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Ricardo Piglia: Respiración artificial (Artificial Respiration)

Our hero/narrator – we later learn that his name is Emilio Renzi – has learned, as a child, the story of his disgraced uncle, the brother of his mother, Marcelo Maggi. (Emilio is Piglia’s middle name and Renzi his mother’s maiden name; the character will appear in later works by Piglia.). It seems that Marcelo married a rich woman, Esperancita, a delicate woman, who prayed aloud so that God could hear her. Marcelo had disappeared, running off with a dancer, Coca, taking all his wife’s money. She had him tracked down and arrested. He spent almost three years in prison. Since then he has disappeared, possibly still with Coca. The family reimbursed Esperancita. Esperancita eventually died, leaving a note saying that Marcelo had not robbed her and that she still loved him.

Emilio writes a novel about this story but, when it is published, he gets a letter from his uncle. In this letter, he learns that the conventional story about Marcelo is, apparently, untrue. His uncle claims that the reason for his imprisonment was not for the theft but for political reasons, as he was a supporter of Amadeo Sabattini. Much of the early part of the novel consists of letters exchanged between uncle and nephew, in which Marcelo explains what happened and why.

He gives us a potted autobiography but also tells us that he was writing a biography of Enrique Ossorio. Ossorio, who was Esperancita’s great-grandfather, worked for Juan Manael de Rosas, a dictator in early nineteenth century Argentina. (It should be noted that a knowledge of Argentinian history can be quite useful here, as Piglia makes assumptions about the reader’s knowledge, which would be valid for Argentinians but less likely for foreigners.). Ossorio, however, was also working as a spy for the opposition. He had a colourful life, from the Californian Gold Rush, where he made a fortune, to meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne, from being on the run to being in power. He had various romances and ended up in Copiapó, Chile, where, one night, he sat on the grave of a famous actress, smoked a cigar and blew his brains out.

Emilio gradually learns about Ossorio and about his uncle but not just from Marcelo but from Luciano Ossorio, father of Esperancita (and, of course, grandson of Enrique). Luciano had the misfortune not to know his father, who was killed in a duel two months before Luciano was born. (Luciano comments that Argentinian gentlemen (he uses the English word in Spanish) felt that freedom could only be maintained if one was prepared to risk one’s life.) The duel was fought over an insult to Enrique. Luciano’s father, though he defended his father’s honour, had never met his father, either.

Their discussions are fairly wide-ranging, though Argentinian politics and history feature strongly. However, they also discuss literature. Emilio always had the idea that he would live a full life, full of adventure and action, then, at the age of thirty-five, head off to Paris and write his great novel. This has not worked out, not least because he has not had many experiences and adventures. Emilio, in fact, considers his letters to his uncle are now acting as a substitute for his novel-writing, which has not advanced since his novel about Marcelo. Marcelo,for his part, says that he had considered writing an epistolary novel but realises that this is a genre that has never existed in Argentina.

Marcelo invites Emilio to visit him in the remote frontier town of Concordia where he is living and teaching. He warns Emilio that he might not be there, as is the case when Emilio finally arrives. Or rather, he may be there or he may not. He does meet three of Marcelo’s friends. Tardewski is a Polish writer, who was taught by Wittgenstein and twice met James Joyce (Joyce asked him what the Polish for butterfly was; it is motyl, if you are interested). Tokray is a Russian count and Maier a former Nazi. They are joined by Bartolomé Marconi. The second half of the book is taken up with their discussions which are long and rambling but focus primarily on literature and the life of the imagination, as well as a bit of history. This book was published during the period of the Argentinian Dirty War, so one thing they do not talk about is politics or, rather, the then contemporary political situation.

Their literary discussions are far-reaching, though Borges, Joyce and Kafka feature strongly. There is a fascinating account of German writer Arno Schmidt visiting James Joyce (at five in the morning!) with a list of questions to ask him and getting nothing out of Joyce. They discuss Argentinian literature in some detail. Renzi tells Marconi that Argentinian literature does not exist any more, that it died in 1942 with the death of Roberto Arlt. When Marconi suggests Borges, Renzi retorts that Borges is a nineteenth century writer.

This book could perhaps be described as rambling but in a good way, as it goes round the political situation. The focus is on Enrique Ossorio, an enigmatic man, whom Maggi si trying to tease out. The enigma is made more complicated, as part of his writings are in code. Indeed, that is one of the clues to this book, much of it being enigma, hidden beneath a code, as Piglia and his characters deal with the then grim situation in Argentina without actually mentioning it. We look at four generations – Enrique Ossorio, Luciano Ossorio, Marcelo Maggi and Emilio Renzi – and their complex relationship, both to the history of their country and to the life of the mind. No conclusions are reached. There is no happy ending, indeed, the ending is merely Enrique Ossorio’s self-penned will.

Piglia raises a variety of complex issues in the book, often in a roundabout way. The book is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste. Critics have described it as enigmatic and difficult. If you are looking for a straightforward novel that has a conventional plot that goes from A to C via B, then this is not for you. But Piglia raises a host of ideas, sometimes directly and all too often indirectly. We must remember when it was written and published, not in a free and open society but in one where ideas were suppressed, all too often brutally. In that respect, it deserves its reputation as one of the foremost Argentinian novels.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Pomaire in 1980
First English translation in 1994 by Duke University Press
Translated by Daniel Balderston