This article originally appeared in Spanish in El País.
In my daughter’s bedroom there is a chest full of toys. It’s a large chest, finished in black leather, with copper corners. We inherited this chest from a friend, Laura Gandolfi, who did her PhD at Princeton, where she acted as the assistant of the writer Ricardo Piglia. When Piglia retired from his post as Professor of Literature at the end of 2010, he left this friend a whole pile of things: the black chest, a “Cortázar-green” armchair, a desk lamp, a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, a collection of 1950’s noir movies, and part of his library. A few years later, our friend had to move to Chicago, and the chest wouldn’t fit in the van in which she drove to Illinois with her dog Gwendolina, with all her things, and with Piglia’s things.
I met Piglia in 2004, in Madrid, during a course on Borges in which he spoke to us of the unconfident Borges who redrafted stories over and again; of the thoroughly “porteño” Borges, so much the Buenos Aires conservative, and so jealous he poured scorn on (envied) the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz’s experimental extravagance; of the quasi-Kantian Borges, not in terms of his philosophy, but his caprices, fiercely clinging to daily routines. Piglia reduced (expanded) literature to its most human dimensions.
But before this, I was intimately acquainted with Piglia through his Formas Breves (Brief Forms). When I was seventeen, my father read me a short story by Borges in which the protagonist inherits nothing less than Shakespeare’s memory. I didn’t get the first thing about it. My father then gave me Formas Breves: “To help you understand,” he said. And after reading in that very brief book an essay entitled “Borges’s Last Story,” I understood everything. Piglia explained how that short story functioned as a general theory of memory and literature, where the latter is nothing more than a borrowed or inherited memory, through which our small, poor, individual worlds are enriched and added to the collective memory.
Ricardo Piglia died on January 6, 2017. His death left us, his many Hispanic readers, feeling orphaned. Not in the manner of the great founding fathers—Márquez, Paz—nor the idols—Bolaño, Pizarnik—nor even the immortal myths—Borges, Rulfo. Piglia has left us with the same mortal, austere discretion with which he taught his courses and wrote his small masterworks. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to borrow the infinite Ricardo Piglia’s literary memory. For the time being, I’m content to have inherited his black chest.
Christina MacSweeney is a literary translator specializing in Latin American fiction. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks, and The Story of My Teeth were published by Granta and Coffee House Press in 2012 and 2013 and 2015, respectively; Faces in the Crowd was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, 2015. Her work has also appeared on a variety of platforms and in the anthology México20 (Pushkin Press, 2015). Her translations of Daniel Saldaña Paris’s Among Strange Victims and Eduardo Rabasa’s A Zero Sum Game were published by Coffee House Press and Deep Vellum, respectively, in 2016.