of violence and repression and lies.” As violent governments terrorized people across Latin America, Artificial Respiration became a cult hit throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Piglia opens the final volume of his Diaries, A Day in the Life (the English translation of which will be out this fall), with his struggle to write Artificial Respiration. Here again we find the novelist agonizing over form and structure as much as style and character. Progress was slow; Piglia spent months figuring out how to render the violence happening in the background. A Day in the Life seems to echo this anguish. It begins just before the 1976 coup and ends in 1982, several months after Argentina abandoned its ill-fated war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, which led to the junta’s downfall the following year. But this takes us only halfway through the final volume. At that point the young man suddenly disappears, and the book transitions to a very different mode.

What follows is an assemblage of fragments written much later. There is an 84-page essay that portrays, with a Joycean attention to detail, a single day in the life of the younger Renzi. There are chunks of Piglia’s previously published fiction. There is an impressionistic section titled “Days Without Dates,” reflecting the author’s desire to structure his journal entries around themes—long evenings in bars, relationships with women, literary projects. There are melancholy musings about the end of life. In this, his final journal, all the Piglias are present at once: the young literary firebrand, the silenced public citizen, the reflective older writer.

Piglia was never interested in taking a chronological approach to the past, and this comes through most clearly in what he leaves out. From the 1980s to the 2010s, Piglia published four other novels (including the acclaimed Burnt Money and The Absent City), became a respected critic, and taught at the University of Buenos Aires and then at Princeton, where he spent the final years of his career before returning to Argentina. He won awards, wrote film scripts, published short story collections and critical essays, and consulted on theatrical adaptations of his works. These were arguably the most prolific years of his life, yet very little of them is documented here. As to why this might be the case, a line from Piglia’s afterword to his 1988 collection Perpetual Prison provides a clue. “Writing a diary,” he observes, “helps us forget the illusion that we have a private life.”

As a lifework, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi do not compare with, say, those of Witold Gombrowicz, whose decades of exile in Argentina overlapped with Piglia’s youth. They are a bit too fragmentary and ponderous, with much of the real activity—revolution, sexual affairs—happening outside the frame. As a novel, they often withhold the pleasures of fiction. Yet as an all-encompassing exercise, an effort not to fold life into literature but to find a way to make literature life, they are unparalleled. They are also an invaluable intellectual account of a difficult and deadly era in Argentina’s history and the insidious ways in which politics can seep into the corners of one’s life and mind. Early on in Diaries, Renzi asks, “How could one write about Argentina?” These journals provide an answer, affirming Borges’s observation, “Only new countries have pasts, which is to say, they’re remembered autobiographically.”

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