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“Piglia is Argentina’s most important novelist, a compelling writer and committed intellectual who relentlessly deals with the complicated relationships between politics and fiction. And Sergio Waisman is an exceptionally gifted translator with a wonderful ear and eye for the reverberations of Spanish in English. The Absent City is a book for our times, one that transcends national boundaries.”—Francine Masiello, author of Between Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina
“Though clearly walking in the riverbank footsteps of the whimsical Macedonio and the noir geniuses Arlt and Onetti, Piglia is a genuine original, gifted with a fluid imagination that rushes past traditional narrative boundaries. The Absent City is a kind of mock thriller that lures its reader on, not with the question, ‘What happens next?’ but with ‘What was it that just happened?’ ”—Robert Coover
Junior always said that he liked to live in hotels because his, parents were English. When he said English, he meant the nineteenth-century English travelers, the merchants and smugglers who abandoned their families to explore lands that had not yet been reached by the industrial revolution. Solitary and nearly invisible, they invented modern journalism by leaving behind their personal lives and stories. They lived in hotels and wrote their chronicles; they maintained cynical relationships with the local governors. That is why when his wife left him and moved to Barcelona with his daughter, Junior sold everything that was left in the house and dedicated himself to traveling. His daughter was four years old, and Junior missed her so much that he dreamt of her every night. He loved her much more than he might have imagined, and thought that his daughter was a version of himself. She was what he had been, but living as a female. To escape this image he traveled twice throughout the entire country—by train, in rented cars, in provincial buses. He stayed in boardinghouses, in buildings owned by the Rotary Club, in the houses of English consuls, and tried to look at everything through the eyes of a nineteenth-century traveler. When the money from what he had sold began to run out, he returned to Buenos Aires and went to El Mundo to look for work. He got a position at the newspaper and showed up one afternoon with his normal expression of astonishment on his face. Emilio Renzi took him around the offices and introduced him tohis new coworkers, stuck there like prisoners. Within two months he was the editor's right-hand man, and was in charge of special investigations. By the time they realized it, he controlled all the news about the machine.
At first they thought that he worked for the police because he would publish articles before the events occurred. All he had to do was lift up the telephone and he would get the stories two hours before they happened. He was not yet thirty years old but he looked like a man of sixty: his head was shaved and he had an obsessive, typically English gaze, with small crossed eyes focused on some distant point, as if he were looking out to sea. His father, according to Renzi, had been one of those failed engineers sent from London to oversee the loading of the cattle into trains from the winter pastures of the large cattle ranches. They had lived for ten years in Zapala, at the end of the railroad lines of the Ferrocarril del Sur. Beyond that was the desert, the dust from the bones left behind in the wind from the slaughtering of the Indians. Mr. MacKensey, Junior's father, was the station master; he had a chalet with red roof tiles built just like the one where he had lived in England. The mother was a Chilean woman who left with her youngest daughter and went to live in Barcelona. Renzi found out about the story when a cousin of Junior's came to look for him at the newspaper once, but for some reason the lunatic did not want to see her. The young woman was a fun-loving redhead. Renzi took her to a bar and then to a hotel that charged by the hour; at midnight he escorted her to Retiro Station and left her on the platform in front of the train. She lived in Martínez, was married to a naval engineer, and thought that her cousin was a misunderstood genius obsessed with their family's past.
Junior's father had been just like Junior: a delirious and disturbed individual who would stay up all night in Patagonia listening to shortwave transmissions of the BBC from London. He wanted to erase the traces of his personal life and live like a wild man in an unknown world hooked into the voices that reached him from his country. According to Renzi, his father's passion explained the speed with which Junior had picked up on the first defective transmissions from Macedonio's machine. "A typically British reaction" Renzi would say, "to teach a son with the example of a father who spends his life with his ear stuck to a shortwave radio." "It reminds me," Renzi said, "of the times of the Resistance, when my old man would stay up all night listening to the tapes of Perón that a contact from the Movement clandestinely brought him. They were first-generation tapes that used to slip and come unwound; they were brown and you had to put them on heads of this size and then close the lid of the tape player. I remember the silence and the buzz of the tape before the recording would come in with Perón's exiled voice; he always began his speeches with `Compañeros,' followed by a pause, as if he were leaving room for the applause. We sat around the kitchen table at midnight, engrossed like Junior's father, believing in that voice that came out of nowhere, always slower than normal, distorted somehow. It should have occurred to Perón to speak through shortwave radio. Don't you think?" Renzi asked and looked at Junior, smiling. "From Spain, in nighttime transmissions with the electrical discharges and interference, because that way his words would have arrived at the same time that he spoke them. Don't you think? Because we heard the tapes when the events had already changed and everything seemed late and out of place. I remember that every time someone talks to me about the machine's recordings," Renzi said. "It would be better if the story came straight out, the narrator should always be present. Of course I also like the idea of stories that seem to be outside time and start again every time you want them to."
They had gone down to the bar to get a sandwich after the deadlines were in. While Renzi talked about Perón's voice and the Peronist Resistance and began to tell the story of a friend of his father's, Little Monkey showed up to let Junior know that he had a telephone call. It was three in the afternoon on a Tuesday and the street lights were still on. Through the window one could see the electric lights glowing in the sun. "It looks like a movie" Little Monkey thought, "like the screen in a theater before the movie starts." He could hear what they were saying at the table as he approached, as if someone were turning up the volume on a radio.
"He was crazy—totally, totally crazy," Renzi was saying. "He'd yell `Viva Perón!' and take on whatever came along. `To be a Peronist, above all' he would say, `you have to have balls.' He could build a pipe bomb in half a minute, anywhere—in a bar, in a plaza, he'd move his little fingers like this, like a blind man. His family had a cache of arms on the corner of Martín García and Montes de Oca, so he was born playing with rods and pieces. In the Peronist Movement the guys called him Friar Luis Beltrán, and by the end everyone called him The Friar, except for a few who knew him from the beginning, from the very beginning of the mess, around '55 or '56, who called him Billy the Kid, which was the name that he had been given by Fat-Man Cooke, because just by looking at him you knew he was a young Turk, thin and delicate, you'd guess he was about fifteen or sixteen years old and already everyone and their brother was after him." Several people had gathered around Renzi at the table of the bar Los 36 billares. Little Monkey became distracted for a moment and stopped to listen to the story; then he made a dialing gesture in the air and Junior realized that the woman must be calling him on the telephone again. "It's her," Junior thought. "For sure." Some unknown woman had been calling him on the telephone and giving him instructions as if they were lifelong friends. The woman must have been familiar with the articles he had been publishing in the newspaper. Ever since the rumors of certain imperfections of the machine had been confirmed, a series of maniacs had begun to relay confidential information to him.
"Listen," the woman said to him. "You have to go to the Majestic Hotel, on Piedras and Av. de Mayo. Did you get that? Fuyita, a Korean, lives there. Are you going to go or not?" "I'm going," Junior said.
"Tell him that it's me. That you spoke with me."
"Are you Uruguayan?"
"English," Junior said.
"Come on," she said. "Don't joke around, this is serious."
The woman knew everything. She had the facts. But she mistook Junior for a friend of her husband's. Sometimes, at night, she would wake him up to tell him that she could not sleep. "It's very windy here," she would say, "they leave the window open, it feels like Siberia."
She spoke in code, with the allusive and slightly idiotic tone used by those who believe in magic and predestination. Everything meant something else; the woman lived in a kind of paranoid mystical state. Junior wrote down the name of the hotel and the information about Fuyita. "There's a woman living in a room that's an absolute dump; she's Fat-Man Saurio's girlfriend. Are you getting all this down?" she asked him. "They're going to close the Museum, so hurry. Fuyita is a gangster, they hired him as a security guard." Suddenly, it occurred to him that the woman was in an insane asylum. A madwoman who called him from Vieytes Clinic to tell him a bizarre story about a Korean gangster who was a guard at the Museum. He imagined a pay phone at the hospital. That apparatus—on the dilapidated wall, in an open passageway, in front of the bare trees in the park—was the saddest thing in the world. The woman talked constantly about the machine. She relayed information to him, told him stories. "She's connected, but she doesn't even know it. She can't free herself, she knows she has to talk to me, but she's not aware of what's happening to her." Still, he confirmed all the facts and arranged to go to the Majestic. He had to use the informants he had. He did not have too many options. He was moving in the dark. The information was very well controlled. Nobody said anything. The fact that the street lights were always on was the only thing that revealed that there was a threat. Everybody seemed to be living in parallel worlds, unconnected. "I'm the only connection," Junior thought. Everyone pretended to be a different person. Shortly before dying, Junior's father had remembered a program he had heard on a BBC transmission about psychiatry called "Science for Everyone." A doctor explained on the radio that you had to be careful when you came across a delirium of simulation; for example, that of a raving madman capable of docility, or of an idiot capable of feigning great intelligence. And Ns father laughed; his lungs hissed, he had difficulty breathing, but there he was, laughing. You never know if a person is intelligent or if they are an imbecile pretending to be intelligent. Junior hung up the telephone and returned to the bar. Renzi was already telling another episode of the story of his life.
"When I was a student and lived in La Plata, I earned a living teaching Spanish to right-wing Czechs, Poles, and Croats who had been expelled from their countries by the advance of history. Most of them lived in an old neighborhood in Berisso called `The Austro-Hungarian Empire' where immigrants from Central Europe had settled since the end of the nineteenth century. They rented a room in the wood and tin tenement houses and worked in the cold-storage plants while they looked for something better. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, a support organization for Eastern European anti-Communists, protected them and did what it could to help them out. They had an agreement with the University of La Plata to hire literature students to teach them Spanish grammar. I met many pathetic cases during those years, but none as sad as Lazlo Malamüd. He had been a famous critic and professor of literature at the University of Budapest; he was the leading Central European authority on the work of José Hernández. His translation of Martín Fierro into Hungarian had received the annual prize of the International Association of Translators (Paris, 1949). He was a Marxist, he had formed part of the Petöfi Circle, and had survived the Nazis, but he fled in 1956 when the Russian tanks entered Hungary because he could not handle being slaughtered by those whom he had placed his hopes on. And then here, he was surrounded by the right-wing immigrants. To get away from this group he sought out intellectual circles and made himself known to them as a translator of Hernández. He could read Spanish properly, but he couldn't speak it. He had memorized all of the Martín Fierro and that was his basic vocabulary. He had come here in the hope of obtaining a position in the university; to get it, all he had to do was be able to teach in Spanish. They had asked him to give a lecture in the College of the Humanities, where Héctor Azeves was working; his future depended on that lecture. The date was approaching and he was paralyzed with fear. We met for the first time in mid-December; the lecture was scheduled for the fifteenth of March. I remember that I took cane car number twelve and traveled to Lazlo's dingy room in the lower part of Berisso, behind the cold-storage plant. We sat on his bed, placed a chair in front of us as a table, and began to work with the Lacau-Rosetti grammar book. The university paid me ten pesos per month, and I had to keep a kind of record with Malamüd's signature to confirm the attendance. I would see him three times a week. He talked to me in an imaginary language, full of guttural r's and gaucho-like interjections. He tried to explain to me in a gabble the desperate feeling of being condemned to expressing himself like a three-year-old child. The imminence of the lecture had him plunged into such a panic that he could not go beyond the first-conjugation verbs. He was so dejected that one afternoon, after a very long silence, I offered to read whatever he wanted to say in his place; then poor Lazlo Malamüd let out a screeching laugh to let me know that in spite of the desperate situation he had not lost his sense of the ridiculous. How was I to read his lecture if he was the one who had to teach?
"`I no worrk then die of this estrra-orrdinary suffer-ring,' he said.
"It was funny, it's funny to see someone who doesn't know how to speak your language try to express himself with words. One afternoon, I found him sitting down, facing the window, without any strength left, ready to give up.
"`No more, no,' he said. `An infamy my life. I don't deserrve all this a-humiliation. First I becoming angr-ry then the melancholy. Eyes sprring tearrs that don't alleviate their suffer-ring.'
"I always thought that that man, trying to express himself in a language of which he only knew its greatest poem, was a perfect metaphor for Macedonio's machine. Telling everyone's story with lost words, narrating in a foreign tongue. See? They gave me this," he said to Junior and showed him a cassette tape. "A very strange account. The story of a man who does not have words to name the horror. Some say that it's fake, others say it's the pure truth. The inflections of speech, a harsh document, directly from reality. There are many copies throughout the city. They make them in Avellaneda, in clandestine labs out in the province, in the cellars of the Mercado del Plata, in the subway at Nueve de Julio. They say that they're fake, but that's not going to stop it." Renzi was laughing. "If the Argentine novel, the patriotic verse, started with Cambaceres, then that's what you have to write about, Junior—what are you waiting for?"
"There's a woman," Junior said. "She calls me on the telephone, passes information on to me. Now she says I should go to a hotel, the Majestic on Piedras and Av. de Mayo. There's a guy there, a certain Fuyita, a Korean who works in the Museum, a security guard, the night watchman. I don't know, maybe she works for the police."
"In this country, everyone who's not in jail works for the police," Renzi said, "including the thieves."
Junior stood up. He was leaving.
"Did I give you the recording?" Renzi asked. "Here," he said, and handed him a cassette tape. "Listen to it, then you can fill me in."
"I'll meet you here, tomorrow."
"At six," Junior said.
"It's full of Japanese out there," Renzi said.
Outside, the cars were coming and going. "They are always watching, even if there is no point to it," Junior thought. The sky was gray; at 3:50 P.M. the president's helicopter flew over the avenue toward the river. Junior checked the time and entered the subway. Toward Plaza de Mayo. He leaned back against the window, half asleep, letting the swaying train move him around. They look at each other, the dumbshits, they travel underground just for that. An old woman traveled standing up, her face swollen from so much crying. Simple people, proletariats dressed to go out, modern clothes from Taiwan. Couples holding hands, checking out their reflections in the window. The dark ones with black hair, the Peronios, as Renzi called them. "In the middle of everyone they shaved me clean like a nobody," Junior sang to himself. "I'm mute. I sing with my thoughts. The barber, an Italian immigrant on Ay. Constitución, didn't want to do it at first. `What are you trying to do, kid?' I don't want lice," Junior had answered. He shined his white bowl with brilliantine ("I don't want lice"). Miguel MacKensey (Junior), an English traveler. The lighted subway sped through the tunnel at eighty kilometers per hour.