The Real and Its Secret Miracles: An Interview with Ricardo Piglia
Rodrigo Blanco Calderón: If we are guided by the epigraphs in Artificial Respiration (a quote by Eliot) and in Target in the Night (a quote by Céline), we see that a narrative and philosophical cycle are outlined around a concept that seems decisive in your work: experience. In what moment do you stumble upon the complexity of this word? Do you feel that Target in the Night has effectively closed this cycle?
Ricardo Piglia: It is difficult for me to determine if that cycle is closed. Artificial Respiration has two books of short stories prior, and I was already working on a novel by that moment. At the time, the notion of experience began to gain more and more importance. For me, experience means the relationship between experience and sense, a little like what Eliot says. One could put experience in terms of the relationship of life and culture. The meaning that one gives to life would be experience. That idea is connected to the quote by Eliot, that is coming together. One thinks about things and suddenly finds a quote that says it more clearly, more quickly. In the case of Céline, the problem is tied to how one transmits experience. This is how I see the two quotes: one raises the problem of meaning and the other the problem of how it's transmitted.
RBC: But is an experience that is not passed on still an experience, in the way that Walter Benjamin raises the issue in "Experience and Poverty"?
RP: I think the transmission of experience is a problem. It is the issue that's raised by Céline. In Benjamin, there is a little archaic nostalgia, like the contrast to the effects of the first world war, from a moment that is a bit idealized. That which is opposed to capitalism is always idealized. Lúkacs idealizes the Greek world prior to the novel, initiated in that moment long ago when men were living in total fullness. Bahktin also imagines in certain moments a mulitlingualism, a sort of complexity and articulation among different linguistic modes in Rabelais, that serves to understand why all that comes afterwards has been interfered with by capitalism. And Benjamin does the same: he focuses on an idealized moment of country life, when men used to communicate their experiences with complete naturalness and that was the fabric of life, while in the present experience is disrupted by information. The central idea of Benjamin is that modern journalism destroys the personal sensation of having an experience. We live in a world of information that is not directed to the subject himself. The relationship that we have with information is a relationship of distance. But not because we are distancing ourselves; rather, because the information, in and of itself, is presented to us as something set apart. We can receive information but we cannot convert it into an experience. Experience would be what we do with the multiple plots of what is happening with the information.
I don't have a position as radicalized as Benjamin’s, in the sense of believing in the death of the experience, and my position was produced through the novel. I don't believe that the meaning of life has disappeared for individual people.
RBC: One of your great characters, Marcelo Maggi, asks himself (along with Joyce) how to narrate the real. The narrator of the short story “Mata-Hari 55” raises the idea that the real has a logic that is sometimes difficult or impossible to capture. Would commissioner Croce in Target in the Night be the personification of this dilemma.
RP: It could be. In that sense, we would have to say that contact with the real would look very much like the sort of disturbance that Croce has. That is, that direct contact with the real would be very disruptive, as it is disruptive for Croce in his own life. I tend to say that the real doesn't have this bucolic character that classical realism has. The real there is something mild, with few contradictions, and the technique of realism allows it to be repeated. I have a more contemporary idea of the real: the real is a concentration camp, it is the disappeared in Argentina, or it is also that.
For example, I remember when I went to visit a mother of the Plaza de Mayo, in 1978, during the dictatorship. And she said to me: "I argue with the television set.” She was alone in an apartment; they had killed her two children. One of them was a very dear friend of mine, and I went to keep her company for a little while. She told me: "When I listen to the television I answer it because they say so many lies, so many things.” And afterwards she told me something very moving: "I ask God to give me a minute on television. And I practice what I could say in that minute.”
RBC: Like a "secret miracle.”
RP: Exactly. There we have an example of what we're talking about. How could she, in those conditions, communicate that truth about reality? We do not live in a world where they let you tell the truth about reality. We are not in a place where everyone is waiting for you to go and tell about a real experience. Not only is there the technical difficulty of telling the real facts, but there is also the political difficulty. It seems to me that we must complicate this topic a little.
RBC: Target in the Night is a noir novel that is developed in a rural context, where the crime is solved by a commissioner. Could this combination be read like a symptom of the exhaustion of the detective genre, of the city, and of the detective in contemporary narrative, respectively?
RP: What I was most conscious of was the third question, that of the detective. On the one hand, the implicit critique of the use of the detective figure in those novels is that he is presented as if we might find him on the corner. It is harder to deal with rural commissioners as complicated characters, and we are never eager to create a protagonist that is a commissioner because we know what “commissioner” means in our society. On the other hand, the idea is to speak a bit ironically about the superhuman ability to rationalize and the superhuman efficiency that is epistemological of detectives in the genre. Whether it's Hammett or Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, they all understand what is going on. One is very physical, very pragmatic; the other is a rationalist and the other is a logical empiricist. It's as if each one has his own implicit theory. So, I like the idea of a crazy one, a detective who is insane.
In respect to the rest, I have the sensation that the detective genre has moved on. I already said that once before. It has moved on in the sense that in the beginning, the focal point was the detective, in the English novel; later in the noir novel of the United States, the murderer comes to be the center of interest: we ask "who is that guy so capable of killing people" and all that; and today it seems to me, in the contemporary world, that the victim is the center of the story. We are more interested in the victim, if there really is a victim or even if they believe themselves to be the victim. Paranoid fiction. In this detective novel, the protagonist is Luca, because he is the victim.
RCB: And the murderer as well.
RP: Yes. Then things begin to get complicated. But Yoshio is also a victim. I think that genres transform, they don't get exhausted. Above all in the case of genres that have as much momentum as the detective genre. What I can remember is that Croce is constructed as a character who comes from the idea of writing a detective story in which the detective is crazy. And because he is crazy, he solves the cases.
RBC: At the beginning, because of statements made here and there over the course of the last few years, in Target in the Night, you proposed to situate the narrative in the context of The Malvinas War [Falklands]. In the end, the novel takes place ten years before those events. Why this drastic change? Why dismiss the story about a national war and opt for, as is laid out in the novel, the narration of a family war?
RP: These are elements that arise in the writing process. They are not decisions that come up a priori. In the beginning, I wrote a novel in the context that I was initially thinking about, but situated ten years later. Imagine the novel, but with the war as a context. The result seemed to me to be a little too demagogic. The way politics appears in literature as an action that is not directly thematic is interesting to me. Rather that seeing politics directly, we see how it influences the subjects. Here, the subject is the return of Perón. It is an element experienced just like everything else in life, no? It's not that everyone is talking about politics all the time, but politics are always present. In one moment I decided to tell about the war, but the war was beginning to have a weight that made it difficult to manage. It made it difficult for me, and I sounded like someone who was writing a novel with a very heavy mark, like creating a supplementary interest in the book in regard to the fact that "this is a novel about the war". I had already written the first version in that way, and then in the second version I changed the chronology.
That said, I am very interested in the topic of the war. I want to write a novel about my grandfather, the father of my father. He arrived in Argentina, he settled, had a daughter here, and when the war broke out he went off to fight. He fought during the entire First World War and later returned. It seems to be an extremely strange story. In the family, there is no clear account about why he decided to return to Italy to participate in the war. If he did it for heroism or patriotism. I came to know him, and he was deeply affected by the experience of the war.
So, I want to tell his experience in the war, but then I feel more legitimized by the familial question. Maybe (and these are the things that later disappoint my friends) the one who is telling the story also refers to the Malvinas War as a contrast. I am not sure if that will happen in the book. But I do want to write a book about war.
RBC: This original idea for Target in the Night, in the final version, is reduced to a footnote and to the title of the novel. Can the poetics of rubbish finally be detached for Ricardo Piglia? Has this been a constant in the production of your novels?
RP: Yes. For example, in Artificial Respiration, I wanted the novel to be Maggi’s file. The investigation of Renzi did not appear. Later, the file appeared scattered among the letters in the novel. In the first version of Money to Burn, everything happened in the apartment. It didn't tell all the initial story of the robbery. That is the way I understand the temporal dimension of my stories, in the time that a novel begins to take on its own momentum.
RBC: That’s what you propose in "New theses on the short story," quoting the Chuang-Tzu story along with Calvino. In an interview given to Leila Guerriero you told her that the time spent writing is much less in comparison to the time spent conceiving of the novel beforehand.
RP: When I sit down to write the final versions, or the other versions, it takes me four or five months. And later I let the manuscript rest for two years. I am going to change that system now because I don’t have so many years left, and I still want to finish a couple of projects. The other important concern is that one has to have a personal interest in order to write a book. There has to be a challenge. The idea of changing a system of writing is a challenge for me. Makes it interesting. I am going to try to write a novel in its first version and publish it like that, to see what happens.
RBC: Luca Belladona seems like a character from Arlt, or maybe even Arlt himself. An inventor or a scientist, brilliant, and a little bit mad.
RP: Luca has two characteristics that I find interesting. One is that the character has a fixed idea, we can call it a project, an intention that is obstructed by reality. I really like those types of characters, those who can go past reality. We can use many metaphors here. The revolution would be one. One who tries to do something that reality doesn’t seem to allow. Later, the question of a knowledge and a particular type of person, one of those that knows how to fix things and build things, is something that has a lot to do with popular experience. There is a great tradition in the popular experience in the 1950s and 60s, which I remember from my childhood. My uncles were capable of fixing things. They were not mechanics, but they had their set of tools in the house. And if the radio broke, sometimes they couldn’t fix it, and everything got worse. But they made the effort of taking it apart, at least.
Afterwards, there are those of that type who pass on to trying to invent something that allows them to save themselves. Because it is not only the idea of making something new. To that I must add the fact that my cousin actually had a factory, and he had extraordinary manual and intellectual abilities. And here we get into Arlt. I believe that the first one to set this whole world in motion was Arlt. Because he himself formed part of that culture, and he was always inventing things, like women’s pantyhose that won’t run. It is the tradition of the popular miracle, whether it be winning the lottery or coming across some stroke of luck that has something to do with your own culture. The stroke of luck has to do with something that you already know how to do, but that will expand it to another level and allow you to do something new.
RBC: Target in the Night, the novel that cost you so much time and effort, has been the resounding consecration of your work: it won the National Critique Award in Spain, the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and the Hammett Award. Is there anything left for Ricardo Piglia to do? Are his diaries finally forthcoming?
RP: I myself am disturbed by the effect that Target in the Night has had. Uncomfortable, because I am not after these prizes as a writer. I sent my first book to House of the Americas, that was the rite of initiation for young writers in Latin America during those years. After that, the only moment when I presented myself in a competition was with Money to Burn, and all that mess broke out. I am not looking for that type of legitimacy. In the three cases you mention, with Target in the Night, I was not the one who sent in the book. The National Critique Award, they decide amongst themselves; for the Rómulo Gallegos, it is the editor who sends it in - in fact, he told me after he sent it. And the Hammett Award is also selected by the guys from the Week in Gijón. It wasn’t my decision to see how my novel is doing.
I believe in the sense of contingency. There are books that are lucky because they come out at just the right time. I’ll tell you more: if A Hundred Years of Solitude had come out three years prior or two years later, it might not have produced the same effect. We must not believe that the quality is what justifies which books are successful or not. If not, we don’t understand why great novels pass unnoticed for many, many years.
I have several narrative projects. I don’t see this novel as the last one. I don’t think so. I hope not. If it’s true that I’m trying to dedicate the time necessary to leave a diary ready for publication, I’ll tell you this, being pessimistic: I don’t know if it makes sense to publish a diary while alive. All the diaries I like are posthumous.
But I can’t imagine that, while I’m well, I won’t try to continue writing some novels or stories that I have been working on, although I won’t be aspiring to the same thing I aspired to when I began, when I did truly want to be a novelist. That’s why I like writers who you can’t classify like that. Like Gombrowicz, or Sebald or even Bernhard.
Translated from the Spanish by Christina Miller
Rodrigo Blanco Calderón (Venezuela) is the author of three collections of short stories: Una larga fila de hombres [Men in a Long Line] (2005), Los invencibles (2007) and most recently Las rayas [Scratches] (2011), anthologized in many Latin American publications. Blanco Calderón participated in the 2007 Hay Festival Bogota as one of ‘Latin America’s 39 Most Exciting Authors Under 39.’ He is the founder the publishing house and bookstore Lugar Común, and teaches literature at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
Since 2004, Christina Miller has taught Spanish at the University of Oklahoma, where she was awarded the Provost’s Certificate of Distinction in Teaching Prize. In 2017, she received her Doctorate in Spanish from the University of Oklahoma with a dissertation titled: “Detectives That Read: The Role of Literature, Evolution and Resistance in the Neopolicial by Ramón Díaz Eterovic and Leonardo Padura Fuentes,” for which she was nominated for the Office of the Provost PhD Dissertation Prize for the best thesis defended in 2017. As a researcher, her main area of interest is the Latin American detective novel (20th and 21st centuries). She has presented in various national and international conferences such as: South Central Modern Languages Association Conference, The Southwest Council of Latin American Studies Conference and the Congreso Internacional de Literatura y Estudios Hispánicos. Her translations have been published in journals such asLatin American Literature Today (LALT) y World Literature Today (WLT).