"¿Existe la novela argentina?"
by Ricardo Piglia
Let's say, to put it modestly, that [Roberto] Arlt is Jesus Christ. Argentina is Israel, of course, and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem. Arlt is born and lives a rather short life, dying at forty-two if I'm not mistaken... But it wasn't the end of everything, because like Jesus Christ, Arlt had his St. Paul. Arlt's St. Paul, the founder of his church, is Ricardo Piglia. I often ask myself: what would have happened if Piglia, instead of falling in love with Arlt, had fallen in love with Gombrowicz? Why didn't Piglia devote himself to spreading the Gombrowiczian good news...?
(Roberto Bolaño, "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," 97-98 [ellipses added])
Fun w/Argentinean Gombrowicz Criticism, Part I. Long before Roberto Bolaño started riffing on the vagaries of the Argentinean Literature of Doom
, fellow big deal novelist/longtime Caravana
favorite/alleged St. Paul to Roberto Arlt's Jesus Christ Ricardo Piglia (photo above) took up the question "¿Existe la novela argentina?" ["Is There Such a Thing as the Argentinean Novel?"] to propose a pre-Doom Argentinean long form canon of sorts centered on the works of Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernández, and--apparently unbeknownst to our good friend Bolaño--a wacky Polish party crasher by the name of Witold Gombrowicz. In any event, the seven pillars of wisdom buttressing Piglia's action-packed 1986 essay go something like this. 1) Gombrowicz's 1953 novel Trans-Atlantyk
, written in Polish a little more than halfway through the writer's World War II-prompted 24-year stay in Argentina and only later translated into the Spanish of his country of refuge as Transatlántico
, is "una de las mejores novelas escritas en este país" ["one of the best novels written in this country"] (35). Beyond its artistic qualities, though, Trans-Atlantyk
poses fundamental questions about identity--in particular, "¿Qué pasa cuando uno pertenece a una cultura secundaria? ¿Qué pasa cuando uno escribe en una lengua marginal?" ["What happens when one belongs to a culture of lesser importance? What happens when one writes in a non-mainstream language?"]--to which Gombrowicz would return again in his nonfiction Diary
. For Piglia, Argentinean culture thus inadvertently provided the rascally Polish writer who sometimes pretended to be a count with a living laboratory in which to put his art-and-exile hypotheses to the test while living in a South American nation "of lesser importance" in terms of the country's cultural presence on the world stage (36). 2) In terms of Gombrowicz's points of contact with the Argentinean literary tradition, on the other hand, Piglia reminds us that one of the main thrusts of Jorge Luis Borges' 1932 essay "El escritor argentino y la tradición" ["The Argentine Writer and Tradition"] bears a striking similarity to some of the Polish author's concerns as far as Borges' highlighting of the manner in which so-called "literaturas secundarias y marginales" ["minor and non-mainstream literatures"], due to the very fact that they are "desplazadas de las grandes corrientes europeas...de las grandes tradiciones" ["displaced from the great European currents...from the grand traditions"], actually afford what Borges deems the advantage of an "irreverente" ["irreverent"], liberating free hand in the sense that the so-called inferior tradition isn't tethered to the dominant tradition
, ellipses added). Of course, whether that isn't really always true for iconoclasts by definition is another question for el señor Borges. Still, "para Borges (como para Gombrowicz)" ["for Borges (as for Gombrowicz)"], the essayist adds, "este lugar incierto permite un uso específico de la herencia cultural: los mecanismos de falsificación, la tentación del robo, la traducción como plagio, la mezcla, la combinación de registros, el entrevero de filiaciones. Ésa sería la tradición argentina" ["this no man's land invites a specific use of one's cultural patrimony: in the process of falsification; the invitation to robbery; translation as plagiarism; the blending, the combination of registers; the mash-up of lines of descent. That would be the Argentinean tradition"] (Ibid.
). 3) Had I not read the hysterical Borges- and Adolfo Bioy Casares-penned Crónicas de Bustos Domecq
[Chronicles of Bustos Domecq
] over the summer, I might have found that last bit a little over the top on Piglia's part. However, that slender volume of spurious criticism alone corroborates everything the man's just said! Piglia takes an unexpected critical detour at this point, though, to ask what would have happened if Gombrowicz had written Trans-Atlantyk
in Spanish instead of in his native Polish. That is, would the great "Gombro" have been able to pull off a master stylist act in a foreign language like Joseph Conrad did or would the results have been something more like the infamously rough-hewn Spanish of Roberto Arlt, who was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in a German-speaking home courtesy of first generation immigrant parents from Germany and Italy? Piglia understandably supposes the latter, but the explanation he gives hints at the increasingly language-obsessed direction of the remainder of his piece: "Alguien que quiso denigrarlo dijo que Arlt hablaba el lunfardo con acento extranjero. Ésa es una excelente definición del efecto
que produce su estilo. Y sirve también para imaginar lo que pudo haber sido el español de Gombrowicz: esa mezcla rara de formas populares y acento eslavo" ["Somebody who wanted to denigrate him said that Arlt spoke lunfardo
with a foreign accent. That is an excellent description of the effect
that his style produces. And it also helps us imagine what Gombrowicz's Spanish could have been like: that strange mix of colloquialisms and a Slavic accent"] (37). 4) While "Arlt's St. Paul" acknowledges the truth behind the saying that "vivir en otra lengua" ["living in another language"] as practiced by the likes of Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, Nabokov, Beckett and Isak Dinesen among others ''es la experiencia de la novela moderna" ["is the experience of the modern novel"], he emphasizes the point that Polish was a language that Gombrowicz "usaba casi exclusivamente en la escritura, como si fuera un idiolecto, una lengua privada" ["used almost exclusively in writing, as if it were an idiolect, a private language"] in his day to day life in Argentina (Ibid.
) Because of that, Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk
, the first novel which he wrote in exile, "establece un pacto extremo con la lengua polaca" ["establishes an extreme covenant with the Polish language"]. How so? "La novela es casi intraducible, como sucede siempre que un artista está lejos de su lengua y mantiene con ella una relación excesiva donde se mezclan el odio y la nostalgia" ["The novel is almost untranslatable, as always happens when an artist is far removed from his native tongue and maintains an excessive relationship with it in which hate and nostalgia freely mingle"]. That debatable point notwithstanding, Piglia's conclusion to this section was very arresting to this Argentinean Literature of Doomophile: "Digo esto" ["I say this"], he explains, "porque me parece que la extrañeza es la marca de los dos grandes estilos que se han producido en la novela argentina del siglo xx: el de Roberto Arlt y el de Macedonio Fernández. Parecen lenguas exiliadas: suenan como el español de Gombrowicz" ["because it seems to me that strangeness is the hallmark of the two great styles that have been produced in the 20th century Argentinean novel: Roberto Arlt's and Macedonio Fernández's"] (Ibid.
). 5) Naturally, all this talk of language and "strangeness" leads Piglia like a ping pong ball back to Borges and his "preciso y claro, casi perfecto" ["precise and clear, almost perfect"] Spanish (Ibid.
). In a digression that should be of great interest to translation geeks in general and to Borges geeks in particular, Piglia notes that Borges himself admits to having been greatly indebted to Paul Groussac--another European turned Rio de la Plata expat who, unlike Gombrowicz, abandoned his native tongue and went on to help define the norms of early Argentinean literary style along with people like Leopoldo Lugones. Piglia: "En este sentido hay que decir que nuestro Conrad es Groussac" ["In this sense, we have to say that our Conrad is Groussac"]. And: "Allí busca Borges los origines 'argentinos' de su estilo" ["That's where Borges searches for the 'Argentinean' origins of his style"] (38). To add to the irony of a French-born transplant like Groussac being a forerunner of Borges' in matters of Spanish language style, Piglia suggests that Borges himself might have constructed his style out of a misplaced relationship with his mother tongue. Citing an anecdote which is very amusing but maybe not entirely reliable from a factual standpoint, Piglia shares the story about how the first book Borges supposedly read in his life was a translation of Don Quixote
in English. Borges: "Cuando lo leí en el original pensé que era una mala traducción" ["When I read it in the original Spanish, I thought that it was a bad translation"]! Remarking that this anecdote reveals the mind of the prankster behind the great short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
," Piglia opines that when Borges eventually resolved the dilemma of how to write with the precision of English but the rhythms and tones of the Spanish of his everyday life, he was well on his way to developing one of the best prose styles in the language since Francisco de Quevedo (38). 6) The 1947 "traducción argentina" ["Argentinean translation"] of Gombrowicz's 1937 novel Ferdydurke
is the next item on the agenda, and like the preceding one it's a fairly awesome one indeed for a language freak. Piglia begins by saying that the translation was one of the most "extravagantes" ["extravagant"] and "significativas" ["significant"] literary experiences he's aware of (39). Although this sounds like a generous dollop of typical academic rhetorical overkill, anybody who's familiar with Gombrowicz's endearing penchant for referring to himself as "yo, Gombrowicz" ["I, Gombrowicz"] as if he were a character of his own creation won't doubt the "extravagant" part at all! More to the point, in this case the translation endeavor just might have lived up to Piglia's hype inasmuch as the process entailed Gombrowicz creating a first draft of the novel by translating the original Polish into an "inesperado" ["unexpected"] and "casi onírico" ["almost dreamlike"] Spanish, and then arranging to have a team of native Spanish speakers working under the direction of the Cuban Virgilio Piñera hammer out the final version with the assistance of a veritable soccer team of others. Who were these unnamed assistants? "Los parroquianos y los jugadores de ajedrez y de codillo que frecuentaban la confitería Rex y que aportaban sus opiniones lingüísticas cuando las discusiones subían demasiado de tono" ["The regulars and the chess players and the codillo
-playing card sharps who frequented the confitería
Rex café/pastry shop and who chimed in with their own linguistic opinions whenever the discussions would get too heated"]. Piglia explains that "este equipo no conocía el polaco y los debates se trasladan a menudo al francés, lengua a la Gombrowicz y Piñera se cruzaban cuando el español ya no admitía nuevas torsiones" ["this team didn't know Polish and the debates were often carried over into French, a language where Gombrowicz and Piñera would find common ground when Spanish no longer accommodated new contortions"]. The result? Gombrowicz essentially rewrote Ferdydurke
in its entirety for the Argentinean translation, employing a blend of "Cuban," French, Polish, and "Argentinean" to form a new "materia viva" ["living/organic matter"] (Ibid.
Piglia calls this mutation "uno de los textos más singulares de nuestra literatura" ["one of the most singular texts in our literature"], the "our" part stemming from the fact that "antes que nada hay que decir que es una mala traducción en el sentido en que Borges hablaba así de la lengua de Cervantes" ["first of all, it has to be said that it's a bad translation in the same sense in which Borges was talking about Cervantes' language"] and--more to the point, that little piece of mischievousness aside--secondly, that "en la versión argentina de Ferdydurke
el español está forzado casi hasta la ruptura, crispado y artificial, parece una lengua futura. Suena en realidad como una combinacion (una cruza) de los estilos de Roberto Arlt y de Macedonio Fernández" ["in the Argentinean version of Ferdydurke
, the Spanish is strained almost to the breaking point; contorted and artificial, it seems like a future language. It sounds, in reality, like a combination (a hybrid) of the styles of Roberto Arlt and of Macedonio Fernández"] (40). 7) In the final page or two of the essay, "the founder of [Arlt's] church" prepares to seal the deal literary history-wise with the twin declarations that he believes the Argentinean translation of Ferdydurke
to have merged with "las líneas centrales de la novela argentina contemporánea" ["the main currents of the contemporary Argentinean novel"] over time and that Gombrowicz himself probably deserves credit for having been "uno de los primeros" ["one of the first people"] in the country to pave the way for a reading of Arlt and Macedonio that legitimized them rather than disavowed them for their nonconformity. Gombrowicz himself might have disdained such credit; after all, the well known provocateur famously lashed out at snobbish Argentinean literati
with the accusation that "éste es un país donde el canillita que vocea
la revista literaria de la élite refinada tiene más estilo que todos los
redactores de esa misma revista" ["this is a country where the
newspaper and magazine peddlers who shout out the names of the literary
magazines of the elite have more style than all the contributors to that
same rag"]! That being said, Piglia notes that Macedonio was the first person to publish Gombrowicz in Spanish in his magazine Los papeles de Buenos Aires
. Did the two ever actually meet? Probably not according to Piglia because "en aquellos años los dos vivían aislados, en pobrísimas piezas de pensión, seguros de su valor pero indecisos sobre el futuro de sus obras" ["in those years, the two lived isolated lives, in the poorest of boarding house rooms, confident about their worth as writers and yet undecided about the posterity of their works"] (40-41). Which is a shame not least because "en más de uno sentido eran, el uno para el otro, el único lector posible" ["in more than one sense, each was the only possible reader for the other"]. In any case, "Arlt, Macedonio, Gombrowicz," writes the man Bolaño somewhat jokingly took to task for failing to spread "the Gombrowiczian good news." "La novela argentina se construye en esos cruces (pero también con otras intrigas). La novela argentina sería una novela polaca: quiero decir una novela polaca traducida a un español futuro, en un café de Buenos Aires, por una banda de conspiradores liderados por un conde apócrifo. Toda verdadera tradición es clandestina y se construye retrospectivamente y tiene la forma de un complot" ["The Argentinean novel is constructed out of those intersections (but also with other intrigues). The Argentinean novel would be a Polish novel: by which I mean a Polish novel translated into a future Spanish, in a Buenos Aires café, by a band of conspirators led by a fake count. All true tradition is clandestine and is constructed retrospectively and has all the attributes of a conspiracy"] (41).
- Roberto Bolaño's 2002 speech on "Derivas de la pesada," translated by Natasha Wimmer as "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," appears in The Hudson Review LXIV, no. 1 (2011): 95-101, and can also be found in Bolaño's Between Parentheses. The Arlt/Piglia stuff in particular is classic Bolaño.
- Ricardo Piglia's "¿Existe la novela argentina?"--based on his 1982 participation in a conference on the Argentinean novel held at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina--appears on pp. 35-41 of his volume Crítica y ficción (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2000). A more recent edition of the book retitles the essay as "La novela polaca" ["The Polish Novel"] for reasons unknown. Whatever, an inspiring storyteller/critic.