Latin American Literature

Read An Excerpt From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia

The Diaries of Emilio Renzi - The Happy Years by Ricardo Piglia - 9781632061980.jpg

The second installment of Ricardo Piglia’s acclaimed autobiographical diaries, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years continues the celebrated Argentine author’s bibliographic and intertextual record of his auto-fictional alter ego, Emilio Renzi. Piglia intimately interrogates the trajectories of Renzi’s literary, professional, and personal spheres against the backdrop of Argentina in the 1970s, rampant with emotional and political turmoil from displacement under the effects of Peronism, guerrilla warfare, and a bloody military coup. As in Formative Years, Piglia deftly weaves literary criticism with fiction in this second volume, taking on the historic traditions of literature within which he has secured a place of his own.


“For the past few years, every Latin American novelist I know has been telling me how lavish, how grand, how transformative was the Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia’s final project, a fictional journal in three volumes, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi—Renzi being Piglia’s fictional alter ego. And now here at last is the first volume in English, The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years, translated by Robert Croll. It’s something to be celebrated… [It] offer[s] one form of resistance to encroaching fascism: style.” 

—Adam Thirlwell, BookForum, The Best Books of 2017


From The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: The Happy Years

Monday, July 1

Let us begin with the death of Perón. On Monday, after alternate versions, stories, enhancements. A meeting at home in the morning with Rubén and Boccardo, delusions with Sadovsky and other gentlemen who have discovered Lenin (what? Lenin?) because of his “prestigious names.” The melancholy while Perón lay dying, at least while the story of his death was born, which I kept myself away from until after four in the afternoon, when I left home and started to grow concerned about the lines in front of the shops (I thought: “I have oil,” I thought: “The lines are coming, just like in Chile”) and about the Galerna library being closed. In the bar I find out about the death of King Lear: general astonishment at my ignorance of the news that had moved everyone in the world. “Where were you?” etc. Even worse, I heard the news from Saúl Sosnowsky, a depoliticized escapee who lives in the United States, whom I am meeting to give him a chapter of my essay on Arlt for his magazine Hispamérica. The city is quiet, people piled up at Congreso, at nightfall, waiting for the line to begin so they can see the dead man.

I visit David, furious about the telegram from the PCR with condolences for Isabelita.

Tuesday 2

I get up at two in the afternoon. An unexpected appearance from Amanda, who comes with Anita Larronde (Luppi’s wife), bringing me a novel by Pavese that, according to her, I had lent her. Trivial conversation, no great tension, a pleasant ending: I give her a copy of Los Libros magazine. Ana says: “There’s an excellent article in here.” She looks for it, it’s mine, and she is amazed. “I’m going to tell Federico I’ve been around important people.” That’s what we call displacement, saying one thing in place of another.

I move through the rainy city, the endless funeral lines, and no one seems to want the goodbyes to end, no one wants to go home; I remember wakes in my childhood that lasted all night and continued on after noon, but now they are expanded, crowded, with serious gestures that repeat on every street. Some have waited for thirty hours to see the dead man, the venerated man one last time. 

Wednesday 3

I walk through the empty city, street openings blocked off, people wandering with a sorrowful air, and I end up on Carlos Pellegrini, where (without seeing it) I feel the effects of the funeral procession that crosses Avenida de Mayo carrying the corpse. Men cry, I see a policeman with his face damp from weeping, the soldiers in procession cry as well. Sorrow weighs down upon the city like a shadow. The Montoneros sing out their slogans. I lose myself in the multitude and make it to Congreso. On the way back I pass down endless streets, skirting along a persistent row of men and women lined up to see the cadaver. The long procession continues along Carlos Pellegrini until Retiro. The people’s pain.

I return home and observe the city in darkness from high above. The lines go on in spite of the rain.

León R. comes over and makes history personal, saying: “What has this man done to us.” It isn’t a question, it’s a complaint, as though he were referring to the ghost of Hamlet’s father. León’s personal view refers everything to himself and his own feelings. That is his philosophical viewpoint. What does the world mean for me? More deep-seated and extreme than Descartes: the subject is the truth of reality. 

Iris talks about the relationships between life and writing—between living and writing—with the same words I have used for years: “Leave everything behind. Live to write.” 


Perón’s death has erased all meaning, the despotic signifier has vanished; the mourning is endless and stories proliferate. I register some of them as I walk through the streets: “A regiment from La Tablada rose up” (they say on the first day). Or rather: Perón is dead, the officers make their return. Cámpora appears to be the only political figure from Peronism who has some backing and support. The right sees him as an enemy and wants him to disappear. And so, news has been circulating all day about an attempt on Cámpora’s life. Balbín is the only one who can unify the dominant classes: he is the lower-ranked, imaginary substitute for Perón. In front of the coffin in the incandescent chapel, the empty speeches went on until the Chinese man with round eyeglasses appeared, standing beside the dead man, and said, inspired with a high Latin rhetoric: “Today, an old adversary comes to say goodbye to a friend.” Everyone cried except for him; proud and serene, he spoke for the first time as an equal l to the Man (as my father and all of the Peronists called him during the Resistance years) who had defeated him and imprisoned him and humiliated him. I remembered the unmatched tone of Quevedo’s prose after the murder of Julius Caesar: “Marcus Brutus was a severe man, a man who reproached other’s vices with his own virtue, not with words. He had an eloquent silence, and his intellect keen.” Epic emotion lies in a man’s praise for the rival who has defeated him, or whom he has conquered. It takes the form of a challenge, transforming anger into admiration. The heartfelt requiem that the defeated man enunciates, now without hatred. All of the politicians and the whole of the public pointed to Balbín as the dead man’s heir.

Friday 5

I am reading Marthe Robert’s book on the Freudian family romance as a fundamental root in the history of the origins of modern storytelling. She studies Robinson Crusoe as the figure who negates his father and invents a lineage and a territory of his own 

Julia calls me on the phone, I meet her at Tolón and immediately my peace leaves me. She has lost her handbag with her glasses in it—now she can’t see (does she know who I am?)—and her documents. She is broke, alone, and lost, and she weighs me down with everything. (She also fantasizes about getting together with David, who will be alone on Wednesday once Beba goes to Europe after a Chilean man.) Of course I have nothing to say to her, and I tell her as much and give her a thousand pesos to get back home… Oh those lost loves. It’s as though a light is going out. The woman we once loved is a stranger, speaking to us and chiding us as though she knew us. She seems crazy, talking nonsense. That is how I see her now; love makes people better and when it ends, oh, it is too late for tears.

Saturday, July 6

On the bus, a chain of associations, the criminal always tells his tale as though it belonged to someone else. He can kill, but he cannot say, “I have killed.” It works the same way as dreaming, where the intensity of the experience cannot be transmitted with words: in order to say it, the killer has to kill again. A grammatical reasoning behind the serial killer: he can only speak through the detached bodies. And who can read his message carved into the corpses, as words written in sand? He cannot say it and so repeats the act. 

I go to dinner with Iris at América. León calls after I come back, a melancholy encounter. He speaks from another planet: he analyzes Perón’s death solely through his perspective, as though Argentine history were part of his life. It is the left’s problem with Perón. He has stayed with the working class as though he had abducted them. That’s the issue with León and David. Peronism is seen as a scheme, a tyrannical means of using the subordinate classes through deceit and lies. The personalization of politics viewed as a psychological trap. What has this man done to me, he who governed the country for years and then died without having been condemned? Everything is experienced in first person. Politics as a private drama. That is the merit of impassioned thought and also its self-referential closure.

Sunday 7

A peaceful and happy day. I watch the World Cup finals on television: Germany-Netherlands. Soccer is like life, as my father would say: the better one never wins. Iris and I walk around the city, marked by the absence of the Man. Iris laughs, “he was always controlled by women. First Eva and then Isabelita. The best thing,” she adds, “is that he always got married to fallen women.” Cuarteleras, barracks girls, as military jargon calls the female soldiers who accompany men to war.

Andrés comes over: his older son is dying of cancer. The whole succession of catastrophes, no work, his ex-wife living with Juan Gelman, his ex-best friend–he needs to move. Weighed down, at his limit, he raves a bit and I follow, raving along with him. “Is it possible to kill and not be caught?” We speak calmly, analyzing several alternatives.

Tuesday 9

One could say I spent the whole day sleeping. I got up at ten, and Carlos came to visit me. I went to lunch at the tavern on Calle Serrano. I went back to sleep until three in the afternoon. Now I imagine I will go out into the street like a sleepwalker, looking for a woman. 

Friday 12

I receive a beautiful letter from Tristana. She announces a delivery of stones for the man with the golden arm. Once more the fantasies are reborn in a corner, what can I say to a woman (married, with two children) in a letter. A Stendhalian theme.

I spend the day at Iris’s house, very good. We go out for dinner in the rain, under the pale lights.

Sunday 14

I listen to Mozart, make myself some tea and prepare to write “Los dos linages” in Borges. I act as copyist, going over and over the initial pages of the essay. Three pages that barely suggest the tone. An essay depends on the conviction transmitted by the prose.

Tuesday 23

What can be said of a man like me? A simple letter from Tristana was enough to cause the dull anxiety that follows me. Uncertainty brought by the flight of birds; I see symbols of fate in the slightest traces of the wind among the trees. Reading those signs takes up all of my time and strength. Her letter, on the other hand, reopened a wound in another part of my body. Everything can form part of the novel that I’m writing. The novel and my life, always the same schism. It would be better to say: “The novel of a life.”

A feeling that I am bound to the barrenness of the times. I see David, who calls me to meet in La Moncloa. A meeting for Los Libros. We have Issue 36 ready. An excellent article on Althusser by Altamirano. Several articles about urbanism. What dangers disquiet me? More than dangers it is a discontentment, facing the inadequacy of my life.

The mistake seems to lie in the delusion of expecting validation in the present. Don’t conjugate verbs in past tenses. Forget about the future. This current vision of the future never seems to have been given except perhaps before, in another time. I tell myself once more: “Do not bind yourself to the good times passed, but to the bad times yet to come.”

The essay could be called “Ideology and Fiction in Borges.” Meaning proliferates, the point is to reconstruct the fiction from the origin. The ways writers imagine the material conditions that make their work possible. Sometimes I can’t stand combinatorial analysis, I need some distance, so I go out to smoke a cigarette.

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May 27, 1911, and another knot in our account of this life—a knot in which, at the hour when the sun beats down on the backs of men across the Mesa Madre Buena and the earth succumbs to the drowsiness and slowness that succeed spring, Germán Alcántara Carnero hears a sudden whistle and stops swinging his mattock. Puzzled, ourman, still a boy at this point in our story, turns and gazes over his shoulder, and when the whistle cuts through the air again, the three mangy dogs that were sleeping on the ground nearby rouse themselves, sniffing the air for a smell that is yet to reach the boy—the smell of a smudge coming down over the scrubland, where the heat from the earth meets the heat dropping from the incandescence that is the sky at this time of year.

He looks at the horizon, which is very clear, and sees the smudge as it continues to advance over the scrub. It’s been so long since we’ve had any kind of wind, thinks Germán Alcántara Carnero. Two, maybe three weeks and not the tiniest gust, he thinks, casting his mind back as the smudge continues its approach, gradually growing into a silhouette. The whistling man whistles again, calling to attention the men, women, and children hereabouts, who all leave off their work and, like Alcántara Carnero, stand and wait. The local landowner—the lord and master, that is, of these lands and of all the people in them—approaches on his mare, a thousand swirling starlings following in his wake. A solitary cloud crosses the sun—brief respite for Germán Alcántara Carnero as he wonders what orders they’re about to be given.

The cloud’s fleeting shadow, as fleeting as the words I am writing here, moves across the plowed field, across the plots in which seeds have already been sown, and then over the path along which the horse—whose glinting owner we will refer to as lordandmaster—is trotting. Eye drawn by the glints coming off of lordandmaster’s clothes, ourman—whom we will be better off calling ouryoungman, though in truth he isn’t even quite a young man yet—does not notice his dogs rousing themselves until they set to barking. “Quiet, you three!” he says as the lordandmaster whistles again. But the dogs continue to bark and whine, and, leaning down, he kicks one of the beasts in the neck and the other on the snout: “I said quiet!”

A little way off, ouryoungman hears someone asking: “What’s he want?” It is the man who always speaks up when anything happens in these parts: “What is it this time?” Another peon, a few meters from us, answers with a laugh: “He’s come to hand out some presents.” All those in earshot laugh. “He’s here to give us his horse.” And the first man, plunging his machete into the soil and wiping his brow, says: “I bet he’s going to tell us to all go home. I know him, and I know he don’t like being out in the hot sun like this…Bet he’s going to tell us, ‘Whoever doesn’t stay home will pay…’ Look at him, so sure of himself—cock of the walk!”

Lordandmaster whistles once more—not because any of his workers haven’t heard him already, but simply because he can, and because he knows it annoys these men.

“He’s frightened it’ll start here, too!” says the man who has begun exhorting his companions. “Frightened we’ll rise up as well. Bet you he’s going to come and complain about those ten men, and warn us off joining them.” “I wish he was afraid!” says one of the older men—the one who’s been working for longest on these lands, lands where the punishing heat even seeps through the ground, quickly fermenting any recently buried bodies. The man who spoke first, undeterred, indifferent to the old man’s reply, takes three steps forward and says: “He’s come to say, ‘woe to those thinking of welcoming them into their homes.’” But again, ouryoungman doesn’t hear this. He has just noticed a strange insect crawling from the ear of his dog and trying to pick it off. Seeing its blue-green wings, Germán Alcántara Carnero thinks: It’s a Jerusalem Cricket. I’ll give it to María, she’ll like it. He reaches out a hand, but then feels a sharp pain, a heavy blow that, though it doesn’t touch him, cuts the insect in two and therefore hurts him nonetheless. “That bug don’t bite, but he does!” says one of the peons as he comes by, pointing to lordandmaster at the far end of the field. “Better get over there now.”

Germán Alcántara Carnero watches in anger as the man, the machete in his hand, walks grudgingly over, but then falls in behind him. When he reaches the group surrounding lordandmaster, he catches the tail end of a phrase: “…I will go and seek them out, personally, and I will find them, and I will mete out such punishment on each and every one.” With his outsize hands, Germán Alcántara Carnero forces open a space between the men, who now turn their heads to the north, where the man who killed his insect has begun speaking: “So go back to our houses, is that it? And once we get there stay put? I have a better idea—why don’t you and your family go to fuck?” The men, though already silent, fall quieter still, and ouryoungman braces himself: lordandmaster immediately crosses the circle, his hand reaching for his gun, which he levels at the man’s head and, still advancing, pulls the trigger. And the man who killed the insect is blown onto his back.

The mouth of the fallen man issues the final gurgling sounds that his body will ever emit, as though his heart and lungs, before giving in, had to unleash a final insult to the workers looking on in silence, heads bowed, waiting for their next order. “Home,” roars lordandmaster, “all of you get home, and don’t let me catch any of you going out.” They all stare back at him, all except for Germán Alcántara Carnero, who is watching the hole through which the dead man’s brains are dribbling out. “Don’t none of you come back out again till I say so.” And with that, lordandmaster mounts his mare once more and, pulling hard on the reins, shouts: “Don’t let me hear that any of you have been talking with the Rio Verde men, nor showing them any kind of hospitality.” Pleased with their silence and with the obedient turning and walking away of his workers—men who, even with their backs to him, don’t dare to defy him in words or thought— lordandmaster spins begins moving off, but then ouryoungman’s dogs begin barking again and he turns back. What’s Félix’s boy doing now? he wonders, with confusion that will soon produce a smile on his face. What’s he doing peering at the dead man? Is he really going to…? Nodding his head, captivated, lordandmaster lets out a laugh as he sees the person who will one day be ourman reach out and thrust his outsize fingers into the bloody wound. Lordandmaster, up on his mare, applauds, saying to himself: This you’ll never forget, not this, Félix’s little boy, before tugging on the reins again and setting off. The surprise on the face of ouryoungman—the only worker remaining—lingers: he has seen dead men before but never gone so far as to touch one, and never imagined the blood would be this warm. Crouching, looking in the dead man’s eyes, he whispers: “That’s what you get, fucker, for hurting my beetle. It was meant to be a gift.”

He looks up, the only things around him now his three dogs and the vultures that have just landed a little way off—beyond them across the fields he can see the diminishing silhouettes of the workers picking their way through the scrub, and beyond that the rocky outcrop, sandstone winking in the sun, and beyond the rocky outcrop the vast swath of thicket land where his family lives and where a dam will one day be erected.

Picking his way across the fresh furrows to his mattock, he gathers it up along with the two halves of the beetle that crawled out of his dog’s ear, and thinks of his sister, who turns fourteen today and who has never uttered a word in her life: she was born with a tongue the wrong size for her mouth. “I’ll find her something else. By the time I get back to the house, I swear I’ll have another present.” Scanning the horizon once more, ouryoungman enjoins his dogs—who are casting resigned looks at the fly-covered corpse also being contemplated by the jumpy vultures: “Come on, you three. Let’s go!” Leaving the field behind and passing up and down a number of small knolls, he cuts into the part of the land where at certain times of the year beanstalks and at others alfalfa and sorghum and grass and corn grow, in haphazard manner: a manner replicated by almost everything on this plain and thus by this story as well. Here a hundred shoots, there a group of stalks and the heads of some maize, and over there, corncobs in an unlikely line. Here the earth begins to change: the weeds begin to break up into discrete clumps, drifting farther apart and soon coming to resemble islands and then finally small islets charting a course in an ocean of earth—on the surface of which the stone just thrown by Germán Alcántara Carnero lands.

Without breaking stride, ouryoungman leans down and plucks another stone from the path, cleaning the soil from it as he did the previous stone—spitting on it and rubbing it with both hands before carefully checking it over and then hurling it angrily toward the horizon. He has no choice but to find a new gift for María del Sagrado Alcántara Carnero. On this part of the path we are on, where the soil turns sharp and rough underfoot and even the islets of clumped grass desist, the boy who will one day be ourman is more likely to find the surprise he’s looking for: a stone with a fossil inside, one that shows how this area was submerged beneath water in epochs past. He bends down, picks up another stone, checks it, discards it. At the point the path exits the stretch of seemingly ravaged lands and enters the area that precedes the rocky outcrop we are very soon to arrive in—a place where the ground resembles leprous skin—Germán Alcántara Carnero leans down again and, picking up a fourth stone, smiles and gives a small excited skip. Finally, a good gift.