Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Book review: Artificial Respiration

Ostensibly a novel, Argentine author Ricardo Piglia's Artificial Respiration reads more like an agonized dissertation.  Set in Argentina during the Dirty War, the novel examines a phenomenon that scholars refer to as "cultural hybridity."

According to a study at the Annual Students & Graduate Conferences at Humbolt:
Cultural hybridity has been a term to describe societies that emerge from cultural contacts of European "explorers" and those "explored". Instead of explaining these contacts as mere imposures of a major culture onto a minor culture, hybridity emphazises their mutual intermingling. 
And, of course, Argentina is the prime example of a culturally hybrid nation, with its American and European influences.

Artificial Respiration is the story of a man named Renzi who leaves Bueno Aires to search for a long lost uncle, Maggi, in a rural village called Entre Ríos.  Renzi hopes to discover the truth about his uncle, who it is rumored, is a traitor to his country.

Piglia relates the story by way of letters written between Maggi and Renzi, or in long, rambling conversations --conversations in which it is rarely clear who is speaking.  The principles of the story, Renzi, his sickly and aging patron, the Senator, and a Polish writer named Tardewski, expound on the current state of affairs and speculate on the influences of various artists, philosophers, and writers on Argentina.

Toward the end of the novel, Tardewski relates a very interesting story from his days as a student.  He describes searching through the archives of the library of the British Museum in London and coming upon some letters written by writer Franz Kafka.  In these letters, Kafka describes some encounters in Prague with a young Austrian Anti-Semite named Adolph!  (What history geek doesn't love to speculate about encounters between historical figures?)

It is important, I think, to remember that Piglia wrote this novel in 1980, as Argentina was in the midst of its Dirty War.  During that period, which lasted from 1973 through 1983, Argentina was ruled by a right-wing military junta, which "disappeared" as many as 30,000 Argentine trade-unionists, left-wing activists, students, journalists, Marxists, and "inconvenient" witnesses.  Argentina endured systematic, government-sponsored rape, torture, and murder in those years.

In the novel, Piglia does not directly speak of the Dirty War.  I imagine it would have been dangerous to do so.  But, the novel's protagonist, Renzi, never does find his Uncle Maggi.  Readers are left to wonder if Renzi's uncle has joined the ranks of the "disappeared."  Is this an oblique protest?

Mostly, I found Piglia's novel to be difficult and inaccessible. I think, in order to fully appreciate it, one needs be steeped in Argentine history, culture, and art.  I, unfortunately, am not.

Artificial Respiration is the voice of a tortured nation.  I am glad, at least, that I gave ear.

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

As an adult immigrant I can relate to the idea of a cultural hybrid, after all there is no place in the world where upon meeting me someone would assume that I was from that place. I am someone always from somewhere else.

I would suggest that your experience of the book being hard to read and inaccessible is very much part of the experience of cultural hybridization. That difficulty and inaccessible nature of the culture in which you find yourself drives both an intense longing for the familiar things of home and the motivation to delve into the culture in which you find yourself.