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Ricardo Piglia: La ciudad ausente (The Absent City)

This book did very well in Latin America but has not fared so well in English translation. Firstly, it is to a great extent about Argentina’s dirty war, which is not too well-known in the English-speaking world and, when it is, only because of its association with the Falklands War. Secondly, it pays homage to/makes extensive use of the works of several writers but of two in particular. The first is James Joyce but the second is far less well-known outside Argentina. He is Macedonio Fernández, a mentor to Borges and something of an odd character. He is best-known for his novel Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (The Museum of Eterna’s Novel), never completed and published posthumously in 1967 (and in 2010 in English translation). Macedonio Fernández and his novel are key to this work.

The main character in this book (apart from Macedonio Fernández and, more particular, his widow, Elena) is Miguel MacKensey, known to everyone as Junior. His parents were English, hence the (not very English) name. He is married with a daughter, but his wife and daughter have left him. Junior works for the El Mundo newspaper, working with Emilio Renzi whom we have met in Piglia’s Respiración artificial (Artificial Respiration). Junior is very successful, soon becoming the editor’s right-hand man. Indeed, because he is so successful, publishing articles before events occurred, the other journalists think he might be a police spy. In particular, he controls all the news about the machine.

We are plunged straightaway into what can only be described as a complicated plot. Junior receives a phone call from a strange woman who tells him to come to the Hotel Majestic. Fuyita works there. Fuyita is a Korean security guard who works at the Museum. When Junior tells Renzi that she might work for the police, Renzi comments In this country, everyone who’s not in jail works for the police, including the thieves.

From here, we follow what in some respects is a conventional plot, namely an investigator, in this case, Junior, a journalist, rather than a detective, follows a trail with one clue leading to another. In every other way the plot is far from conventional – anarchic, chaotic and imaginative might best describe it.

The woman who phoned Junior turns out to be called Lucía Joyce (Lucía was the daughter of James Joyce) and this is the first of many Joycean references. While gangsters and the like do appear, the main issue is the machine/Museum mentioned above. Macedonio Fernández, though not entirely the real Macedonio Fernández but, rather, a fictionalised character created by Piglia based on the real author, has created a machine which somehow manages to tell stories but is both based on and indeed, to a certain degree, is his late wife Elena. The machine is located in the Museum (which refers to the novel Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (The Museum of Eterna’s Novel)).

How this machine works is not entirely clear but it seems to have been created by both Macedonio Fernández and by a mysterious person known as The Engineer who may or may not be Russian. The machine initially was used for translation. It was fed a copy of Poe’s story William Wilson and asked to translate it but ends up completely rewriting it as a story called Stephen Stevensen. It is programmed with variable narrative elements and produces variations of the story of a double. It learns as it narrates. However, for Macedonio Fernández, the aim is to make Elena seem eternally present and after her death, her brain is fed into it. Indeed, it seems imbued with the spirit of Elena who, though dead, seems not dead. We get samples of some of these stories.

But this is the Argentina of the Dirty War and we, Elena/the machine and Junior soon become involved with the police state. Junior meets Fuyita at the Museum, which he visits, and Fuyita tells him Political power is always criminal. “The president is crazy and his ministers are all psychopaths. The Argentine State is telepathic, its intelligence services can read minds from a distance. The authorities want to close down the Museum. But there is a sort of way out – the Island.

The Island is both a physical place – an area where those not in tune with the then current Argentinian government can hide – but also, what? a mythical/literary/linguistic space. It seems based on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with the River Liffey running through it and numerous references to Joyce’s books. Indeed Finnegans Wake is the Island’s sacred text

The Island is also a space where language is more akin to the language we find in Finnegans Wake. The inhabitants can instantaneously talk and understand the new language, but they forget the previous one, with new languages being created regularly, some languages we know and a few we do not. The unstable character of language defines life on the island. One never knows what words will be used in the future to name present states. It is here that Junior tries to find some answers, by speaking to the Engineer. Politicians believe scientists and scientists believe novelists, the Engineer tells him. It is clear, for Piglia, that it is novels and stories to which we can turn to when the politicians turn the world upside down and it is novels and stories that will be our salvation.

Is this a detective story, a political novel, a Joycean extravaganza, a Bildungsroman, a city novel? The answer is yes, it is all of these, mixed in. One thing it is not is a conventional, plot- and character-driven novel. It is a remarkable work but clearly has not had the success it merits, not least because of its complexities and, at least as far as the English-speaking world is concerned, because both the issue of the Dirty War and Macedonio Fernández are unknown features, while well-known to Argentinian readers. However, even if you know little of the Dirty War and Macedonio Fernández, you should be able to appreciate this complex, highly intelligent and very original novel.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Sudamericana in 1992
First English translation in 2000 by Duke University Press
Translated by Sergio Waisman