History as the Only Refuge: "Artificial Respiration"

Man, this is one of my favorite books. I’ve never read anything else quite like it. It’s like reading all the notes and theories and ideas from my advisor’s classes condensed into a single volume of fiction (which would make sense, since Piglia was his advisor at Princeton). I read it over the summer in Spanish and have now recently re-read it in English, in a version translated the same guy who translated the Onetti versions I used for the T (why am I still talking about this thing a year later? Suddenly I understand why you get more than one year for your PhD dissertation… nine months is just not enough time, not at all).

The best way to describe Piglia’s fiction is literary criticism masquerading as fiction. Or perhaps fiction masquerading as literary criticism. I can definitely see someone reading this and throwing it across the room, complaining loudly that “nothing ever happens in this book!” That is definitely true. The last 100 pages or so consist of a Polish expat espousing on his theories on the relationship between Kafka and Hitler, the theories of Wittgenstein and other such deliciously philosophical nuggets. I for one loved it, and I think whoever says that these parts of the book are irrelevant or distracting from the main storyline are missing the entire point (upon second reading, I now seriously think the Kafka-Hitler section is the key to the whole book, and not just because how the description of Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in a sanatorium provides a key to the book’s title).

In the introduction, Balderston cites a useful quote from Piglia on the importance of literary coding in his work:

“Piglia argues that it is a mistake to read Artificial Respiration as a simple product of a period of state terror. “I believe,” he says, “that coding is the work of fiction in any context… I believe that fiction always codes and constructs hieroglyphs out of social reality. Literature is never direct… What I do believe is that political contexts define ways of reading.”

Codes and attempts to decipher play an important part in this book (isn’t that all what literary criticism is anyway? An attempt to “decode”?). As the Polish character says near the end of the novel, “To read, one must know how to associate.” More than anything else, AR asks us to associate, to decode–to be good, active readers, which is imperative considering the subject at hand.

It’s interesting that Piglia mentions the period of state terror in which AR was written, because I can definitely imagine someone (albeit someone a bit clueless and stupid) reading this book and just plain not getting the state terror angle at all, because it is never directly referred to, not at all, not once. One thing that makes this translation particularly useful to read is that Balderston includes all these endnotes explaining Piglia’s references to different historical figures and events in Argentine history. You can definitely tell that Piglia was a historian by training. Balderston raises the interesting possibility that the books title refers to the Argentine Republic (Respiracionn Artificial–Republica Argentina). Is it be possible to read this entire book as a sort of retelling/narration of the history of Argentina itself? Probably yes x1000 (there’s definitely enough endnotes to reinforce that argument).

Anyway, it’s interesting to see that Piglia sees state terror as such an important presence in the work, and yet it is hardly mention. That deliberate silence in the novel completely changes everything, casting a giant shadow over everything that takes place, from the character that everyone waits for in the last 100+ pages who never appears, to the stand-in-for-the-reader character pouring over old letters and notes, looking for codes and hidden messages. It’s like a giant Voldemort lurking on the edges of the pages, a dark He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. As the Polish guy says, “To speak of the unspeakable is to put in danger to survival of language as the bearer of human truth.” (213)

In reference to this silence of trying to speak of the unspeakable, the famous quote by Wittgenstein is cited several times by different characters: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In AR, what cannot be spoken about refers to both events and knowledge. As I see it, all of AR revolves around the following question: how do you speak about the unspeakable? That’s why the section that describes an imagined encounter better Kafka and Hitler is so important. Kafka is described as “the one who knows how to listen,” (206) “attentive to the sickly murmurs of history,” sitting at the cafe table, listening to Hitler’s angry rants and passionate plans for his future domination. History = his-story. Kafka writes fiction that masquerades as coded messages from the past about the future; he speaks of the unspeakable. Piglia writes about the state terror of Argentina while not writing about it, and it doing so, he is making a lot of interesting implications about how it is possible to write about reality (the same dilemma Joyce attempted to tackle). He seems to be saying to do so is impossible, which is why he focuses so much on characters talking, on letters, on outlines and drafts for potential novels, on techniques that are the logical follow-up to Borgesian fictions. Wow, it all just kinda really blows my mind.

The last thing about this this book I want to briefly touch upon is the theme of the classical Bildungsroman. There’s a lot of talk by the characters on the importance of experience in the formation of characters and lives (I think it is here where PIglia’s fanboy Onetti homage is most evident). Let me share with you some of my favorites:

Sooner or later, I thought, I am going to become a great writer, but in the meantime I should have adventures. And I thought that everything that happened to me, no matter how idiotic, was a way of accumulating that depth of experience on which I assummed great writers built their work… what can one have in life but two or three experiences? All of us invent a variety of stories (ultimately versions of the same story) so as to imagine that something has happened to us in the course of our lives: a story or series of stories that ultimately are all that we really have lived, stories we tell ourselves so as to imagine that we have had experiences or that something meaningful has happened to us. But who can guarantee that the order of the story is that of life?”

This is so related to my thesis that it makes me want to die.

Here’s my other favorite quote, from the chapter narrated by the Senator, who is perhaps the most Faulknerian character in the appropriately most Faulknerian chapter:

“Sometimes, I think I understand it all.. The understanding lasts but a moment and in that moment no doubt what has happened is that I have fallen asleep when I thought I was thinking or understanding… how could I expalin that? How would I–how could I–do that? That’s why I must stop talking now I, the Senator, should, for a moment, stop talking. What I cannot explain without words I prefer to keep silent,” said the Senator, “as I am unable to explain without words.”

This quote sounds a lot better in Spanish; it reads a little clunky it English, which is unfortunate.

I have six more pages of handwritten notes about AR, but I think it’s best that I stop here. It’s books like these that make me glad I’m alive.


Filed under Bildungsroman, books, experience, review, truth

3 responses to “History as the Only Refuge: "Artificial Respiration"

  1. Orange, Squashed By Dirty Boot

    Wish I could get a job as a good, active reader. I guess that’s *kind of* what fact-chequers do. I got hives on my ass the other day and I thought of you. Ha! Ha!

  2. julikins

    Why did you think of me with hives on your bum? :(

  3. Orange, Squashed By Dirty Boot

    I don’t, I was just making a cruel joke which is cruder than I remember. : ( I am sorry.

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