Postmodernist Crime Metafiction:
A Case Study of Roberto Ampuero's Los amantes de Estocolmo
Chilean author Roberto
Ampuero’s work includes a series of traditional detective novels of the
hard-boiled variety, which feature the character of Cayetano
Cuban private investigator who resides in
Some critics, such as Susan Elizabeth Sweeney and Patricia Merivale, choose the term “metaphysical detective fiction” in order to describe this postmodernist trend, while others, such as Stefano Tani prefer the term “metafictional anti-detective fiction.” All critics, however, agree that what defines this type of fiction is a move away from the traditional detective formula combined with a new focus on the act of writing. Sweeney and Merivale state that:
A metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions - such as narrative closure and the detective’s role as surrogate reader - with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot. Metaphysical detective stories often emphasize this transcendence, moreover, by becoming self-reflexive (that is, by representing allegorically the text’s own processes of composition). (2)
the criminal is no longer a murderer but the writer himself who “kills” (distorts and cuts) the text and thus compels the reader to become a “detective.” The fiction becomes an excuse for a “literary detection,” and if there is a killer in the fiction, he is a “literary killer,” a killer of texts [...], not of human beings, and this killer represents within the fiction the operation that the writer performed on it. (113)
Furthermore, as is common in metafiction, the focus on writing is accompanied by a discussion of reality and its relationship to fiction. Patricia Waugh, whose book Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction has become a key text in metafictional theory, defines metafiction as “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). This study will examine Los amantes de Estocolmo as a postmodernist metafictional crime text, studying not only the way in which the text distances itself from traditional crime writing, but also the way in which it self-consciously explores the act of writing fiction while commenting on its relationship to reality.
novel is set in
In Los amantes de Estocolmo, the traditional detective formula is subverted on several levels. The enigma that comprises the hermeneutical code of Los amantes de Estocolmo is not connected with the solution of the three murders that take place in the novel’s plot. In the case of Bogdanov’s death, there is no enigma present as we are fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the murder, given that the author-narrator describes the crime in detail shortly after having committed it. The reader then becomes a witness to the crime and, in a way, conspires with the author-narrator-turned-criminal in his attempts to escape detection. The reader does not, however, play the role of a detective working towards the solution of a puzzle as there is simply no puzzle to be solved. The other two murders that occur, those of Boryena and Maria Eliasson, are secondary to the novel’s plot and do not form part of the central puzzle that occupies our attention. Instead, the enigma of the book is created by the author-narrator’s quest to determine whether or not his wife is being unfaithful, and if so, “¿con quién, por qué y desde cuándo?” (19). As this quest is slowly mixed into the murder plot, it is eventually transformed into the writer’s quest of finding a means of recording reality while simultaneously writing a novel based on that reality. Ultimately, however, the central quest in the novel becomes the reader’s. The reader does, at this point, take on the role of a detective, but s/he is a textual detective, one whose job is not to follow the clues in search of a solution to the murder mystery but to follow the metafictional clues in the text in order to come up with its significance(s). Nevertheless, we are not alone in this quest. There is a surrogate reader, namely Oliverio Duncan, the detective assigned to investigate the murders, who reads the manuscript along with us and provides us with a sort of solution at the end. As we read the detective’s version of events, however, we find out that all of the suggested conclusions are hypothetical and equally plausible. Reality and fiction become indistinguishable as we participate in the complex metafictional game that dominates Los amantes de Estocolmo.
Pasos plays several roles in the novel, including the
paradoxical ones of author and character, killer and detective. As a
Pasos has assigned himself the task of finding an answer to the
preoccupy him following the discovery of some lingerie that Marcela has
that excites his suspicion. In order to perform his investigation,
Cristóbal becomes a spy. He reads Marcela’s e-mails, checks her
voice messages, and tracks her movements around
Although the novel progresses with the “real” events, its author-narrator is constantly involved in the process of “killing” his own text, thus assuming the role of a metaphorical murderer shortly before he becomes a physical one. From the very beginning, before the novel begins to take on a definite shape, Pasos self-consciously refers to “la pantalla que espera mis correcciones” (14), referring to the editing process through which he begins to destroy the text before it has acquired full existence. The actual plot of Cristóbal’s novel changes directions several times in the course of Ampuero’s novel, undergoing yet another type of metaphorical murder at the hands of its author-narrator.
sólo al terminar de examinar ambas versiones me di cuenta de que se trataba de una confesión y entonces, traicionando por primera vez mi juramento policial, me tomé la libertad de no poner a disposición de Krim lo que había caído a mis manos y empecé a investigar por mi cuenta y de modo discreto tanto los acontecimientos que acaecían en realidad de Djursholm, como la fantasía desbordante del escritor y las especulaciones algo rebuscadas de su narrador. La tarea que me propuse revestía una trascendencia nada despreciable, puesto que, mal que mal, comprendía tres muertes no aclaradas y el suicidio de Pasos. (297)
By failing to solve the cases on his own, Duncan represents the failure of the postmodernist detective, which Jeanne Ewert claims ought to serve as a warning to readers of metaphysical detective fiction who need to “learn to read without relying on the detective’s interpretations” (168) .
From his very first appearance in the novel, Duncan also makes a connection between the roles of detective and editor as, when asked by Cristóbal “¿Usted también escribe?” he replies: “¡Qué va! Ojalá tuviese ese don. Lo mío es redactar y editar actas de crímenes y delitos” (162). The editor becomes, in a sense, a detective who reads the texts in search of their significance before metaphorically murdering them by distorting the final version in order for it to match his own interpretation of the events it describes.
La eventualidad de volver a encontrar a Duncan me desagrada. [...] En todo caso es saludable contar con cierta información sobre él. Pienso emplearla en la caracterización del detective de mi novela, aunque la conjugaré con elementos de mi propia cosecha, como su capacidad para asociar el crimen de la polaca con el asesinato en Norrviken, que comete el narrador de la novela. (244).
Consequently, as the
novel and the
real events become intertwined, we have no way of knowing which
Duncan’s character are real and which ones have been created by Pasos
his fictional detective who is also named Oliverio Duncan. An important
question arises: is the narrator of the postscript the real
Decidí, por ejemplo, que me convenía relatar la obra definitivamente desde la perspectiva de un autor de novelas policiales corroído por las dudas en torno a la fidelidad de su esposa. El escritor, un extranjero como yo, vive en las afueras de Estocolmo, en Djursholm, al igual que yo, donde espía a ratos la vida de su vecino, quien, al parecer, mediante una sobredosis de somníferos acaba de asesinar a su mujer para poder quedarse con la amante. Admito que es una novela demasiado apegada a mi vida, a todo cuanto observo, siento y experimento aquí en Djursholm, pero es lo único que me permite imprimirle cierto suspenso a un relato que en un comienzo carecía de destino cierto [...]. (125)
statement, we can assume that
Cristóbal, the author, is modeling Cristóbal, the
his novel, on himself and on his own reality. When the identity of the
“real” fictional character becomes inseparable from the identity of
the “fictional” fictional character, the ontological status of
if an entity in one world differs from its “prototype” in another world only in accidental properties, not in essentials, and if there is a one-to-one correspondence between the prototype and its other world variant, then the two entities can be considered identical even though they exist in distinct worlds. (35)
Cristóbal, the author, and Duncan, the detective, are the prototypes of Cristóbal and Duncan, the characters. Nevertheless, as far as we know, there are no significant differences between the prototypes and their variants. Consequently, the ontological status of Duncan and Cristóbal points to the issue of the ontological status of the two worlds inhabited by these characters, namely “fiction” and “reality,” the separation between which becomes an impossible task in the novel.
Within the fictional world of Ampuero’s novel there are two main “ontological worlds,” one consisting of the fictional world of Cristóbal’s novel and the other one of the events that constitute Cristóbal, the author’s, reality. We have already discussed the problems involved in separating Cristóbal, the character, from Cristóbal, the author. Because of these problems, it is fair to refer to Cristóbal as an “author-character,” who frequently interrupts the plot of his novel as well as that of the novel we have in front of us, in order to ponder the ontological status of the two worlds he inhabits. After completing a train journey to Malmö in an attempt to find Marcela and her lover, for example, Cristóbal states:
Ese viaje que comprende una misteriosa noche en un hotel del sur, me huele tanto a simulacro como los conflictos que yo perfilo en mis novelas. Por ello prefiero incorporar a la trama esta discreta persecución que inicio y describo ahora, animado desde luego por cuanto ocurre fuera del relato, en esta bucólica realidad de Djursholm, y postergar el momento en que el escritor descubre la identidad del amante de su mujer. (38)
In this case, reality appears to exist outside the novel and is being inserted into the novel as a suspense mechanism, a part of the hermeneutic code that will delay the discovery of the enigma and keep the readers’ attention on the text. Later in the same chapter, however, Cristóbal brings up the possibility that everything heretofore described as existing in reality “es sólo fruto de mi fantasía de escritor, meras palabras y tramas probables, y no algo que ocurre en esta vida” (43). Nevertheless, even as he affirms that all events described in the novel may be fictional, Cristóbal continues to assert the existence of a reality which makes up “esta vida.” Later in the same paragraph, Cristóbal takes back his earlier statement and confirms the actual existence of the events described so far: “Sí, aunque yo no pueda probar esta traición, su ropa exótica existe, aunque yo desconozca su propósito último, su viaje a Malmö ocurrió, y este hotel no es de cartón piedra ni de palabras, sino que se alza aquí perfecto y macizo contra la noche” (44). The element that defines reality over fiction appears to be the material existence of the objects and places described. Cristóbal confirms this theory and further develops his reflections on fiction and reality by introducing the theme of role-playing into the discussion as he ponders Marcela’s possible death:
Acaricié esa idea inmerso en la semipenumbra, sin poder reconocerme a cabalidad mientras me contemplaba en el espejo de la cómoda y recordaba a un personaje de Beckett, que dice: “Yo no existo. El hecho es evidente”. Porque a veces tiendo a pensar en cosas semejantes, como que no existo en el sentido en que lo he pensado y creído. Sí, uno tiende a pensar en que existe de la forma en que se percibe, pero lo más probable es que no exista de la misma forma para los demás, ni siquiera a través de las palabras que digo o escribo. [...] Todo esto lo pensé, especulé y tramé, es decir, lo instalé en esta realidad de ficción que habito y me envuelve y separa de la realidad última, la material, del mismo modo que nuestras palabras protegen y ocultan nuestras verdaderas intenciones ante los demás. (47-48)
Fiction is now directly linked to reality through Cristóbal’s terminology. It is no longer pure fiction, but a paradoxical “reality of fiction.” Nevertheless, ontological superiority continues to be given to “ultimate reality,” which is the material world whose very materiality proves its existence. This separation, however, is further complicated when Cristóbal questions his own existence, basing his uncertainty on the fact that there is a clear distinction between the way we perceive ourselves, the way we want to be perceived by others, and the way others actually perceive us. We define ourselves through our actions and words, but, as Cristóbal points out, those are merely masks, roles we take on that hide the ultimate reality of our true intentions. Language, therefore, becomes a mask that we put on in an attempt to escape the reality of our identity just like, for Cristóbal, the language of fiction is a mask through which he attempts to separate himself from his own reality. The existence of that reality, however, has yet to be questioned.
Once Cristóbal commits an actual crime, murdering Victor Yashin in the “real” world, his attempts to fictionalize reality become even stronger but with them comes the even stronger confirmation that reality exists outside of fiction and can not be altered. Added to the concept of materiality as an element definitive of reality that separates it from fiction is the concept of irreversibility. Even before the murder takes place, Cristóbal ponders the irreversibility of reality versus the reversibility of art and fiction:
Es cierto que uno puede ceñir a ciertos personajes literarios -aunque sólo hasta cierto punto- a un cronograma preciso y severo en novelas o cuentos, y que en la pintura y escultura el artista puede corregir rasgos, pero en la vida real, ésta que se halla más allá de la novela y más acá de la puerta entornada de Marcela, los hechos se rebelan con porfía contra cualquier manipulación, pues ocurren simplemente como cumplimiento de un destino fatal, como partitura ya escrita que me condena a convertirme en marioneta. (102)
Reality, unlike fiction, cannot be altered. Unlike Cristóbal’s novel, which undergoes numerous changes at the hands of its author, Yashin’s murder cannot be undone with a few strokes of the keyboard. Hence it belongs to the realm of reality and, as Cristóbal points out in a further reflection on the matter:
si bien en esta pantalla puedo regresar al inicio de la novela apretando las teclas, como si fuese una grabación en la cual presiono el botón de rewind, aquí no logro, sin embargo, modificar los hechos. Ni aunque vuelva a redactar esos párrafos. Lo dramático es que puedo retroceder al capítulo 13, hasta esas páginas horrendas en que hiero mortalmente a Yashin, y puedo sumergirme en esas líneas y experimentar nuevamente todo aquello que sentí, pero carezco de la habilidad para reeditar todo esto, para impedir que ese día yo siga en automóvil a Marcela y al ruso hasta Norrviken, y ocurra lo que ocurrió. Ahora entiendo que no existen deslindes exactos entre realidad y ficción, que estas son simplemente versiones de asuntos que acaecen en cierto momento a determinadas personas. La diferencia no radica en lo que se narra, pues el relato engloba todos los escenarios imaginables, sino en el hecho de que una de esas versiones es irreversible. Y esa única versión irreversible es la realidad. Y sólo cuando la identificas y compruebas su endemoniada irreversibilidad es que puedes estar seguro de que te hallas frente a la versión implacable de las cosas, y que todo lo demás es ficción. Si algo diferencia a la realidad de la ficción es que la primera es definitiva y rechaza correcciones de estilo. (216-7)
The murder, however, does not take place in chapter 13 but in chapter 18, further demonstrating that the novel’s text has been changed, or metaphorically murdered, by its author. Nevertheless, as Pasos himself points out, although he has been able to alter the text, he has not succeeded in altering the event of the murder. Cristóbal’s very inability to alter reality becomes definitive of the concept of reality. Thus, at least momentarily, reality is given a higher ontological standing than fiction.
At a later point in the novel, however, Cristóbal appears to contradict his assertions of reality as ontologically supreme over fiction by stating:
Admito que desde hace varios años la realidad ya no me interesa. [...] Bueno, es cierto que ahora concitan mi atención ciertos aspectos de la realidad irreversible por lo acaecido en Norrviken, pero el hecho de que yo intente convertir todo eso en ficción, que pretenda hacer calzar los hechos conmensurables y verificables en las páginas de este relato, que trate de difuminar los deslindes entre lo real y lo imaginario, demuestra mi total indiferencia hacia la realidad. (256)
Cristóbal’s very attempts at fictionalizing reality are used by him as proof of his proclaimed indifference towards the subject. Indifference, however, does not constitute inexistence. In fact, by claiming to convert reality into fiction, Cristóbal further proves the existence of that reality, which appears to resist fictionalization, at least until the concept of memory is introduced as a theme in the novel.
It is ultimately in one’s memory that fiction and reality become indistinguishable categories. Cristóbal explains this phenomenon upon re-reading the novel’s text years after the events have taken place, at which time he chooses to refer to the events described in his narrative as “todas estas circunstancias, que se tornan confusas en mi memoria, de suerte que no logro distinguir lo ocurrido de lo relatado” (288). From the very beginning of the novel, however, memory is introduced as a fictionalizing agent, one that alters reality, transforming it into a new construct. Cristóbal refers to the power of memory to alter reality when he attempts to remember his feelings during a period in the past when he was unfaithful to Marcela:
Traté de evocar los sentimientos que yo abrigaba hacia Marcela durante la época de Karla, la bailarina, pero me fue imposible porque las palabras, la memoria y la fantasía de entonces se me entreveran y termino ordenándolas de acuerdo a lo que anhelo, a lo que deseo hoy que Marcela piense y sienta por mí, y no a lo que realmente ocurrió. No hay forma, ya lo sé, de reconstruir con certeza lo pasado, porque todo recuerdo traiciona al mismo tiempo lo acaecido. Y lo deprimente estriba en que desde niños nos inducen a creer que la memoria reconstruye el pasado con la precisión con que se arma un rompecabezas, cuando en verdad la memoria nunca recupera el diseño original del rompecabezas, sino que construye uno diferente. (40-1)
Memory, therefore, is the world where fiction and reality become indistinguishable from each other and can be rearranged to form new patterns. The notion of memory as a fictionalizing agent is reflected in the postmodernist view of history as fiction of which Patricia Waugh states: “Metafiction suggests [...] that writing history is a fictional act, arranging events conceptually through language to form a world-model [...]” (48-9). Forming a world-model created of new patterns based on his own memory of past events is precisely what Cristóbal does when he goes back to edit his novel in Portugal, years after the events have taken place. The readers, however, only have access to the edited text of the novel and are therefore unable to know which of the events described therein are fictional, which are real, and to what extent the real events have themselves been fictionalized by the author-narrator’s memory. Consequently, although reality is initially granted an existence separate from the world of fiction, the two become inseparable in the novel’s text which has undergone numerous alterations based not on reality but on Cristóbal’s memory of it.
The mixture of “real” and
fictional events in the novel is initially made with the purpose of
Cristóbal’s work from the traditional detective genre. He
states that he wants to “internarme por los meandros de la novela
policial pero rechazando las esclavizantes exigencias que el
impone, como por ejemplo, contar de antemano con un itinerario
detallado de los
acontecimientos y un detective - oficial o privado - que esclarece los
hechos” (73). What
Cristóbal wants to avoid through the absence of a detective is,
the restoration of order that occurs at the end of traditional
fiction, depicting instead a chaotic existence in a world devoid of
order. In spite of Cristóbal’s original intentions, however, the
novel does take on a more traditional form when the detective appears
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---. El alemán de Atacama. Santiago, Chile : Planeta, 1996.
---. Los amantes de Estocolmo. Santiago, Chile: Planeta, 2003.
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