Deciphering the “Secret Message of History”: Ricardo Piglia’s “Artificial Respiration”
Artificial Respiration, the 1981 novel by Argentinian Ricardo Piglia, is a dense, challenging book about the problem of history and the role that literature plays in trying to decipher “the secret message of history.” Should we write history backwards, as one character (Marcelo Maggi) tries to?
I am sure, besides, that the only way of capturing the sense that defies his destiny is to alter the chronology, to go backwards from the final madness to the moment when Ossario takes part with the rest of the generation of Argentinian romantics in founding the principles and bases of what we call the national culture.
Or is it better to write forward, to write the history of the future, as another character named Enrique Ossorio decides to do when he announces that “I am writing this first letter from the future” from exile from New York City in 1850?
I have thought of writing a utopia: there I will narrate what I imagine the country’s future to be. I am in the best possible position to do so: removed from everything, outside of time, a foreigner, caught up in the webs of exile. What will the country be like in a hundred years? Who will remember us? Those of us now – who will remember us? I am writing about those dreams.
Thus, I will write of the future, not wanting to remember the past. One thinks about what will happen when one thinks to oneself: How can it be that I wasn’t able to see then what seems so obvious now? And what can I do to see in the present the signs that announce the course of the future? I have begin reflecting on all of that and also upon my life and that is why I am writing to you.
Artificial Respiration is constructed around the story of Enrique Ossorio, a man who served as a secretary to a nineteenth century Argentinian dictator, but who also served as a spy for the opposition. The ostensible narrator is Emilio Renzi, a young writer who appears in several of Piglia’s books, but the story is largely told through letters and conversations. But beyond that, Artificial Respiration is nearly impossible to synthesize because the book is tacitly about topics that are never addressed openly. As translator Daniel Balderston writes in his Introduction, “the problem facing the reader of this novel is that it circles around horrors that are quite literally unspeakable…If Renzi and Tardewski and Marconi talk endlessly in the latter half of the book, it is because there is so much they cannot speak about.”
Artifical Respiration is dedicated to two of the many thousands of Argentina’s “disappeared,” a topic that sits at the center of this book like a black hole. The Argentinian history, politics, and national aspirations that are woven tightly into the narrative will most likely elude non-Argentinian readers (like me), but this shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying the many riches the book has to offer. The nature of literature is probably the book’s most important sub-topic. As Balderston says, Piglia’s political fiction ingeniously “doubles as literary criticism, updating a genre perhaps best exemplified in the Borges stories of the 1940s.” There are references to and sometimes lengthy discussions about Joseph Conrad, fellow Argentinian writers Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Arlt, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, Brecht, and Russian formalism, along with philosophers Descartes and Wittgenstein. There is even an elaborate (but imaginary) thesis that Adolf Hitler met Kafka, who thus influenced Mein Kampf. During a long, gin-infused discussion that occurs late in the book, one character provides us a summation of what he sees as Borges’ greatest gift:
…texts that are chains of forged, apocryphal, false, distorted quotations; an exasperating and parodic display of secondhand culture, constantly invaded by a pathetic pedantry: that’s what Borges makes fun of. He – I mean Borges – exaggerates and carries to extremes, almost parodic extremes in fact, the line of cosmopolitan and fraudulent erudition that defines – even dominates – the greater part of the Argentinian literature of the nineteenth century.
(“Forged, apocryphal, false, distorted quotations”? “Secondhand culture”? “Fraudulent erudition”? Are we talking about a certain sector of contemporary American politics here?)
Piglia is a challenging writer because he demands an active, engaged reader who will work hard to connect the dots. “To read…one must know how to associate,” remarks one character in Artificial Respiration. On several occasions, Piglia references the Russian writer Sergei Tratiakov, who advocated for literature fakta, a literature that “should work with raw documents, with textual montage, with direct testimony, with the techniques of reportage,” because “fiction is the opiate of the people.”
Artificial respiration can be a means of providing life-sustaining support during a temporary crisis. But in some circumstances it can also be a way of merely delaying the inevitability of death. When it comes to Argentina, I suspect Piglia is telling us that the latter is more likely, that the body is in an unrecoverable coma.
I’ll be writing about Piglia’s just-translated novel Target in the Night (Deep Vellum, 2015) shortly.
Ricardo Piglia. Artificial Respiration. Duke University Press, 1994. Translated by Daniel Balderston from the 1981 Spanish original Respiración artificial.