Two Excerpts from The Diaries of Emilio Renzi
Since its founding in 2013, Brooklyn-based independent publisher Restless Books has established itself as one of the most cutting-edge publishers of translated literature in the U.S. In the four years since its founding, its catalogue has grown to include some of the most important names in contemporary Latin American literature, both emerging and established, among them Andrés Neuman, Juan Villoro, Ricardo Piglia, Yoss, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernanda Torres, and Carlos Fonseca, and such notable translators as Nick Caistor, Alfred MacAdam, Lawrence Schimel, Megan McDowell, and Achy Obejas. Latin American Literature Today is excited to partner with Restless Books, via Editor and Marketing Director Nathan Rostron, to bring readers previews of forthcoming translations. Here, we feature two excerpts from The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Robert Croll and set to be released on November 14, 2017.
Excerpt 1: Incriminating political affiliations force Renzi’s family to flee Adrogué at dawn, finding shelter in a movement sympathizer’s home. Renzi describes shards of nostalgia and the pain of separating from his lover, Elena, whom he can no longer send letters to due to a union strike. Renzi tries to busy himself: he goes to the beach and watches films at the theater back-to-back. Amidst these imprints of a restless and liminal mind, we see Renzi’s literary ruminations, from considerations of the appropriate tone for a narrator to comparisons of protagonists Holden Caulfield and Silvio Astier.
2. FIRST DIARY (1957–1958)
We are leaving the day after tomorrow. I decided not to say goodbye to anyone. Saying goodbye to people seems ridiculous to me. Wave to the people coming, not the ones leaving. I won at billiards, made two nine-point shots. I had never played so well. My heart was frozen still, and I shot the cue with perfect precision. I felt like I was constructing the hits with my thoughts. Playing billiards is simple; you have to stay cool and know how to look ahead. Afterward, we went to the pool and stayed until very late. I dove off of the high board. From so high up, the lights from the tennis courts floated in the water. It seems that I’m doing everything I do for the last time.
The move, in the middle of the night. “We left at dawn, furtive, ashamed.” There was a light on in the Yugoslavs’s kitchen, on the other side of Calle Bynon. The truck weighed down with furniture, the house dismantled. The stupid docility of the plains; a falcon in the sky, its talons stretched forward like meat hooks, almost sitting in the air, captures, in its low flight, a guinea pig and carries it off with the slow, deep flapping of its wings. We pause at noon in a stand of trees, the dog runs round and round in the field. My father says, “Look, a tramp made a little fire in this well,” and he touches the ash with the back of his hand. In the shade, he makes a note in his black notebook, sitting in the weeds, his back against a poplar. He raises his eyes from the notebook, and off in the distance, a dark point amid the immense brightness, I see the remote figure of the tramp moving on foot through the country toward another stand of trees where he can light a fire and make mate. This tiny event (and my father’s words) comes to mind many times in the course of the day, without relation to anything happening in the present—clear in my memory, unexpected, as if it were a coded message hiding a secret meaning.
We spend Christmas Eve in the house of Carranza, a friend of the movement, my father says. All rather cheerless. Mom barely speaks and does nothing but read novels and use unexpected words (as she always does when she’s unwell): “This salad’s a bit dilapidated.” At night she gets up two or three times to see if I’m sleeping or if I need anything (she wakes me up!). She is nervous, rarely goes out, suffers but never complains. Her world collapsed (her sisters, her friends), but she traveled with Dad for “solidarity” more than anything else. (“She wasn’t going to leave this good-for-nothing on his own.”). At Christmas Eve dinner she refused to drink at the toast because she said it would “make her uneasy.”
The house has two floors. The office is downstairs, with the waiting room in front, and to one side is a large room that opens on the street, two bedrooms, the kitchen, and a patio. My room is upstairs, along with a living room, a little kitchen, and a balcony. I settled in there and brought up the few books I had brought. The window of my room opens over the blue flowers of the Jacaranda tree on the lane. In a tight spot, I could climb out on the branches.
I think I had to go back, to live with Grandpa Emilio. I write to Elena to cheer myself up, and I announce my plans to her, but Elena does not believe me. (“If you’re going to come, come and I’ll be ready, but don’t tell me about it every five minutes.”). It isn’t every five minutes; I write to her every night (not today) with the news of the day and my states of mind. At the end of the letter she draws Landrú’s cat and writes, “I miss you and miss you. I cry all the time in the corner, like the dumb little flower I am.”
At the beach, yesterday and the day before yesterday and today. It’s not the same swimming in the sea as swimming in a pool, same as the difference between living and reading. “Which do you like more? You, you, which do you like more?” (stressed). Elena’s questions.
My father, from the office, asks me every time I go out to the street whether I have my papers. Mom, who is on the patio, always reading her novels, raises her eyes: “They’re going to arrest you just for being descended from him.” Descended, I think, in free fall.
Elena, oh Elena… She writes to me: “I dreamed about you twice, a dream the night before last and another last night. We would leave the house to take the San Vicente bus and something would always happen and we didn’t end up going (you braided my hair, in the garden). In the end, when we went out to the street I woke up. I drank some water, my hair was in my face. Last night I dreamed again, and this time we were together on the bus! Isn’t that funny, two dreams, one following the other? Andrea says it’s a good omen, but it scared me. This morning I woke up very sick (Emilio, am I pregnant?).”
False alarm (Galli Mainini test)
I am reading The Seven Who Were Hanged by Andreyev. The condemned in the book are all freethinkers, nihilists. They will be executed at dawn; time does not pass, and yet it is always later—or earlier—than they imagine. Impossible to describe this waiting. “Death was not there as yet, but life was there no longer.” A revolutionary, the heroine, thinks, “I should like to do this—I should like to go out alone before a whole regiment of soldiers and fire upon them with a light revolver. It would not matter that I would be alone, while they would be thousands, or that I might not kill any of them.” (Isn’t the comparison incredible? But “light revolver” is perfect.)
My father still recalls some fragments of the letters that his father would send from the front, when he (my father… oh the pronouns) was a boy and his mother would read them aloud to him next to the fireplace: “I was crying, General Gialdini was crying, all of the soldiers were crying,” which leaves me intrigued as to the content of the letter. It makes sense that a boy would always remember that paragraph; it is unforgettable to discover in childhood that your father cries, that men cry, and that even a veteran general in the army could cry…
The wonderful thing about childhood is that everything is real. The grown man (!) is the one who lives a life of fiction, trapped by delusions and dreams that allow him to survive.
For this reason, the shards of past experiences leave the kind of impressions that one remembers without entirely understanding; they are light and sharp, like a foil thrusting forth to pierce the heart. For this reason, these memories are so clear and so incomprehensible, because then, now, in youth, one becomes lost. In my case, I am in the middle of the river, I have lost the sense of total certainty of childhood and have no illusion that it sustains me.
We move a library to the upstairs floor because Mom has set up a loom in the living room. She is going to weave a red and yellow bedspread, with fine wool. “So your father wakes up,” she says. She learned how to weave when she was young, in the nuns’ school. “These handicrafts,” she likes the word and repeats it, “these handicrafts, hijito, you don’t forget them, it’s like riding a bicycle or making the sign of the cross, it doesn’t leave you…”
I’ve written my daily letter to Elena; the postal workers’ strike acts as a raised drawbridge. So I’m outside the besieged city…
My mother has a personal witchdoctor. She calls him Don José, but I call him Yambó to tease her. I don’t like the guy at all. Pale skin, fish eyes—he must be half Umbanda (a pai do santo). Mom already saw him in Buenos Aires; the guy warned her back in September that Dad was going to get arrested, but he didn’t pay any attention, and she never forgave him for it. Now he comes to Mar de Plata specially. He has clients there and stops in the vacation cottage close to the house, on Calle España almost at Calle Moreno. The guy speaks and diagnoses. He doesn’t use tarot cards, doesn’t look in a crystal ball; he says whatever occurs to him. At night, eating dinner, Mom says he told her she was going to go live in a cold place. In Ushuaia, while Dad would be behind bars, I tell her. She laughs. “Don’t talk hogwash.” (When she’s acting odd she uses these strange words). Now she’s reading Knut Hamsun (the collection bound in blue from Aguilar on bible paper that holds five or six novels per volume). “Hunger, they’ll have to read it,” she says, not addressing anyone in particular, “so that they [pluralized] can see what it’s like to scrounge.” When she isn’t reading novels, she looks nervous and argues with Dad (“Can you tell me why we came to this opprobrious city?”). Opprobrious city, that’s not so bad.
There is a postal workers’ strike, so I don’t receive a letter from Elena and can’t send the ones I’ve written to her (I have three). An unsettling interval. Will she know it is because of the strike? (I’m going to call her tonight.) The strike will accumulate so much delayed correspondence that it’s pointless to think the letters I sent will arrive.
Possible careless treatments of loving correspondence: the postman burns them; violent kidnapping of the messenger. The letters that don’t arrive at their destination, how many will there be? Lovers interrupted by the union uprising: it’s an interesting subject for a novel. Political history does not let us love…
The funny thing is that Dad saw one of the delegates for the Internal Commission of Central Post on Calle Luro in his office (the guy signed in as sick and waited his turn in the living room). Surely he parrots Perón’s doctrine (now that we’re reconciling with Frondizi we have to “tighten things up…”). Don’t worry, Doctor, we won’t deliver a single letter to those turncoats, etc. (And my son’s letters, you couldn’t take them to his friends? he would have said). The letters don’t go out until Wednesday…
If I’m bored and I spend the day without talking to anyone, I let myself get carried away by murderous impulses. Today I pushed a half-crippled old man I stumbled into on Calle Mitre. “Hey, want to get out of my way?” I said to him, and while he apologized politely I gave him a judo-style elbow and he stood gasping half-bent over on the side of the church. A while ago I threw the kitten against the wall. It bounced like a ball with a terrified meow, all of its hair standing on end and all four feet splayed a meter above the floor, and no sooner did it fall than it dove behind the dresser (and stays there), and that’s my own cat, Fermín, and I like how he spends a long time watching the cloudless sky. I don’t answer Mom and she gets really angry. Look, Emilio, don’t get funny with me. She says “Emiiliio,” when she’s angry, like scratching a blackboard (Emiiliio); otherwise she calls me “son” or “honey” or “M” and speaks formally (and that infuriates me). In my family it’s very common to speak formally; it always seemed like they were messing with you. “You ought to send your regards once in a while,” said my Uncle Mario when he said goodbye.
Jorge is in Julio’s house; we talk for a while. The narrator, should he be unclear or distant? Unclear: Dostoevsky, Faulkner; distant: Hemingway, Camus in The Stranger. Eduardo G. arrives with his experienced air. “I’ve got cash,” he says, and we put together a game of poker. I lose, I lose (with a full house), I lose all evening and finally win a big pile with a royal straight because Eduardo thinks I am bluffing (he has a pair of kings and bets everything). He leaves furious because it seems to him that I played a trick. I say nothing, he wants me to believe he caught me cheating (we go on with this, out in the street and later in the bar on Independencia and Colón with the jukebox, listening to Frankie Laine). When Eduardo—as Dostoevsky would say—believes, he believes that he does not believe, and when he does not believe, he believes that he believes… and he loses everything. If only I were a liar. A disillusioned young cheater (who knows all the ladies), he travels by train through the provinces, gets off at lost stations, stops in at the plaza hotel, makes a show paying for drinks, with the air of a bored traveler, half-innocent, wakes up all the little widows in town; he accepts a game of poker in the social club the night before moving on…
In the Ambos Mundos bar, with the members of the film club, is the Englishman—tall, wearing a hat, white pilot suit (a costume), speaks with a strong accent, works for an American company at the port that exports fish. He set out from Alaska, and they say he is a well-known writer in New York, Steve M. He is always joking. Last night he showed off a six-page letter and said it was from Malcolm Lowry. Apparently he wrote his thesis on Under the Volcano at Columbia in ’53 (the first thesis in the world about the novel, he said, as if it were a heroic deed). Here, no one knows this book, even though Oscar Garaycochea, who is a genius, remembered The Lost Weekend, the Billy Wilder film, because there was a reference to Lowry in Sight and Sound magazine. “Yes,” said Steve, “Lowry almost went crazy when that film premiered.” He knew him personally; he visited him in Canada and Lowry spent a week in Steve’s apartment in Brooklyn. He had to hide the whiskey from him, according to Steve, who, at the same time, is getting drunk little by little. Lowry took his bottle of aftershave lotion. Is he lying? It could be. He’s brilliant, very entertaining, and he already picked up all the girls from quinto del nacional who came there that afternoon.
I wrote down some of the things he said: “Lowry wasn’t a novelist, he was a pure autobiographical writer. He wrote many personal diaries, a frenetic writer of letters.” He made seven versions of Under the Volcano. He said he would give us the novel if we read it in the bar. “I’ll rent it,” he said. “Illegal to lend it.” The novel takes place in Mexico.
Compare Holden Caulfield and Silvio Astier: the two are sixteen years old (like me). One complains, has existential problems, wants to go to live alone in a forest; the other has no money, steals books from a school, wants to be a writer and rebel in the city. See the scene in Mad Toy of Astier with the boy who wears women’s stockings in the one-peso hotel, on Talcahuano and Tucumán, and the scene in Catcher of Holden with Carl Bruce in the Wicker Bar at the Seton Hotel. Holden is lyrical, rebellious, sensitive (the little sister); Silvio is desperate, has no exit, and is a whistle-blower. In Salinger the orality is light, lexical, self-pitying; in Arlt it is harsh, antisentimental, syntactical.
According to Steve, Lowry had to change the initial name of the character of the consul, William Erikson, because he found out about the murder of an American with the same name who died in the same way.
News in today’s papers (May 21, 1958). Side A: “A submarine of unknown nationality was attacked by the Argentine Navy in Golfo Nuevo. The damaged vessel managed to disappear.” Side B: “The British Admiralty announced that the submarine Avhros was damaged in waters of the Atlantic Ocean by an unidentified airplane.” The only people who believe the news in the papers, says my father, are the journalists. True, says my mother, only the people who wrote it believe what they’ve read. Lately she is witty, Ida—happier, very clever. The other day she said, “My brain is running cold you know, like it was in the Frigidaire.”
In Mar del Plata the theaters stay active outside of season, and to attract the public they show three different movies every day at reduced prices. I take the bus, see one at Gran Mar on Colón Avenue at two in the afternoon, another in Ópera on Calle Independencia at four, another at Ocean on Luro at six, another at Atlantic at eight, and another at ten at the Belgian Theater, on the same corner as our house. I spend all my time at theaters from Monday to Friday, as if I were a madman who had been deprived of movies, a beggar who just wants to sit quietly in the dark rooms, or a nomadic film fanatic. Saturdays and Sundays the program doesn’t change, so I stay at home. Theater is faster than life, literature is slower.
During those weeks I saw these: OSS 117, based on the spy novel by Jean Bruce; Barabbas by Alf Sjöberg, based on the novel by Pär Lagerkvist; Behind a Long Wall by Lucas Demare; A Hole in the Head by Frank Capra; The Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa; O.K. Corral by John Sturges; Ugetsu by Mizoguchil; The Set-Up by R. Wise; I Vitelloni by Fellini; The Burmese Harp by Ichikawa; Roman Holiday by W. Wyler; Rear Window by Hitchcock; Citizen Kane by Welles; Tiger Bay by J. Lee Thompson; The Real End of the Great War by Kawalerowicz; The Quiet Man by John Ford; Picnic by Joshua Logan; Little Fugitive by Morris Engel; Wind Across the Everglades by Nicholas Ray; The Barefoot Contessa by J. Mankiewicz; A Man Escaped by Bresson; Nights of Cabiria by Fellini; The Informer by John Ford.
Excerpt 2: Renzi remembers his first love—juvenile and foolish, but also passionate. We then return to Mar del Plata, where Renzi spends his days languidly at the beach and falls into a torrid affair with a woman who is secretly engaged to be married. Feeling deflated and aimless, Renzi enrolls at a university to while away the time, reading voraciously and drowning himself in the cool darkness of movie theaters. He meets another woman, but still pines for his seaside affair.
3. FIRST LOVE
I fell in love for the first time when I was twelve years old. In the middle of class, a girl with red hair appeared, and the teacher presented her as a new student. She stood at the side of the blackboard and was called (or is called) Clara Schultz. I remember nothing of the following weeks, but I know that we had fallen in love and were trying to hide it because we were children and knew that we wanted something impossible. Some memories still hurt me. The others stared at us in line and she turned redder and redder, and I learned what it was to suffer the complicity of fools. When school got out I would fight with kids from the fifth and sixth grades who followed her to throw thistles in her hair, because she wore it loose, down to her waist. One afternoon I came home so beaten up that my mother thought I’d gone crazy or had been gripped by a suicidal fever. I could tell no one what I was feeling and appeared sullen and humiliated, as if I always went around exhausted. We wrote each other letters, even though we barely knew how to write. I remember an unsteady succession of ecstasy and desperation; I remember that she was serious and passionate and that she never smiled, perhaps because she knew the future. I have no photographs, only her memory, but in every woman I’ve loved there has been something of Clara. She left as she came, unexpectedly, before the end of the year. One afternoon she did something heroic and broke all the rules and came running onto the boys’ patio to tell me they were taking her away. I carry the image of the two of us in the middle of the black flagstones and the sarcastic circle of eyes that watched us. Her father was a municipal inspector or a bank manager, and they were transferring him to Sierra de la Ventana. I remember the horror caused in me by the image of a mountain range that was also a prison. That was why she had come at the start of the year and that, perhaps, was why she had loved me. The pain was so great that I managed to remember my mother saying that if you loved someone you had to put a mirror on your pillow, because if you saw her sleeping reflection you would marry her. And at night, when everyone in the house had gone to sleep, I walked barefoot to the patio out back and took down the mirror that my dad used to shave in the morning. It was a square mirror, with a frame of brown wood, hung from a nail in the wall by a small chain. I slept in intervals, trying to see her reflection sleeping next to me, and sometimes I imagined I saw her at the edge of the mirror. One night many years later, I dreamed that I dreamed of her in the mirror. I saw her just as she had been as a girl, with her red hair and serious eyes. I was different, but she was the same and came toward me as if she were my daughter.
4. SECOND DIARY (1959–1960)
November 2, 1959
We go to the sea while summer still has yet to begin; there is no time like the end of spring, when the dark days of winter have gone and the beach is empty. I always go to La Perla, take Independencia straight all the way to the coast. I became friends with Roque, an ex coast guard, a retired lifesaver who keeps coming to the beach and watching to make sure no one is in danger. He has a slight limp and totters a bit when he walks, but when he’s in the water he swims like a dolphin, graceful and fast. “We should live in the water,” he tells me, and muses on this for a while. “We came from there, and sooner or later we’re going to go back to living in the oceans.”
He runs an empty hotel, which is on a hill, facing the park, a great building painted in blue: Hotel del Mar. I went to visit him a couple times; there are rooms upon rooms, unoccupied, down the length of a hallway. He sleeps in different beds—so that the rooms stay aerated, he says. He always keeps a portable Spica radio with him and listens to it all the time. He tells me that he was a singer in his younger days. He shows me a card with him dressed as a gaucho, wearing a sombrero and plucking a guitar; above, in the left corner, there is a little Argentine flag. The inscription reads, “Agustín Peco, National Singer.” This was in the forties, when they had “live numbers” in the movie theaters, and artists from a variety of genres entertained the public from the stage in the interval between one showing and another. Roque sang the repertoire of Ignacio Corsini, milonga dances, and folk songs with lyrics by Héctor Blomberg, describing the era of General Rosas. One time at the beach, a little drunk after lunch, he sang, under the sun and unaccompanied, “The barmaid from Santa Lucía,” which is one of my father’s favorite songs.
The other day I went far out into the sea, and as I was on the way back I got into a riptide and the current wouldn’t let me advance; the high waves before the first breaker threw me out to sea. I wasn’t frightened or anything, but my breath failed me and Roque guided me to the shore with shouts and waves. He did not get into the water, but he helped me to make it out by motioning for me to swim diagonally, distancing myself from the cold line, and to keep moving toward the long jetty. Once I was within range, he dove in and pulled me out, swimming with one arm.
Yesterday a girl, lying on a yellow sailcloth on the empty beach, was watching me. She is from Buenos Aires, came with her mother for a few days. We understood each other immediately. Her name is Lidia; she is beautiful and kind. I kissed her on the staircase leading to the house, where we had sat down together. “Don’t worry, pajarito,” she said to me afterward, as if talking to herself. “No one gets pregnant from a kiss and a hug.”
I was with Lidia constantly during those days at La Perla; we find each other in the morning and are together talking until the sun sets and she leaves. She is staying in the Saint James building on Calle Luro. She is intelligent and entertaining. I told her we had come to Mar del Plata to escape from the police because my father had a score to settle. I could, in that way, speak very openly with her because I was not talking about myself; I am someone else when I am with her (I feel like someone else, a stranger, and that feeling is priceless); I told her I was a writer. That I wanted to be a writer, anyway. She laughs with a cheerful and contagious laughter, and she made me promise to take her to the alumni dance at the Hotel Provincial.
Those final weeks I spent with Lidia; I introduced her to Roque so that we could go to bed in the empty but furnished and mysterious rooms of the hotel. She left at the end of the month and, before leaving, she said that she loved me, that we had spent unforgettable days together. And then, with an enchanting motion, she brushed her hair from her eyes and told me that she was going to Buenos Aires to get married. I was crushed. She was getting married soon and had come to Mar del Plata in search of an adventure for the final days of her single life. You don’t know my name or who I am; you told me that your name is Emilio and that you are a writer. One lies when enamored and living a short-lived adventure. I was paralyzed. She left on Monday and did not let me go to say goodbye to her in the station. I’m going to miss you, she said, and I’m not going to forget you. She was lying. But it doesn’t matter; lies, she told me, make life easier to bear.
A rendezvous in a bar with tables on the sidewalk, across from the Hotel Nogaró. She, tender and compassionate, looks for a way to get rid of my pain, without seeing that for me it is a leap into the void, to return home or go to the beach in the afternoons, hidden behind a novel.
An intense rendezvous with the woman, serious for my part and like a game for her. She will marry in March.
Now as always, I wait for her. “I’ll come back. I’ll call you. Wait for me.” Empty words to alleviate the goodbye. She does not know what it has meant to me. If I look at things with indifference, I say: What can you expect? Unexpected summer passion with the first guy to appear on the empty November beach. Three months before her wedding to an attorney, a friend of her father’s.
So as not to put her under pressure, I did not ask for her real name or her address in Buenos Aires. Very gracious, but really I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to her say she wouldn’t tell me.
Roque laughs when I tell him the story of my romance with Lidia. Women are more fearless than men, they are faithful to what they want and are not concerned with the consequences. Nothing of her remained to me, not even a photo or a memory. I had enjoyed how she brushed her hair from her face with a motion that seemed to illuminate her. I gave her my phone number and she hid the paper inside a powder compact. Strange, but of course, she doesn’t want her husband to find proof of her adultery.
Adultery is an intriguing word.
Things become clear in my other life. By chance I went with the Mar del Plata students to a talk at La Plata, where I understood immediately that this would be my point of escape. They rent cheap rooms in student hostels, and you can eat in the university dining hall for five pesos per meal. Now it is decided that I will go to live in La Plata, but I still do not know what I will do there.
I bought the three volumes of Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom for two hundred and sixty pesos at the Erasmo bookshop. I went to the courts with Cabello and Dabrosky to watch the Boca Juniors game. I went to the movie theater: Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Marilyn Monroe’s body, singing with a tiny banjo in the corridor of the train. Two men dressed as ladies in an orchestra of women.
Helena (with an H) gave me an Aktemin, an amphetamine that kept me up all night with extraordinary thoughts that I forgot immediately. I’m studying trigonometry.
I bought new shoes and went out in them to walk down Rivadavia, all self-assured. A half-hour later I started to come to my senses and closed myself up in a theater so as not to think. I saw High Society, a musical.
A penchant for positive forecasts, blind confidence in the future. I expect to break expectations, to spend the summer in peace.
Last night I read “The Overcoat” by Gogol (“we all come out of Gogol’s overcoat,” Dostoevsky said) with his tone of rabid orality: unforgettable. But Kafka comes out of there, too: his comical drama revolves around a coat. It is similar to dreams, where an insignificant object—lost, found, glimpsed—produces devastating effects. The minute cause creates brutal consequences. A great narrative strategy: incidents do not matter; their consequences matter. Here, waiting in a public office possesses the cheerful terror of a legendary epic.
I don’t believe I’m a pale face or a redskin, but the girls take an interest in me either way. I seduce them with words. A friend in Adrogué, Ribero, who played billiards very well and was an inveterate bachelor, always said that the greatest feat of his life had been getting a woman into bed without once having touched her. “Only with my voice and my words, I seduced her,” he would say.
When I reread what I have written of my thesis I want to die. Where did I come up with the idea that I’m a writer?
I called Helena on the phone. I didn’t really know what to say to her. I’m a desperate guy. Don’t you want to sleep with me? The phone rang several times (eleven times). I was thinking, “If I don’t breathe, she’ll come.” No one answered. I hung up. I went back to my room holding my breath. I can hold my breath for a minute and a half, easy. I’ve been practicing how long I can go without breathing since I was fifteen. It would be such an elegant thing to be able to commit suicide by holding your breath. I will call her again, tomorrow or the day after.
I just went a minute and forty seconds without breathing. My heart pounds like an eggbeater. If I were with a woman now, I’d tell her to put her hand on my chest to see how it beats. I’m a sensitive type, I’d tell her. Can you feel my heart?
Inventions to relieve my sorrow, in which I also have faith: Lidia’s return, clandestine love, under the sun. It costs me something to recognize reality. I try not to lose my footing.
The writer who writes a masterpiece. According to Steve, in 1930, while he was studying at Cambridge and working on Ultramarine, Lowry enlisted as an assistant in the coal room of a ship to Norway in order to meet the writer Nordahl Grieg, because he’d gotten his hands on a novel by the Norwegian author that had theme that was similar, if not identical, to the one he was writing. From there emerged In Ballast to White Sea and the portrait of Erikson, an alter ego for which he came to feel a special affinity.
Once again I hid in the sea and the movie theater, so as not to think. Yesterday Welles’s Othello, today Compulsion. I go into the sea and watch the city from afar, flat and calm as if it were a photo. I let it carry me, but to where I don’t know.
I also saw, in another theater, Ashes and Diamonds by A. Wajda. It is sensational. A terrorist of the right, a Nietzschean, kills, “because life without action, more than lacking meaning, is boring.” Why does he always wear black eyeglasses? they ask him. “Because my homeland is in mourning,” he answers.
I spoke to Helena on the phone and attempted to tell her that I was now wearing tinted eyeglasses so that she would ask me why I wore them and I could answer her: “Because my homeland is in mourning.” But there was no way, and anyway, it was difficult to explain to her over the phone that I had my dark eyeglasses on. Maybe everything I say to her seems romantic. Helena likes me because she has clear eyes and is a little foolish. She invites me over for tea, and when I’m with her I never get introspective.
Last night, before going to sleep, I reread The Great Gatsby, the use of Conrad’s technique, a romantic version of Lord Jim: men who want to change the past. The best part of the novel is the beginning, where Gatsby is a mystery, all the stories that circulate about him. The weakest part is precisely the explication; maybe he couldn’t drive himself to leave everything in suspense and not clarify whether Gatsby was a gangster or a lucky man.
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 saw The Diary of Anne Frank in the theater. At the moment of greatest tension (the cat plays with a tin funnel, pushes it with its nose, nearly making it fall from the table while the Nazis are taking over the apartment, searching for the family hidden in the crawlspace), a fire extinguisher exploded—spontaneously—with a brutal noise and a flash. Panic and cries; the people piled up along the aisle in the darkness, but I stayed calm, ready to observe their figures, as if someone were filming the scene.
I went to the sea alone, once again to the beach near the port. At noon, there was a confused commotion with the swimmers and lifeguards that ended with the police rushing on horseback at everyone. The fury was shared by women and men in their houses, who also insulted the police, though for other reasons.
Every morning, the face in the mirror. I get older, but the image stays cheerful and amused. I would have to put on a plaster mask.
Yesterday I went to the theater; today I went to the theater. It doesn’t matter what I see, I seek only the darkness, the forgetting.
I ran into Rafa. He is totally convinced that he’s flawless. He practices gymnastics every morning and gets tens in all the events. We went to the Professor Jiménez’s house. He started to read Ortega y Gasset to us. He keeps all the yellow books in a separate library, as if he thought that with these books from a Spanish journalist he would become a knowledgeable man. I told him that he was an anarchist. He smiled with his despicable know-it-all smile.
I went to walk along the coast with Helena with an H. The wind made the canvas of the awnings vibrate. The empty beach, the fearsome sea; the waves were crashing furiously over the jetty and the water almost made it up to the street. We sat on the steps of the stairway leading to Playa Grande. A terrible wind, the salt air. “The only thing that interests me is writing,” I told her. “I know, dear; you don’t miss a chance to tell me every two minutes.” I didn’t say it for you, I told her. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t play strange. Here,” she said, “we’re going to take a photo together.” There was a street photographer, with a square camera, on a bicycle, his head covered with a black cloth. “Look at the lovers,” said the photographer. She smiled with a face of resignation. Curiously, I felt a sense that I had offended her. As if, because we had secretly entered close to the Ocean Club, I should have acted differently. I would have, ought to have…
Sitting on a metal chair, under the gray light in the office. Dad has gone to Viedma tonight—a political matter, connected to the old story of a group of Peronist leaders’ flight from a prison in the south. Among them, Guillermo Patricio Kelly, the nationalist, who was dressed as a woman.
I went for the first time to a strange rectangular office full of women sitting in front of typewriters, tapping away rhythmically without looking at the keyboards. I had also come to take typing classes, to learn to write using all of my fingers. They put me in front of a big Underwood machine, but I didn’t do anything. I don’t think I’ll go back.
I call Helena. She offers to type up the final draft of my monograph. Poor angel… I’m going to go to the house tomorrow. She triggers certain cruel instincts in me, my desires to make her see who I am. It would be a surprise for her to see me as I am. Deep down this is the only thing that worries me. Otherwise, everything would go very well.
It is very early and I do not know what to do.
Monday, January 25
A letter to Elena (without an H). Trouble finding something to say, making a “decorous” summary of the time in which I broke with the monopoly of her friendship to invent new—and ambiguous—partnerships. A presumptuous letter that I wrote in bad faith to prove my “progress.” I made a fetish—a totem—for spontaneous feelings, for sincerity. I summarized for her my conditioned (and blind) choice to study in La Plata and not in Buenos Aires. I want to live alone, far from family, even though it is my grandfather Emilio who will pay for my degree because I broke ties with my father, who threatened me in an absurd way when he discovered I did not mean to study medicine as he had. My grandfather will pay me a salary to help him organize his archive of material from the First World War. Living in La Plata, from what I can tell from these past few weeks of being here, is much cheaper than living in Buenos Aires.
I try to isolate myself, try not to think; there is no future, I live in a present without limits. Lidia must disappear from my life.
Saturday, January 30
A subject. An artist who works on a monumental project and dies before completing it. An unexpected end, news of a suicide in the papers. They find his room full of notecards. Inside the typewriter, a page where the only thing written is “A Sentimental History of Humanity. Chapter 1.” There was nothing more, and no pages of the announced book were found, only the notecards, which showed a long investigation into a wide variety of sources. Writings in an elegant calligraphy, the numbered cards included quotations, isolated sentences, brief biographies, plans for organizing the chapters, etc. No one knows whether—as it is supposed—he ever even began the work or if he became disillusioned after writing it and made it disappear a day before killing himself.
In the afternoon, with Helena. She is more cynical than I am. She holds back, shows off. As she speaks of trifles, she leans forward so that I can see she is not wearing a bra. I can never be bored with this woman. With her, the best times are always the goodbyes. We are in the kitchen, full of light, floating between the white tiles. On the upstairs floor above, we could feel her mother’s coming and going.
Fascinated by a detail: at the end, from some place she brought out a little towel. In such a way she had anticipated everything.
I thought about her. We went up to her room in the middle of the night. Through the half-open door, we saw her parents sleeping. We spoke in a whisper, which I remember now as something very erotic. She was biting the palm of her hand, was so close to me, in the silence and the rough and light breathing.
The difficulty with not having much money is finding a place to be together. A room of one’s own to make love. I’d have to write an essay on youth drifting through the city, begging for a place to lock themselves in.
Monday, February 8
For the past several days I have felt restless without knowing why. I don’t think about her anymore. I spend the morning on the beach and the afternoon in the public library, looking over old editions of the magazine Martín Fierro. I resign myself to thinking that within a month, within a year, all of this that seems insurmountable will be—barely—a memory. Thoughts as compensation, excuses.
He keeps going on around here, turning in circles, my mother’s personal witch doctor. She is amused, saying that he’s much cheaper than an analyst and that he habitually predicts exactly what she wants to happen. Don José, whom I have baptized “Yambo,” as though he were an African witch doctor, has very white skin, jewels on his fingers and at his neck, dangerously smooth manners, and a certain hidden insanity that surrounds him like a fine veil. He throws his body forward when he smiles. Today he sat with us at the dining table and, while we talked, he began to preach and predict my future in La Plata. According to him, I already began very well last year and things would improve this year. He is certain that my central interest is not only my studies but also a hidden river that he sees clearly but cannot name. I must take caution with the political activists and be polite with women. I thanked him for the diagnosis and told him that I would write a note in my journal quickly, this very day, to consult within a few years (which is what I will do). I hope that this subterranean river is a metaphor for literature, but I don’t know.
Translated by Robert Croll
Ricardo Piglia (Buenos Aires, 1940–2017), professor emeritus of Princeton University, is unanimously considered a classic of contemporary Spanish-language literature. He published five novels, including Artificial Respiration, The Absent City, and Target in the Night, as well as collections of stories and criticism. Among the numerous prizes he received were the Premio de la Crítica, Premio Rómulo Gallegos, Premio Bartolomé March, Premio Casa de las Américas, Premio José Donoso, and Premio Formentor de las Letras.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.