Parallel Lives: Heterotopia and Delinquency in Piglia’s
tell me brave captain
why are the wicked so strong
How do the angels get to sleep
when the Devil leaves his porchlight on?
Tom Waits, "Mr. Siegal"
"What is the robbing of a bank compared to the opening of a bank?" Brecht's famous rhetorical question stands as the explicit epigraph to Ricardo Piglia's thoroughly hard-boiled novel Plata quemada (1997), as if announcing a classical Marxist critique of capitalism. In the epilogue, the fictionalized author claims that he has based his novel on real events, and that he has tried to keep in mind "en todo este libro el registro estilístico y el 'gesto metafórico' (como lo llama Brecht) de los relatos sociales cuyo tema es la violencia ilegal" (221). How are we to read this Brechtian framing of an Argentine novel of delinquency? Perhaps surprisingly, Brecht's interest in crime fiction was mainly limited to the classical English crime novel so cherished by Borges. Why? Because this is a genre which allows for a view of reality and history as an ordered system of things and events. In itself, the traditional crime scene takes on the general appearance of a minor "catastrophe" area. It includes a series of signs, haphazardly presented so as to give the impression of chaos, or at least of chance. Through the workings of detection, however, hidden connections are revealed and organized into a perfectly intelligible pattern which points towards the "logical" solution to the enigma. Accordingly, the classical story of detection grants us a virtually immediate and rational explanation which we are normally denied with respect to large scale catastrophes such as revolutions and wars. In such cases, we must await the retrospective perspective of history in order to be able to read the "crime" scene as a rational system of signs.
On the following pages I shall try to show how Ricardo Piglia renegotiates these generic delimitations, suggesting that Plata quemada is written in a script which challenges the schizophrenic flow of money and desire connecting delinquency to the capitalist machine. By doing so, I will gradually move beyond the Brechtian horizon in order to propose other theoretical emplacements with which Piglia's novel also seems to be productively engaged. The conceptualizations of space found in the work of Foucault and Deleuze/Guattari are the principal models which will inform the following reflexions on the parallel lives of Plata quemada.
The first crime scene in Plata quemada could be seen
corresponding to a quasi-classical locus delicti. After the
robbery of five million 1965 Argentine Pesos from a money transport,
streets of a Buenos Aires suburb are virtually littered with signs and
(dead bodies, firearms, vehicles) for the public eye to read. There are
witnesses to the crime, including a surviving guardian, suggestively
Spector. The impression is deceptive, however, for the opening scene
point towards an ensuing scene of detection exposing the underlying
schema which connects the authors of the crime to its effects. Rather,
opening scene is mirrored by a second crime scene which, although
confined to a
modest apartment in
Firearms are only the most conventional of the weapons used by the police during the siege. They also employ toxic gases, inflammable liquids, grenades, tears gas, and various intelligence devices. In the words of the Police Captain: "Esto es una guerra –declaró Silva–. Hay que tener en cuenta los mandamientos de la guerra" (179). In other words, the final crime scene transcends the traditional "logical" schemes of crime fiction, even in the noir or hard-boiled genre. It amounts to a veritable catastrophe resembling those "real" historical events referred to by Brecht in his essay, events which can only be properly analyzed, if ever, from the vantage point of retrospection. This is a quality which the novel suggestively dramatizes by placing an "archaeological" or "archival" framework around the main plot line: the text is interspersed with references to, and selected quotes from, juridical documents and press coverings of the events, which, the author insists in the epilogue, actually occurred on the very locations where he situates his fictional reconstruction. As Edgardo H. Berg has observed, there are undeniable Foucauldian resonances in such a methodology ("Asesinos" 97).
This is not the only way in which Plata quemada
frontiers of classical crime scenes. Something seems to happen with the
notion of space, especially in the second half of the novel, a feature
might also be accounted for by recurring to Foucault—and his notion of
"heterotopia." Heterotopias are places
qui sont dessinés dans l'institution même de la société, et qui sont des sortes de contre-emplacements, sortes d'utopies effectivement réalisées dans lesquelles les emplacements réels que l'on peut trouver au l'interieur de la culture sont à la fois représentés, contestés et inversés, des sortes de lieux qui sont hors de tous les lieux, bien que pourtant ils soient effectivement localisables ("Des espaces autres" 1574-75).
From being, in the first place, moderately "heterotopic," due to its numerous and mutually incommunicated dwellers, the apartment in which the robbers barricade themselves is gradually turned into a scene or cell connected with virtually every emplacement of the surrounding social space. But this is not simply a question of multiple representation. A kind of precarious circuit, with frequent loops and unpredictable interferences, crystallizes around this heterotopic place. Not only is the apartment being bugged. The intercom system is also tapped by a radio operator who strives to isolate the conversation taking place in the apartment from the polyphonic interference of "other" voices; to identify the speakers; and to read their next move. In addition, the robbers use the intercom system as a weapon to demoralize the besieging forces. This aberrant "intelligent" network is redoubled by the brute, mechanic perforation of ceiling and walls effectuated from adjoining apartments by police and firemen, in order to inject gases, throw bombs, or gain new angles for their snipers. Moreover, on the floor in the fortressed apartment stands a TV-set through which the delinquents may follow the activities outside. In this way they are able to orchestrate their own movements so that they may have the desired effect, be it for tactical or merely spectacular reasons.
Thus the enclosed "cell" opens up to the surrounding
emplacements in which it resembles a self-consuming war-machine more
crime scene. The very logic of this escalating process, by which
spectacular violence breeds an equally excessive and equally
of counter-violence, is clearly seen if we juxtapose the following two
passages. The first one refers to the visible signs of the police's
storm the apartment: "La puerta de entrada a la vivienda colgaba,
Arguably, this radical "deconstruction" reveals an intimate complicity between the (excessive) endeavour to correct the desperate resistance of the confined and marginalized subjects—by rendering manifest the harsh consequences of their transgressions—and previous manoeuvrings to discipline their minds and bodies. As Foucault has shown in Surveiller et punir, the inscription of a rigid pattern of behaviour in "correctible" subjects has replaced the supposedly surpassed mode of "spectacular" castigation. However, there actually seems to be a very thin line separating the operations through which the delinquent/inmate's body is marked with a normalizing scripture from the obsolete practice of dismembering and exposing the very same body. What takes place is, in both cases, an effacement of already-inscribed marks: a reduction of the organism to an empty substance or surface, soon to be inscribed with other signs, or itself converted into a sign of neutralized delinquency. Transferred to the "catastrophic" crime scene of Plata quemada, a parallel reciprocity apparently prevails between the act of displaying the force of law through an accumulation of corrective/exhibitory signs, on the one hand, and the violent disfiguring of this manifest scene of writing, on the other. Thus, paradoxically enough, the crime scene turned into a ruinous war zone seems to be the strictly logical end result of the narrated events.
Piglia's novel also traces the lieux which unites this final catastrophic heterotopia to other places which are heterotopic in a more precise sense. I am thinking of that kind of institutionalized space which Foucault calls "heterotopias of deviation" (1576). These are the modern replacements of ancient "crisis heterotopias"—viz "des lieux privilégiés, ou sacrés, ou interdits, réservés aux individus qui se trouvent, par rapport à la société, et au milieu humain à l'intérieur duquel ils vivent, en état de crise" (1575-76)—which comprise institutions designed to house those whose behaviour is considered deviant with regard to the average or to a required norm. The most obvious examples of such places are of course those which Foucault analyses in his books, such as asylums, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, etc.
Plata quemada's last chapter consists of a series
of analepses centered around the by then only surviving delinquent,
Gaucho), as "objeto de interés para los médicos, los
psiquiatras" (212) from his early adolescence on. However, in a gesture
reminiscent of the parallel lives narrated in Hernández' Martín
Fierro, it also includes other figures with similar destinies. One
destinies is that of the quasi-mythical figure of Anselmo, who serves
modern incarnation of the archetypical matrero, and whose crime
El Gaucho Dorda initially seems to copy. Another such figure is Nene,
Dorda had first met in a reformatory and who later became his friend
thus appearing as a contemporary equivalent to Fierro's companion,
Through these analogous destinies the novel provides a narrative
the fragments of medical and psychiatric language which are inserted at
stages of the text's unfolding. In a crucial metaphor, the words from
"scientific" discourse appear as sewn
onto Dorda's soul; "[c]osidas, las palabras, con
One might perhaps maintain that the disciplinary procedures "fail" to produce the "desired" effect. However, the novel seems to suggest, in a very Foucauldian fashion, that their purpose is not primarily to "correct" but to fabricate a category of delinquents which may serve as a screen for the free unfolding of institutionalized crime and violence. Instead of correcting the individuals under their jurisdiction, the heterotopias of deviation function as a kind of factory producing subnormal subjects which understand their own selves in terms of the categories established by juridical and psychiatric discourses. Also, these subjects adapt their psychic apparatus and their bodies to the value system inherent in these normalizing protocols, thus adding the "pleasure" of humiliation to their own "deviant" or "degenerated" desire. Instead of functioning as desiring machines—to use Deleuze and Guattari's concept (L'Anti-Oedipe)—they are turned into machines of abomination and destruction. And when they are successfully linked in larger series, synchronizing their drives and impulses, it seems as if they manage to transgress the frontiers of heterotopic space: instead of acting randomly and self-destructively through internalized despise, they now actually answer the force of law with an extremely concentrated and almost equally forceful counter-attack.
As though by dint of a short circuited dialectic—something in between a spiralling profusion of power and a relapse into the arresting logic of desperate abomination—these desiring machines gone awry take on the general appearance of very primitive war machines, fuelled by hatred and drugs. They evince no tactical sophistication whatsoever; their only purpose is to create a massive wave of counter-violence. Instead of connecting to the desire of other organisms, or to the "body politic," in a complementing fashion, these war machines, totally out of control, reproduce the machinations of institutionalized violence. It is as though the infamous practices alluded to by the untranslatable phrase "darles máquina," repeated throughout Piglia's novel, is transferred from one heterotopic place to another. In their new and violently "parodic" frame, they are no longer directed towards an enclosed delinquent but distributed, impartially, to the crowd of policemen, journalists, firemen, and other bystanders outside the besieged apartment. Not only does this apply to the use of physical violence. The primitive war machines also work verbally, reproducing the obscene discourse of sexually aggressive and homophobic insults which have rained over their own head and bodies during interrogating/torturing máquinas, redirecting them towards their former executors (or any other addressee, for that matter). "Hablaban así," the narrator comments after one particularly rude harangue; "eran más sucios y más despiadados para hablar que esos canas curtidos en inventar insultos que relajaban a los presos hasta convertirlos en muñecos sin forma" (168). Heterotopic space is thus turned inside out; the final war/crime scene appears as an inversion of the above mentioned heterotopias of deviation.
There is, however, another logic of space which supplements, and redirects, this heterotopic explosion. Apparently by sheer impulse or intuition, the marginalized and rebellious members of the body of delinquents seek to break out of their confinement, not by a massive frontal attack, but by various lines of escape which might be seen as communicating with different structures of emplacement, or quite simply with other forms of being. These alternative scenarios are situated "beyond" or "underneath" the heterotopias which gradually yet systematically have turned desiring machines into war machines; most significantly, they appear in a space constructed according to parameters which radically contradict the delinquents' predicament as entrapped in the crime/war scene.
With such an optics, the act of burning/sacrifying money could be seen as a ritual in which these "other" lines of flight are somehow represented. The general import of this ritual is dramatized through the reactions of the bystanders who unanimously condemn the purposeless destruction as blasphemic. Furthermore, the sacrifice is given a "philosophical" interpretation by the Uruguayan philosopher Washington Andrada, who sees it as an innocent potlach "realizado en una sociedad que ha olvidado ese rito, un acto absoluto y gratuito en sí, un gesto de puro gasto y de puro derroche que en otras sociedades ha sido considerado un sacrificio que se ofrece a los dioses" (174)—since money represents, in our society, an infinitely and unquestionably valuable "good" whose sacrifice is worthy of the gods. One immediately thinks of Bataille's concept of dépense (of which Andrade's interpretation could be seen as a paraphrase): here we witness a very precise example of the "general economy" which structures pre-modern society around the sphere of the sacred. This archaic logic, repeated in the age of capitalism, traces a trajectory along which the circulation of capital is "symbolically" brought to an end—not by physical barriers or anything of that kind, but— through a pas delà which leaves nothing but a spectral economy of ashes. If this is so, could one not say that a certain directionality informs the "monetary holocaust," tracing a possible line of flight from the restricted economy of which the institutionalized places of disciplination/normalization are manifest symptoms? Underneath these modern heterotopias of deviation—archeologically, as it were—thus emerge the "crisis heterotopias" as the ruins of an economy by now relegated to the realm not of the hetero-, but of the u-topic.
There is a phantasmatic aspect to this excessive expense, a
wish-fulfillment appearing in an unfixed state: as displacement,
elevation, bifurcation, growth, metamorphosis. An interior line of
opens up, as the endless possibilities of becoming—a
process of anticipation, as it were: to escape by abandoning
a flux towards other forms and other places. In Plata
quemada, a "rhizomatic" structure seems to
crystallize, a structure which reads like a combination of
scenarios (Kafka) and the interfering
systems in Julio Cortázar's work. It is probably most fully
the following passage of free indirect discourse on Dorda's interior
"Abajo de la tierra, bajo los adoquines, estaban las cloacas, los
caños maestros que corrían
It would appear that the most probable outcome of such an
escape-line is the violent negation of its "poetics of becoming,"
whose most radical version would be death. However, to varying degrees
final deaths and detentions actually seem to represent an "escape" of
sorts. Mereles' death from a police bullet reads like a continuous
which ends in a surreptitious elevation: "Había entrado en la
cocina para buscar un ángulo de tiro
murió sin darse cuenta,
When the same simile is used, later, to refer to Dorda, it is
to the journalist Emilio
However, this final chapter is followed by an epilogue in
"author" reveals that his novel is in fact a true story and
enumerates the many sources which he has had at hand. He also makes
own tangential involvement with the course of events: a meeting, on the
Me parece que ese sueño [i.e., the story] empieza con una imagen. Me gustaría terminar este libro con el recuerdo de esa imagen, es decir con el recuerdo de la muchacha que se va en el tren a
The shared emptiness of the two endings suggests a blank space soon to be filled in with written marks, like the bodies enclosed in the novel's heterotopic spaces. Yet one cannot fail to notice a crucial difference between the parallel scenes: the presence of the narratorial/authorial figure in the latter, as a first mark of inscription. From this point of departure emerges a series of textual frames each of which offers a fragment from, or a particular perspective on, the episodes and characters which make up Piglia's novel. Allegedly, every episode can be traced back to a specific document (or other source); where no such documentation exists, the narrator/author asserts, "he preferido omitir los acontecimientos" (222). The result is a weblike structure of voices which could perhaps be described as a deterritorialized panopticon, a structure whose literary genealogy has been deftly traced by D. A. Miller in The Novel and the Police. There is also a sombre parallel between the cacophony of voices which flow through the novel and those which resound inside the head of the schizophrenic Dorda, a parallel which reflects the pressure of surveillance and punishment on the human psyche as well as the vertiginous circulations of the capitalist machine.
In an Argentine context, the complicity between crime and literature has been studied by Aníbal González in his Journalism and the Development of Spanish American Narrative. Plata quemada relates in a suggestively ambiguous manner to the tradition established by González. It seems to fit perfectly into a series of works which stretches from Sarmiento's politico-novelistic biography of Facundo Quiroga—through Borges' twice-told tales and other journalistic experiments—and beyond. Piglia's earlier involvement with Sarmiento and Borges is well known; and traces of this affection is easily detectable in Plata quemada. The train episode narrated in the second half of the epilogue is only one such textual trace, pointing towards the borderline incident in the "Advertencia del autor" with which Facundo opens. Also, the reappearance of Emilio Renzi, the curly-haired and glass-wearing cronista of El Mundo, as an embedded image of the authorial narrator, echoes the "myopic, atheist and very timid" editor of the Yidische Zaitung who plays a minor (yet probably crucial) role in Borges' "La muerte y la brújula." To these intertexts should perhaps be added the gauchesco genre (on which both Sarmiento and Borges draw heavily) as one that combines politics, delinquency, and pseudo-oral "journalism"; as has already been noted, echoes from the Martín Fierro resonate on several levels throughout Piglia's novel. The list could no doubt be enlarged virtually ad infinitum. Sandra Garbano has suggested—to cite just one further example—that Plata quemada could be read as a tribute to Roberto Arlt, an author equally famous for his journalistic columns as for his novels of delinquency.
Yet at the same time Piglia's use of the journalist/crime matrix alters its traditional function as a morally denouncing and/or aesthetically entertaining discourse. Plata quemada could be read, among other things, as a parody of journalism in the age of sensationalism and public opinion. The parallelism between the police and the press is only one such topic, perhaps epitomized in the figure of Lucía Passero (cf. Clayton 48); another, the absurd communication machine constructed on the crime/war scene whose components and functions turn out to be highly confused. (Yet the ensuing short-circuits only seem to propel the insane flow of information.) Metacommentaries regarding the unreliability of witnesses also abound. On a more textual level, the narrative technique of Piglia's novel mimics the documentary film in its sometimes ostentatious collage of testimonies; whereas many characteristic turns of phrase, such as "hoy (por ayer)," point towards the chronicle/news report genre.
According to the epilogue, the articles signed "E.R." hold a privileged place among the journalistic sources involved in the writing of the novel. These initials obviously refer to Emilio Renzi. As a framing device, this attribution complicates the workings of Piglia's narrative machine to a considerable degree. Renzi, who is visible both behind the scenes and as a character in the story, is everything but an innocent narratorial figure. When on one occasion he interviews Captain Silva, Renzi appears as a self-conscious aspirant to the status of hard-boiled detective-cum-journalist. Besides, it is all too clear that his understanding of the situation is essentially a literary construct. Earlier in the novel we find him searching the dictionary for the meaning of hubris, after which episode several sequences establish striking parallels between the Argentine delinquents and the heroes of Greek tragedy. These formal and thematic parallelisms (such as the blind power of fate, the extreme pathos of certain scenes, and the moralizing function of the chorus), which on a cursory reading might seem to redeem the story from the narrow perspective of journalism, are severely destabilized when we realize that they can actually be traced back to the very same limited journalistic horizon. Perhaps we should read these ironies as symptomatic of what is going on in Plata quemada: a writing more intimately aligned with Dorda's schizophrenic voices than with Renzi's "dramatic" or "tragic" interpretive schema.
I opened these reflexions on Plata quemada by calling attention to the framing references to Brecht in the novel's epilogue and epigraph. However, embedded in the novel's text another epigraphic space opens up suggesting a different view of the capitalist world/machine, a view which is more attuned to the scenarios which have been mapped above. I am referring to the quotes which are given from two songs, "Parallel lives" and "Brave Captain," allegedly to be found on a hit single from the mid 60s. It is attributed to the apocryphal pop group Head and Body. But in fact all quotes from both songs belong to Tom Waits' "Mr. Siegal," released on the album Heartattack & Vine. What Tom Waits seems to be doing is roughly parallel to the strategy adopted by Piglia in Plata quemada. He "connects" with a parallel universe of crime and violence, at whose center appears the figure of "Bugsy" Siegel, American mid-war gangster boss. In Tom Wait's song, Mr. Siegal serves as an imaginary point of contact with a destabilized world of drugs and delinquency. Ricardo Piglia, for his part, repeats this gesture. He identifies with his porteño delinquents, sees the world sub specie delicti, and "signs" his borrowing with the twice repeated verses from "Parallel lives"/"Mr. Siegal": "if I can find a book of matches, / I'm goin' to burn this hotel down."
The imaginary beat of Head and Body's "Brave Captain" and "Parallel Lives" seem to be inscribed as an accompagnement to the unfolding of Plata quemada's story line. These apocryphal tunes function as a fictionalized soundtrack of sorts, echoeing the story of Malito, "head," and the "parallel lives" of the three members of his narcotized "body" without organs—as well as of their enemy, the notoriously "brave Captain" Silva. When Malito vanishes without a trace, the head as controlling mechanism is (metaphorically speaking) cut off, thus leaving behind an acefalic organism, trapped within a cage. Perhaps Plata quemada should be read as a reenactment of the endeavour to escape from this entrapment. How? This is a text which attaches itself to every source it can find, repeats every voice it hears, delights in false attributions, connects with the plot line of its own story, destratifies its improvised hierarchies of interpretation, and ends by dissolving the provisional architecture of its own narrative apparatus. Qua writing, Piglia's novel challenges the stochastic flow of money and desire which absorbs the delinquent into the capitalist machine. By this move, Plata quemada also supplements the impasse of schizophrenia as a clinical phenomenon (embodied in Dorda) with a deterritorializing "schizophrenic" line of flight.
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