In the long history of novelists and their doubles, doppelgängers, and alter egos, few have given more delighted attention to the problem of multiplicity than the Argentine novelist Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi. He was born in 1940 and died last year in Buenos Aires. Under the name of Ricardo Piglia he published a sequence of acrobatic, dazzling novels and stories that consistently featured a novelist called Emilio Renzi. This division between public author and imaginary novelist was the little motor inside the vast machine of Piglia’s sprawling literary activity: not just fiction but essays, lectures, articles, screenplays, and seminars.
He was only being loyal to his location. In the early twentieth century, a tradition developed in Buenos Aires and Montevideo: the “Río de la Plata tradition,” in Piglia’s description, in which “the writer vacillates, does not quite understand the story he is telling.” This hesitant tradition is visible in the fictions of Macedonio Fernández and his protégé Jorge Luis Borges, the century’s most famous literary metaphysician; Borges’s friends Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; and the Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández. In this southern tradition (“Every true tradition is clandestine, is constructed retrospectively and has the form of a conspiracy,” wrote Piglia), reality was a woozy substance, subject to strange alterations. Truth and fiction were not opposites but variants of each other. And the most pliable element of this universe was the self itself.
What this did to fiction was a sticky mutation. There could be stories about stories; studies of novels that didn’t exist; novelistic essays and essayistic novels: fantastical reworkings of the history of literature. In The Last Reader (2005), Piglia argued that Borges’s greatest lesson may have been this emphasis on interpretation:
The certainty that fiction depends not only on the person who constructs it but on the person who reads. Fiction is also a position of the interpreter. Not that everything is a fiction…but everything can be read as a fiction. What is specific to Borges (if such a thing exists) is the capacity to read everything as a fiction and to believe in its power. Fiction as a theory of reading.
This wasn’t the only time in the history of the novel that fiction had imposed itself as a philosophical mode—but in this decolonized, unstable atmosphere it acquired an excitingly contemporary emphasis. There was a sense that to narrate a story would be more urgent if at the same time the act of narrating was also deciphered. “In Argentine history,” Piglia once wrote, “politics and fiction…are two simultaneously irreconcilable and symmetrical universes.” It followed, according to this theory, that a novel “maintains coded relationships with the machinations of power. It reproduces them.”
Piglia’s own fiction would do this through a technique of the implicit, the unsaid. If society was organized by a conspiracy of…
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