The City as Memory Machine: Ricardo Piglia’s “The Absent City”
“Political power is always criminal.”
In Ricardo Piglia’s novel The Absent City, the central figure, if you will, is a machine that embodies the memories of one Elena Obieta, the wife of Macedonio Fernández, a writer who, upon her early death, wanted desperately to keep his wife’s memories intact and thus had them transferred to a machine built by an engineer named Richter.
OK. At this point we need to take a momentary time out to properly set the stage for the preceding sentence. Macedonio Fernández was a real Argentinian writer (1874-1952) who is generally regarded as the most important mentor to Jorge Luis Borges. His wife Elena died in 1920. Ronald Richter (1909-1991) was an enigmatic Austrian scientist who emigrated to Argentina and, with huge financial support from Juan Péron, claimed in 1951 to have discovered an inexpensive way to create atomic energy, a claim that was soon proven to be false. What Piglia does in The Absent City is take actual figures from Argentinian history, morph them slightly, and transpose them to a later date (roughly the mid-1990s) to create the cast of characters that populate his novel.
Like Scheherazade, the machine at the center of the novel keeps spinning a wonderfully bizarre “river of stories” that range from gaucho tales to stories that border on sci-fi. In a curious way, the memory of Elena Obieto, encapsulated in a machine that lies in public view within a museum, echoes the embalmed body of Eva Péron which lay in state for nearly two years until Juan Péron was overthrown and her body was hidden by the military dictatorship in an effort to quell the cult of Evita. Similarly, Piglia’s Argentina, which is portrayed as a tightly-controlled, slightly futuristic police state and post-Péron wasteland, wants to deactivate the machine so that its memory of such things as “years and years of systematic torture, of concentration camps” will be erased.
The Absent City is basically a blend of two genres: it’s a paranoid detective story narrated by a journalist named Junior and a science fiction plot built around a machine that serves as both memory and story-teller. (Piglia acknowledges Thomas Pynchon and Philip K. Dick, along with Roberto Arlt, Jorge Luis Borges, and others.) Junior is our guide through this sometimes confusing environment. “He was in and out of the stories, traveling through the city, trying to find his bearings in that plot of waiting and postponements from which he could no longer escape.”
The control was perpetual. The police always had the last word, they could withdraw his permit to move about the city, they could deny him access to press conferences, they could even withdraw his work permit. It was forbidden to seek out clandestine information… There was a strange disparity of consciousness in what was occurring. Everything was normal and yet the danger could be felt in the air, a low alarming murmur, as if the city were about to be bombarded. Everyday life goes on in the middle of the horror, that is what keeps many people sane. The signs of death and terror can be perceived, but there is no clear evidence of behavior being altered. The buses stop at the street corners, the stores are open, couples get married and celebrate, nothing serious can possibly be happening.
But at the same time, The Absent City is constructed as an homage to and an extension of the works of James Joyce. In an Afterword that Piglia provided for the novel, he writes at some length of the parallels that he sees between Macedonio Fernández and James Joyce and between Buenos Aires and Dublin.
The idea of a man in love who walks through a city that belongs to him, but where the city in which he walked with the woman he loved is lost. Because the city is a memory machine. Of course, that lost or absent city also includes other moments of life, not just those associated with a woman. This is how Joyce’s Dublin works, for example.
One of the key stories within The Absent City is called “The Island.” As he wrote this story, Piglia explains, he asked himself “in what society would Finnegans Wake be read as a realist work? The answer is in a society in which language is constantly changing.” This is the fourth book by Piglia that I have written about in as many weeks and each one triangulates between language, story, and power.
The Absent City (Duke University Press, 2000) is endlessly entertaining, relentlessly shape-shifting, and uncompromising. Originally published in 1992 and translated from the Spanish by Sergio Waisman.