“Assumed Name”: Early Stories by Ricardo Piglia
The six stories in Assumed Name (five written in 1975 and one in 1968) show Ricardo Piglia working out the strategies that he will exploit in his later novels, two of which I have written about in my most recent posts. In these stories we witness his ingenious reinvention of the genre of noir crime fiction, his tendency to leave unresolved the primary conflicts that occur in his fiction, and his deft manner of encoding the history and politics of Argentina into the backdrop of his writing. These highly compact stories focus on the lives of losers and rebels. There are boxers, under- and unemployed men in boarding houses, small time criminals, a madwoman, prostitutes, an anarchist on the run from the police. In “The End of the Ride” (which features the journalist Emilio Renzi, who also appears in several of Piglia’s novels), the exaggerated noir atmosphere of an overnight bus ride through a nightmarish landscape of darkness, rain, and fog, with occasional stops in dreary small towns for cheap food and gin, seems to stand in for the dominate mood in Argentina in the 60s and 70s. Renzi is traveling to see his dying father one last time after a suicide attempt. “One can become accustomed even to this,” he grimly tells his seatmate, an ex-opera singer who “emitted a sweet perfume like that of dead flowers.”
In one way or another, each of the stories in Assumed Name gives us a pair of central characters who, despite personal antagonisms and asymmetrical interests, come to depend on each other. These characters, who rotate warily around each other like binary stars or a pair of boxers, serve as the equivalent of Piglia’s insistence on the duality of the short story. In 2011, New Left Review published Piglia’s “Theses on the Short Story,” eleven brief paragraphs which contained two declared theses (and many related points): 1. “First thesis: a short story always tells two stories.” 2. “Second thesis: the secret story is the key to the form of the short story.”
The title story, “Assumed Name,” is the longest in the collection and its Borgesian complexity foreshadows Piglia’s novels. The narrator (conveniently, Piglia himself) claims to have located manuscripts that contain a previously unpublished story by the influential Argentinian writer Roberto Arlt (1900-1942). The first and longest part of the story, described blandly as a “report” or an “abstract,” recounts the discovery and interpretation of the various manuscript contents and serves the dual purpose of literary detection and literary criticism, complete with footnotes. The “appendix” to this report contains the text of the story “Luba” as pieced together by the narrator. In “Luba,” an anarchist who is fleeing the police takes refuge in a brothel. He chooses to spend the night with a prostitute who seemed like the “most virtuous” woman there, a woman who has taken the assumed name of Luba. During the night, which is not dedicated to debauchery but instead to wary conversation and soul searching, the anarchist declares:
I drink to the health of all the bastards, of everyone who is desperate. I drink to the health of all the ladies present here…I drink to the health of everyone who is squashed by life. Thieves, madmen, murderers, prostitutes. I drink to the health of everyone whose soul is poisoned…For, who is going to make the social revolution if not the prostitutes, the swindlers, the wretched, the murderers, the frauds, all the bastards who suffer below without any hope. Or do you believe that the revolution will be made by the pen-pushers and the shopkeepers?
As the story ends, Luba asks the nameless anarchist “Do you believe in me?” “Yes,” he answers, “because it is only possible to believe in those who have nothing too lose.” She picks up her First Communion photograph (symbolizing a recovered innocence), puts it in her suitcase, and together they walk out of the brothel.
When they open the door, the sweet air of the rainy night wets their faces. The city glows, quiet in the darkness. In the background, the lights of Retiro park burn like a soft, pale fire.
“Let’s go, Luba,” he says.
“My name is not Luba,” she says, pressing the bag against her body. “My real name is Beatriz Sánchez.”
Below, the arches of Leandro Alem seem to die in the haze of dawn.
The meager reference to Alem is typical of the ways in which Piglia inserts Argentinian political history into his narratives. Leandro N. Alem, Wikipedia tells us, was one of the leaders of what would become the Radical Union Party. He helped lead a failed uprising against “the corruption and abuse of power of President Miguel Juárez Celman” (1844-1909) and later committed suicide. That the “arches of Leandro Alem” (whatever they are) become the first thing to be seen by the departing pair signifies that they, too, are on the anti-authoritarian side of Argentinian history.
Ricardo Piglia. Assumed Name. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1995. Translated by Sergio Gabriel Waisman from the 1975title Nombre Falso.