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Posts from the ‘Ricardo Piglia’ Category

The City as Memory Machine: Ricardo Piglia’s “The Absent City”

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.


“Assumed Name”: Early Stories by Ricardo Piglia

Assumed Name

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.

The Paranoid Fiction of Ricardo Piglia’s “Target in the Night”


Every once in a while you need to spend some time in the nuthouse, or in jail, to understand what this country is all about.

Ricardo Piglia’s  Target in the Night takes place in a small rural town in Argentina about 1972, toward the end of the long exile of Juan Perón. Target in the Night is a tale of betrayal and corruption, written loosely in the form of a police procedural. Here’s the obligatory summary of the plot: A mysterious American of Puerto Rican heritage moves into town at the invitation of the two daughters of the town’s richest industrialist. When the American is murdered in his hotel room and a rumored $100,000 seems to have gone missing, witnesses point to the night porter, Yoshio Dazai, an Argentine of Japanese descent. (Piglia loves to remind the reader that Argentina is a nation of immigrants.) Police Inspector Croce is skeptical, though he has no choice but to arrest the hapless Dazai. Croce ultimately becomes convinced of Dazai’s innocence but is out-maneuvered by the Chief Prosecutor, a devious man by the name of Cueto, who forces Croce into retirement.  Emilio Renzi, a reporter who has arrived from Buenos Aires to cover the story, begins to collaborate with Croce to solve the mystery.

Croce is a wonderful character who “loved everyone like a son” – because, the narrator quickly adds, “he didn’t really know what that feeling was like.” He’s an eccentric, intuitive detective who “sees things that others didn’t” and continues the lineage of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Fortunately for the reader, this is not really a police procedural but a richly nuanced and sometimes adventurous novel. Piglia’s novel roams through discussion on philosophy, the Jungian analysis of dreams, and the nature of freedom, but hardly a page goes by without some subtle commentary or analysis of the recent history of Argentina, where “there are no values left, only prices.” In Piglia’s Argentina, corruption has twisted the rules of the game so that only the innocent and the idealists are doomed. As Inspector Croce says: “If you find a clean hundred thousand dollars and you don’t take it…they know you can’t be trusted.”

Much of the pleasure of reading Piglia’s novel arises from the curious nature of his bemused and generally omniscient narrator, who tells the story from a distance. The narration takes place at least a decade after the events of the murder and is accompanied by occasional footnotes showing that our meticulous narrator can easily turn pedantic. (There are hints scattered throughout the book suggesting that the journalist Renzi – who appears in other works by Piglia – just might be the narrator.) At times, the narrator seems to hover over the town like a drone, looking down on the movements of participants and listening to the swirl of rumors that comprise daily life.

In that town, like in all the towns of the Province of Buenos Aires, more news was batted around in a single day than in  any large city in a week. The difference between regional and national news was so vast that the residents could retain the illusion that they lived an interesting life.

In the end, the mystery of who killed Tony Durán is only partly solved. As he prepares to head back to Buenos Aires, the journalist Renzi contemplates the inconclusiveness of the investigation.

Someone should invent a new detective genre, paranoid fiction it could be called. Everyone is a suspect, everyone feels pursued. Instead of being an isolated individual, the criminal is a group with absolute power. No one understands what’s happening, the clues and the testimonies contradict each other as if they changed with each interpretation, and all suspicions are kept open. The victim is the protagonist and the center of the intrigue, instead of the detective hired to solve the case or the murderer hired to kill.

Target in the Night is perhaps less ambitious than Piglia’s earlier novel Artificial Respiration, which I wrote about recently, but it’s more accessible, especially for non-Argentinian readers.

Ricardo Piglia. Target in the Night. (Deep Vellum, 2015). An English translation by Sergio Waisman of the 2010 Spanish novel Blanco Nocturno.


Deciphering the “Secret Message of History”: Ricardo Piglia’s “Artificial Respiration”

Piglia Artificial Respiration

Artificial Respiration, the 1981 novel by Argentinian Ricardo Piglia, is a dense, challenging book about the problem of history and the role that literature plays in trying to decipher “the secret message of history.” Should we write history backwards, as one character (Marcelo Maggi) tries to?

I am sure, besides, that the only way of capturing the sense that defies his destiny is to alter the chronology, to go backwards from the final madness to the moment when Ossario takes part with the rest of the generation of Argentinian romantics in founding the principles and bases of what we call the national culture.

Or is it better to write forward, to write the history of the future, as another character named Enrique Ossorio decides to do when he announces that “I am writing this first letter from the future” from exile from New York City in 1850?

I have thought of writing a utopia: there I will narrate what I imagine the country’s future to be. I am in the best possible position to do so: removed from everything, outside of time, a foreigner, caught up in the webs of exile. What will the country be like in a hundred years? Who will remember us? Those of us now – who will remember us? I am writing about those dreams.

Thus, I will write of the future, not wanting to remember the past. One thinks about what will happen when one thinks to oneself: How can it be that I wasn’t able to see then what seems so obvious now? And what can I do to see in the present the signs that announce the course of the future? I have begin reflecting on all of that and also upon my life and that is why I am writing to you.

Artificial Respiration is constructed around the story of Enrique Ossorio, a man who served as a secretary to a nineteenth century Argentinian dictator, but who also served as a spy for the opposition. The ostensible narrator is Emilio Renzi, a young writer who appears in several of Piglia’s books, but the story is largely told through letters and conversations. But beyond that,  Artificial Respiration is nearly impossible to synthesize because the book is tacitly about topics that are never addressed openly. As translator Daniel Balderston writes in his Introduction, “the problem facing the reader of this novel is that it circles around horrors that are quite literally unspeakable…If Renzi and Tardewski and Marconi talk endlessly in the latter half of the book, it is because there is so much they cannot speak about.”

Artifical Respiration is dedicated to two of the many thousands of Argentina’s “disappeared,” a topic that sits at the center of this book like a black hole. The Argentinian history, politics, and national aspirations that are woven tightly into the narrative will most likely elude non-Argentinian readers (like me), but this shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying the many riches the book has to offer. The nature of literature is probably the book’s most important sub-topic. As Balderston says, Piglia’s political fiction ingeniously “doubles as literary criticism, updating a genre perhaps best exemplified in the Borges stories of the 1940s.” There are references to and sometimes lengthy discussions about Joseph Conrad, fellow Argentinian writers Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Arlt, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, Brecht, and Russian formalism, along with philosophers Descartes and Wittgenstein. There is even an elaborate (but imaginary) thesis that Adolf Hitler met Kafka, who thus influenced Mein Kampf. During a long, gin-infused discussion that occurs late in the book, one character provides us a summation of what he sees as Borges’ greatest gift:

…texts that are chains of forged, apocryphal, false, distorted quotations; an exasperating and parodic display of secondhand culture, constantly invaded by a pathetic pedantry: that’s what Borges makes fun of. He – I mean Borges – exaggerates and carries to extremes, almost parodic extremes in fact, the line of cosmopolitan and fraudulent erudition that defines – even dominates – the greater part of the Argentinian literature of the nineteenth century.

(“Forged, apocryphal, false, distorted quotations”? “Secondhand culture”? “Fraudulent erudition”? Are we talking about a certain sector of contemporary American politics here?)

Piglia is a challenging writer because he demands an active, engaged reader who will work hard to connect the dots. “To read…one must know how to associate,” remarks one character in Artificial Respiration. On several occasions, Piglia references the Russian writer Sergei Tratiakov, who advocated for literature fakta, a literature that “should work with raw documents, with textual montage, with direct testimony, with the techniques of reportage,” because “fiction is the opiate of the people.”

Artificial respiration can be a means of providing life-sustaining support during a temporary crisis. But in some circumstances it can also be a way of merely delaying the inevitability of death. When it comes to Argentina, I suspect Piglia is telling us that the latter is more likely, that the body is in an unrecoverable coma.

I’ll be writing about Piglia’s just-translated novel Target in the Night (Deep Vellum, 2015) shortly.

Ricardo Piglia. Artificial Respiration. Duke University Press, 1994. Translated by Daniel Balderston from the 1981 Spanish original Respiración artificial.