“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. Read more
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.” Read more
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. Read more
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.