restricted access Time and Trauma in Ricardo Piglia's The Absent City
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Time and Trauma in Ricardo Piglia's The Absent City

In Ricardo Piglia's novel La ciudad ausente (The Absent City), Macedonio Fernández attempts to save some semblance of his terminally ill wife, Elena, by placing her memories in a machine. The machine eventually begins to tell others' stories, stories that challenge the state's official history. At the same time, they are the intrusive thoughts of a traumatized community, of a city that has no stories to tell about the dictatorship that took place between 1976 and 1983, at least not publically. That city is a futuristic Buenos Aires that continues to suffer from a traumatic past in which memories have been both corrupted and rewritten by a repressive state apparatus that attempts to control the collective narrative. However, the untold stories of that collective narrative find their start in this desperate act by Macedonio, who refuses to let go of the past. Macedonio, though, is not so much a character as a specter that haunts the novel, refusing to mourn the loss of his wife. The name Macedonio Fernández operates here on two levels. First, it is a reference to the Argentine literary figure who was a mentor to writers such as Jorge Luis Borges. Macedonio wrote as a way of preserving the memory of his own wife, also named Elena, in his open ended anti-novel Museo de la novella de la eternal, which he worked on continually from the death of his wife until his own in 1952. Macedonio the writer, like the victims of the dictatorship, cannot seem to get to the process of mourning, which might be characterized as the act of mindful remembrance and is not possible until the narrative of the life or lives lost has been made coherent. He is trapped in the past and is never able to finish his novel, which for him could signal the final loss of his wife. Second, the fictional character Macedonio suggests the connection to the Macedonio, the writer, who also challenged literature's conventions, including the use of language, time, and space, a challenge that becomes thematic in The Absent City. As translator Sergio Waisman comments,

[A] theme that arises is the power of language to create and define reality—the State's official version of history; a machine that creates stories that become real; the attempts of the police to control the flow of information; a world in which people tell stories in an attempt to rewrite history or to prevent others from writing it for them.

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The effect of this struggle over language is to create an alternative reality to the state's official version. There is an attempt to come to terms with, and to thereby defuse, the power of the terrorizing events perpetrated by the repressive state against those who have been forced into silence by the official narrative that either leaves out or negates their stories. The trauma cannot be forgotten, but indeed, neither can it be denied and thus mourning cannot be attempted without the sharing of stories. This struggle over the balance between the experience and the expectations of the nation state create what I call traumatic time, best defined as a dystopic fissure in experience where collective memory struggles with false history construction. This fissure in time is created in part because the victims are not allowed the mourning process, which again, can be characterized as mindful remembrance, a notion that differs somewhat from Idelber Avelar's claim that mourning is an active forgetting. I agree with Avelar that the one who completes the task of mourning may then move forward in time. However, the ability to reconstruct the balance between experience and expectation is not accomplished through active forgetting, but rather, through the ritualized celebration of mourning that allows the (re)construction of a life narrative, which is of primary importance to posttraumatic culture. In other words, the act of mourning is the act of putting into order that which has been disrupted. The event is not forgotten in any sense of the word, but organized into available schemata that can be readily accessed.