Reviewed by Peter Hegarty
Argentinian writer Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi (1940 – 2017) had two literary identities. Ricardo Piglia wrote operas, screenplays, stories and detective fiction. In the English-speaking world he is probably best-known for Money to Burn (1997), a non-fiction novel inspired, if that is the word, by the violent robbery of a security van in Buenos Aires in January 1965, and structured in a similar way to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Emilio Renzi, whom Piglia calls “an imaginary version of myself,” chronicled his life in 327 notebooks which he resolved into three volumes of diaries (ix). This first volume covers the ten years of his life between 1957 and 1967:
He had nothing to say; his life was absolutely trivial. ‘I like the first years of my diary precisely because, at the time, I was struggling against the void,’ he said one afternoon, in the bar on the corner of Arenales and Riobamba. ‘Nothing happened; in reality, nothing ever happens, but it worried me back then. I was very naïve, always looking for extraordinary adventures.’ (6)
When we first meet him he is in his mid-teens, getting through three books a day, comfortable in four languages. He is estranged from his father, as Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is from his:
He admired and went to visit Yeats just as I admire and want to know Borges. That is to say, he saw as his master a writer who could not have been his father but rather his grandfather. Finally, he admired his father’s admiration for Parnell just as I admire my father’s admiration for Perón, even though neither Dedalus nor I are interested in our fathers’ politics. (66)
Renzi is close to his grandfather Emilio, who fought in the Italian army during the First World War. After sustaining an injury, he served in the military postal unit. There he collected thousands of letters sent home by soldiers before they fell fighting the Austrians in the gelid, mountainous northeast of Italy. We can imagine the sad tremble of the old man’s voice: “Many died, so many every day, the offensives against the Austrian defenses were a massacre.” “What task could be more oppressive,” Renzi writes, “than sorting through letters of the dead and answering a mother, a son, a sister? […] Little by little, after months and months of struggling with these remains he began to lose his mind: he clung to the letters and stopped sending them.” Old Emilio pays his grandson to order and archive the collection. He also funds his education: Young Emilio’s father, a doctor, has cut him off for refusing to study medicine (20).
The Diaries give a strong sense of the there and then, of literary and social life in Buenos Aires and La Plata. Countries that invest heavily in education, as Argentina used to, develop a rich cultural life. Restless Books usefully includes short biographical notes on the literary luminaries who inhabit the book. Renzi sups with the writer and left-wing activist Rodolfo Walsh, whose Operation Massacre (1957) was a pioneering nonfiction novel, and possibly the inspiration for Money to Burn. Walsh would pay with his life for publishing his damning Open Letter From a Writer to the Military Junta in 1977. Piglia corresponds with Julio Cortázar, author of the highly praised experimental novel Hopscotch. Cortázar, an astringent critic, is a good man to have on your side: a literary career could easily flounder or capsize following a bad review from a writer of his stature. All defer to Borges: “Everything comes from Borges” (384). The great man supplies the best literary slap-down in the book: he enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude, we learn, but thought it “fifty years too many” (389).
Politically as well as culturally, we are in interesting times, in an era best understood with reference to Juan Domingo Perón, the military strongman who hurried into exile after a bloody coup brought him down in 1955. Depending on whom you talk to, Perón was either an authoritarian demagogue, or an energetic nationalist reformer. Renzi struggles to understand him, but Borges has no doubts: the title of a short story of his refers to Perón as El Monstruo. On the other hand, many working people, whose lives and health greatly improved under Perón, revered him and his frail, charismatic wife Evita.
Renzi is living in a restricted democracy, a country in which people on the left like him have to contend with state heavy-handedness: we read about military occupation of university campuses and attacks on people protesting against the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. Socialists struggle to win over workers blindly loyal to Perón. Renzi describes his fellow activists distributing The Militant, a Trotskyist magazine, in working-class suburbs of La Plata:
The neighborhood people thought it was an army publication because, of course, they confused the word ‘militant,’ which they did not know, with ‘military.’ They thought ‘militant’ was just another way of saying ‘military.’ All except for the Peronist sympathizers who understood immediately that it signified a Trotskyist daily. In response, following Perón’s directive, they insulted them and called them nasty epithets while slamming the door in their faces. (148)
At one point, Renzi describes Argentina as “morally bankrupt.” As is the case always and everywhere, a government without democratic authority must resort to repression and crude surveillance: “The government’s intelligence services monitored him for months, censored his correspondence […] and once in a while a nocturnal voice would threaten him over the phone” (67).
We now know that Perón was as morally bankrupt as the people harassing Renzi. Diligent research by journalist Uki Goñi for his book Perón and the Nazis revealed that the strongman had given refuge to thousands of German officers and scientists after the collapse of the Third Reich, with a view to employing their expertise in the modernization of his armed forces. Many of these immigrants were murderers and racists—people Argentina could have done without. Their anti-Semitism infected the military. After another coup in 1976, soldiers imprisoned and tortured Jacobo Timerman, editor of La Prensa, and one of the most prominent Jews in the country. In the book in which he recounts his ordeal, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, Timerman recalls the picture of Hitler that hung on the wall in the torture center. Piglia will no doubt have much to say about the grim 1970s in the coming volumes of his diaries.
Robert Croll’s translation, while competent enough, is tethered to the original and prone to interference. Desgracia, for example, should translate as “misfortune,” not “disgrace.” A common verbal phrase like pasar desapercibido becomes “pass unperceived” when it wants to be “go unnoticed.” We usually don’t translate the names of football teams (with the odd exception such as Red Star Belgrade): the team based in La Plata is known the world over as Estudiantes, not “Students.” This is no minor point of detail: Estudiantes was one of the best sides in the world when our man, a soccer fan like Camus, went to watch the team play Boca Juniors.
The translation reads like an advanced draft, a piece of work that needs more revision, more spit and polish. It’s a pity that it has this unfinished feel, for you sense that Croll has enjoyed himself, that he feels an affinity with Renzi. An artist, writer and musician, he probably understands the value of perseverance and knows what it’s like to struggle to get noticed, to live from paycheck to paycheck, as Renzi does. In an insightful passage, one which Croll handles well, Piglia describes how time lends significance to those seemingly mundane events we record every day, or most days, or only now and then:
Anyway, this notebook will be reread in the future as well, and then some sense will be restored, in a few months or, perhaps, even tomorrow. Lived time grows beautiful precisely because it is in the past. These dark days will seem luminous when distance allows me to observe them as though they were landscapes. The landscape of the soul, he said, you understand? (300)
Piglia reminds us of one of the basic truths of life: what we remember and what we record are not always the same thing. Diaries can complement but also contradict memory; sometimes they preserve what we forget. Diaries and memory are unreliable:
There are episodes narrated in those journals that he has forgotten completely. They exist in the diary but not in his memory. And, at the same time, certain scenes that survive in his memory with the clarity of photographs are absent there, as though he had never experienced them. He feels the strange sensation of having lived two lives. (5)
Piglia, Ricardo. The Diaries of Emilio Renzi. Formative Years. Tr. Robert Croll. Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2017.
For more on Piglia, see our review of Target in the Night, translated by Sergio Waisman