The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia
Translated by Robert Croll
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 mania. I could tell no one what I was feeling and appeared sullen and humiliated, as though I were always 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’ courtyard 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 lies 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 stands 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, 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 make it out by motioning for me to swim diagonally, distancing myself from the line of cold, 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 was in debt. 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 while infatuated and living out a fleeting 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, tries to find a way to get rid of my pain, without seeing that for me it is a leap into the void, returning home or going to the beach in the afternoons, hidden behind a novel.
An intense rendezvous with the woman, serious for me and like a game for her. She will be married 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 this has meant to me. If I look at things indifferently, I say: What can you expect? Unexpected summer passion with the first guy to appear on the empty November beach. Three months before her marriage 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 hear 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 desire and are not concerned with the consequences. Nothing of her was left to me, not even a photograph or a memory. I was fond of the way she would brush 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 are becoming 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 disguised as ladies in a band 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 minuscule cause creates brutal consequences. A great narrative strategy: events do not matter; their consequences matter. Here, waiting in a public office takes on the fear and excitement of an epic tale.
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 blue eyes and is rather naïve. 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 denouement; 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 should wear 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. Helena smiled with 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 who escaped 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 don’t 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 have broken 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.
*An excerpt from The Diaries of Emilio Renzi by Ricardo Piglia
Publication date: November 7th, 2017
Ricardo Piglia is one of the most prominent authors of the entire Spanish-language world. His fiction grapples with the meaning of social and political processes. Two of his books have inspired films. His novel La ciudad ausente was adapted for opera. He received innumerable prizes for his works and for his lifetime’s body of literature. A literary critic, essayist, and professor, Piglia taught for several decades at American universities, including at Princeton for fifteen years.
Posted: July 31, 2017 at 9:57 pm