El misterio no tiene dos extremos:
El único extremo del misterio está en el centro
de nuestro propio corazón.
no dejaremos nunca de buscar el otro extremo,
el extremo que no existe.
The novel, La muerte me da (2007) by Mexican poet, novelist, and essayist Cristina Rivera Garza defies expectations for the detective genre by presenting a completely dedicated and professional detective who fails miserably in her attempts to solve the case of a serial murderer. This along with its eclectic character derived from the inclusion of different types of text, namely a collection of poetry and an academic essay, give the novel a sense of enigma; so much so that the accomplished literary critic Glen S. Close concedes that “[a]fter six readings of the novel, I must still confess to feeling a certain perplexity” (403). Both Close and Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón attribute the novel’s enigmatic nature to Rivera Garza’s subversion of the conventions of the detective novel, particularly as have been prevalent in contemporary Mexican literature, such as in the narconovela. Central to this reading is the detective’s, and the novel’s, inability to resolve the case that occupies its pages. For Close, this is due to the “crisis of the subject”: the characters’ inability to deal with the brutality of murder incarnated in the image of the corpse and their inability to use language as a way of assimilating such a traumatic experience. Gutiérrez Negrón reaches a similar conclusion:
Beyond the acknowledgement of the similarities between the victims, none of the characters interested in ‘solving’ the crime are capable of moving beyond the fact that a body was mutilated and a life taken, interrupted. They are traumatized by the facticity of the body and the seemingly unexplainable (and ultimately unexplained) ferocity of the violence. This trauma, understood as ‘an unsolvable problem of the unconscious that illuminates the inherent contradictions of experience and language’ (Balaev 1), sunders the traditional narrative of the detective’s investigation from the possibility of its solution, sieving the whodunit until all that is left is endless inquiry…, 48.
Thus, one of the novel’s perplexing characteristics is the irresolution of its central conflict. It is not just that the novel is open-ended, but that it is imbedded within a genre that prepares the reader for closure in the form of epistemic certainty, which never arrives. As we see from the quote, for Gutiérrez Negrón this is because the detective appears to be just as much a victim of the crime — ensnared psychologically and emotionally in the spectacle of its ferocious violence — as she is a distanced and dispassionate agent of the State. As we will see later in this essay, I propose a different reading of the detective and her professional abilities which does not see her as emotionally and professionally compromised. More importantly for my reading, the novel points to another crisis centered not on the figure of the subject but on the object of attention in detective fiction: the clue. The reason “the scientific method and all of the characters consistently fail in their early attempts to find some rationale or logic for the murders” is, as I would propose, that they are never able to identify the Clue (Gutiérrez Negrón 47). There is an inability to access truth, to recognize it by reconstructing the narrative of the events that constitute the murder because everything is read uniformly by the detective, as mere material fact, as nothing more than physical matter. Everything is a potential clue because nothing is a clue, nothing is the Clue; and it is the Clue that unlocks the narrative flow of Truth. In this sense, La muerte me da can be read in the context of a wider cultural production not limited to literature, to Mexico, nor even to Latin America, in which the work of the State through its policing forces and judicial system is unable to guarantee justice.
The Ontology of the Clue/clue
The investigatory process conducted by literary detectives and those of popular culture has been historically linked to the scientific method and to the Positivist-secularist episteme of Modernity. But paradoxically, that process also tends to culminate with an epiphany in which the detective puts everything together, in which the disparate parts converge to make crystal-clear sense. The detective assembles a complete story that offers up the Truth of what happened, of how it happened, and, most importantly, with whom the responsibility lies. One of the traditional tropes that accompanies the resolution of the case is the explanation the detective provides in which everything flows in a logical order and material facts, evidence, are evaluated, read, and correctly interpreted. As literary critic, Ronald Thomas, writes in his Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (1999),
[a]t the center of virtually every detective story is a body upon which the literary detective focuses his gaze and employs his unique interpretive powers. His goal is to explain an event that seems to be inexplicable to everyone else. At stake is not just the identification of a dead victim or an unknown suspect, but the demonstration of the power invested in certain forensic devices embodied in the figure of the literary detective…, 2.
However, the regime of logical reasoning is not enough to account for the dynamics of the hermeneutics of detective work; for how is the detective to know which objects are clues and which are simple evidence or useless matter? How is the detective to know which objects are to be taken as signs and others as mere mute matter? As much as the tools that the detective employs are available to all — as products of technological advancement and scientific knowledge patronized by Modernity, what Thomas calls “technologies of truth-making” and “devices of truth” — it is the singularity of the detective’s quasi-supernatural abilities that the completeness of the Truth hinges upon (6 – 10). The figure of the detective is foregrounded as the epitome or embodiment of the intellect corroborated by his or her ability to narrate the process that has led to the resolution of the mystery. Though often, he or she is represented just as much as a vehicle or channel for a knowledge that appears to originate elsewhere, that is, beyond the purview of science and reason.
This is because it is epiphany that is at the crux of the investigation and not pure logical reasoning. While different types of epiphanies have been described in literature, including secular epiphanies, even those tend to be linked to the supernatural, if not directly to the divine. Morris Beja, a literary scholar and author of Epiphany in the Modern Novel (1971), has given us a well-known definition of epiphany as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, event, or memorable phase of the mind – the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produces it” (18). That is, the relevance of an object and the results of its contemplation transcend the realm of logic. The detective’s evaluation of the crime scene and its potential clues exemplify this description of epiphany. Thus, the establishment of Truth in the work of the detective belongs just as much to the realm of the arbitrary, inexplicable, and irrational as it does to science, reason, and technology. We can also describe the epiphanic moment as an instance of anagnorisis — a sudden realization in which all the prior events crystalize into order and the accompanying apprehension of them. And though I have described the resolution of the crime as an establishment of Truth it is more aptly described as the recognition of Truth. This way of sense-making is not commensurate with scientific methodology nor deductive reasoning but is analogous to anamnesis — knowledge as remembrance. As Thomas states, “the detective’s goal is to tell the story of a past event that remains otherwise unknown and unexplained by fixing the identity of a suspect and filling in the blanks of a broken story” (4), and “in the ways it produces the truth and reinterprets a dark deed from the past. The detective story often functioned as a kind of lie detector redefining truth for its culture” (6). Although the surface definition of Truth in detective fiction is the version imagined by Modernity — linked to scientific knowledge and progress — the fact that the Truth is linked to the recovery of a past event requires an epistemology more in line with a pre-Modern episteme. This episteme of knowledge as remembering belongs to pre-Modernity when knowledge was a given and its possession implied the ability to recognize it, not to create it.
As Michel Foucault describes in The Order of Things (1966), signatures were signs that pointed to the meaningful, that served as markers leading the way to the threshold of knowledge. In essence, knowledge involved the identification of the meaningful already present in the world and validated by the existence of God as creator and guarantor of knowledge. Foucault quotes the 16th century Swiss philosopher and physician Paracelsus in explaining the image of the universe as an innate semantic system:
It is not God’s will that what he creates for man’s benefit and what he has given us should remain hidden… And even though he has hidden certain things, he has allowed nothing to remain without exterior and visible signs in the form of special marks — just as a man who has buried a hoard of treasure marks the spot that he may find it again…, 26.
Foucault goes on to specify that
[a] knowledge of similitudes is founded on an unearthing and decipherment of these signatures…This is why the face of the world is covered with blazons, with characters, with ciphers and obscure words — with ‘hieroglyphs’ as Turner called them. And the space inhabited by immediate resemblances becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs…, 26-27.
According to the pre-Modern episteme that Foucault describes, the universe may be deciphered through the recognition of similarities between disparate objects. For example, that the seeming image of an eye in aconite alerts us to the fact that this plant has a medicinal effect on our vision. So, a signature is a pre-sign that alerts us to the presence of a sign, of meaning waiting to be accessed, and if we were unable to recognize the signature as meaningful in itself, the whole system would collapse as there would be no way to recognize material artefacts as part of a universal semantic code. But how does one recognize a signature? How is the semantic process triggered?
Resemblances require a signature, for none of them would ever become observable were it not legibly marked. But what are these signs? How, amid all the aspects of the world and so many interlacing forms, does one recognize that one is faced at any given moment with a character that should give one pause because it indicates a secret and essential resemblance? What form constitutes a sign and endows it with its particular value as a sign? 28
Foucault quickly answers: “[r]esemblance does.” In that pre-Modern episteme, the same mechanism of resemblance that allows us to read a sign also allows us to recognize an object as a signature. However, the markings of the sign and its signature “do not overlap” as the signature is “an intermediate form of the resemblance”; “it is another resemblance, an adjacent similitude, one of another type which enables us to recognize the first, and which is revealed in its turn by a third” (28-29). It seems that this could go on forever since it is not hard to imagine that signatures may require their own pre-sign to alert us to their presence and that those pre-pre-signs may require their own means of calling attention to their presence and significance, and so on ad infinitum. For that pre-Modern episteme, the answer to the question of interpreting the Truth is simply that signatures are the cue and the Clue that draw our attention towards the process of knowledge-recognition.
While the Truth that detective novel investigations pursue is not predicated on a system of resemblances, its epistemological processes are comparable since knowledge is a given; something to be accessed and not to be constructed through human reason. This is because what is being pursued is an already existing reality — the story of what happened, the knowledge of the facts relevant to the case. It could be argued that human reason within detective work constructs a truth by synthesizing different pieces of information, but the facts of what happened, and the identity of the perpetuator exist independently of that process of investigation. In essence, there is no doubt that something has happened, that Truth exists; what the investigation does is attempt to access the knowledge of those events. The relationship of the detective to the facts of the crime is understood more broadly as the relationship of a seeker to a closed knowledge system in the pre-Modern episteme — he or she must find a sign which leads to the recognition of knowledge. That entry-point into the knowledge-is-a priori episteme, as we have seen, is the signature; in detective work the signature is the Clue. The Clue is categorically different than other material facts and even other evidence. It goes beyond the function of evidence as it is not just one more element in the case against the accused, it is the linchpin to solving the mystery. This is the ontological difference of the Clue: it is not just matter, not just a physical fact but Truth itself. In this sense it approximates Kant's noumenon in that it is a priori, universal, and ideal as opposed to the notion of truth, in lowercase, as contingent, relative, and a posteriori. Evidently, Kant posits noumena as inaccessible to human knowing, but my paradoxical use of the term is helpful in that it highlights the difference between the clue and the Clue. The Clue is foreclosed to the everyone except the exceptional detective who accesses it through the quasi-supernatural experience that is epiphany. The gap or contradiction between these two theorical instances is mended by the deus ex machina that is epiphany. We can further understand the Clue as an indexical sign, following semiotics and the terminology of Charles Sanders Peirce, in that it shares a direct similarity with the object it signifies. This resemblance can be a material trace such as a fingerprint left on a surface or when gunfire residue indicates the use of a firearm. In much the same way, the Clue is ontologically similar to the Truth it designates. The truth, though quotidian and contingent, is treated as Truth — as a metaphysical reality in the tradition of Platonic Idealism. This does not mean that the results of a criminal investigation are an unequivocal instance of ontological and epistemic certainty, only that they are represented as such in much of the detective fiction we read and watch. Just as Platonic Forms are signaled through the capitalization of the “f”, I have been capitalizing the “c” in Clue and the “t” in Truth to designate their ontological difference.
Epiphanic and Anti-Epiphanic Detective Work
Without the detective’s seemingly supernatural powers, the careful observation of the material objects of a crime scene ends up being nothing more than a detailed recording of their presence, something akin to a long passage in a realist novel — or as Gutiérrez Negrón has labeled it, “endless inquiry.” For Italian historian and theorist Franco Moretti, this is exactly what the observations made by Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ trusted sidekick, amount to: literature. The key is that Watson is incapable of identifying the Clue, the material fact that transcends literal meaning and leads to the establishment of Truth:
Watson (and all his reincarnations: the friends and helpers of the various detectives) is essential: as a literary function first of all [sic]. While the criminal opens the action and the detective closes it, Watson drags it out…Yet Watson’s function is quantitative in a more profound way: he accumulates useless details [original emphasis]. His descriptions furnish all — except the essential. He enters a room (in the ‘The Speckled Band’) and for two pages describes its furnishings: but he does not even mention the false bell-pull which is the only clue…, 146-147.
Thus, the fact that an actual writer, the writer of the novel we’re reading, Cristina Rivera Garza, occupies the space of Watson, as the companion of the detective, is not surprising. Just as it is unsurprising that her expertise in poetry turns out to be useless for the case. While Sherlock Holmes explains his ability to unlock the Truth as something ordinary and available to all humans, this comes off as untrue since someone as intelligent and educated as Watson, who is a doctor after all, is consistently unable to identify the material fact, the Clue, that will trigger the metonymic chain of signifiers leading to the Truth. Rivera Garza’s novel leads us to the conclusion that literature and poetry are, in many ways, akin to detective work and that they are as integral to the episteme of Modernity as are science, rationality, and the scientific method. “Detective fiction, therefore, furnishes only the sensation of scientific knowledge. It perfectly satisfies the aspiration to certainty, because it rigorously avoids the test of external reality. It is science become myth…” (149), writes Moretti. So, we may take our conclusion a step further and argue that detective fiction is in reality not entirely scientific, not entirely Modern and rational; that subjectivity, randomness, bias, and the equivocal are just as characteristic of detective work and, by extension, of justice. This realization puts into question the basic premises that supposedly sustain law, order, and justice in the West, because it is not just fictional detective work that is marked by contingency but all policework. Seen this way, the scientific and objective nature of detective work becomes a veneer to placate the legitimate concerns that may arise from knowing the haphazard nature of pursuing justice. Again, Thomas asserts that
[t]he conventions of the form generally require the detective to explain what seems to be his uncanny act of second sight as the simple application of technique, or even a technology, to the variables of the present occasion. The literary detective’s power, that is, is consistently represented as a new kind of reading, just as the genre which produced him was regarded as a new kind of writing in the nineteenth century…, 3.
The application of this convention as described by Thomas allows authors to represent detective work as a product of logic, technique, and technology. Justice then would be guaranteed by the capacity for any police department to emulate and reproduce this process. If Justice depended on the capacity of the individual detective — and if that individual needed to possess quasi-supernatural powers to access Truth by way of epiphany for a system of law and order to function properly — then the safety and protection that the State purports to guarantee would come into question. Brilliance and intuition do not entail effective technique, which is why Holmes’ seemingly extraordinary powers, his “uncanny act of second sight” must be obviated by scientific observation and cold rationality. In this way, detective work returns to the category of science and even Modernity.
Just as the seemingly supernatural brilliance of the detective puts into question the scientific basis of detective work and the absolute nature of Truth and Justice, so does his or her incompetence or failings. If we look carefully at the detective of La muerte me da, she is not a bumbling fool but a seasoned and incisive detective with the ability to read people and to detach emotionally in order to do her work. This is seen in her demeanor throughout the novel and her interaction with the first victim’s mother, in which she holds her emotions in check like a true professional while carefully and insightfully reading the pained face of the mother, as she’s apparently done countless times:
Justo entonces, mientras la mujer se desdobla, la Detective la identifica: la arruga nueva. Es apenas una línea sobre el mentón; una línea que aparece con ciertas frases, las más rotas o parcas. Las menos audibles… y no puede evitar reconocerla: es la arruga que nace un día después del anuncio de la muerte. Ella lo sabe bien. Es una arruga que viene, entera y veloz, de la violencia: la violencia de la muerte, la violencia del conocimiento de la muerte…, 121.
The detective’s circumspect reading of the mother’s face belies any notion of professional incompetence or emotional upheaval. Her inability to solve the crimes and bring about Justice is not due to a personal failing but to the nature of the game, so to speak. Just as Watson is smart, educated, and professional, so is the detective in La muerte me da. But intelligence and professionalism are not always enough to solve the mystery posed by criminal cases because that resolution is often determined by variables beyond human control. Just as one of the conventions of detective fiction is to present the resolution of the crime as based on science, reason, and technique, the process towards resolution is also represented paradoxically as random, fortuitous, and quasi-miraculous insofar as the turning point is a moment of quasi-sacred inspiration. The detective does not solve the case of the castrated men in La muerte me da because she never experiences the key element necessary to doing so: the epiphanic moment in which a clue is idealized as the Clue and Truth is recognized through the Clue.
Poetry as Anti-Science and as the Anti-Clue clue
One of the peculiar features of the La muerte de me da is its inclusion of poetry, both as a narrative recourse and as a key diegetic element. The significance of poetry is highlighted by its presence at the crime scenes as part of the killer’s modus operandi and its importance to the killer is cemented with the inclusion of a poetry collection purportedly written by the murderer and titled, like the novel, La muerte me da. The presence of verses by Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972) baffles the detective who struggles to make sense of their meaning as poems and as possible clues to the murders. The detective attempts to read the poems as she would any other material artefact at the scene of the crime — a woefully erroneous tactic that confounds the diegetic Cristina Rivera Garza, who becomes a curious Watson-like companion to the detective after she finds the first body while out on a jog. Thus, one of the things that the poems add is a sense of enigmatic opacity to an activity ultimately destined to establish clarity and certainty. The insertion of poems into the crime scene creates an expectation in readers that they might hold the key to unraveling the mystery of the castrated men — and that expectation is certainly present for the detective, as well. When she mishandles the poems by trying to read them as she would any other clue, it seems that the presence of the diegetic Rivera Garza will become the corrective element for the detective to properly decipher them and bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion. Emily Hind suggests that “[e]l juego con la poesía en la novela abre la posibilidad de que Rivera Garza experimente con una novela que no se lee de manera ‘denotativa’” (322). However, the non-denotative reading strategy never pays off in the form of a resolution to the criminal investigation. It is easy to envision a conventional version of the novel that unfolds with the detective learning from Rivera Garza a new way of relating to language and of understanding the world by accepting and appreciating their mysteries and aporias, along with the limits of affect, thought, and knowledge. The poems would then trigger a predictable arc that would go from ignorance/prejudice — against poetry and epistemic ambiguity — to an enlightened understanding of them. But the movement towards maturity and professional enrichment never takes place. Instead, the poems expand and prolong the mystery. It is not for a lack of effort by the detective who becomes a reader of Pizarnik and discusses her work with Rivera Garza. Ultimately, the type of reading that poetry requires is incompatible with the deciphering of signs upon which detective work is predicated. The poems remain refractory and are ultimately not the key to unlocking the motivation of the killer nor their identity.
If the poems do not help solve the mystery, then what is their function? There are a few possibilities. We could see the poems as a red hearing, a simple distraction — and that may be their role. On the one hand, they materialize the aporia that the spectacle of a brutalized body represents and the corresponding temptation of voyeuristic contemplation. As both Close and Gutiérrez Negrón note, when the diegetic Rivera Garza comes upon the first castrated body, she seems unable to process the scene, both mentally and psychologically, as demonstrated by her fragmented and stilted language. At the same time, bloodshed can also capture our attention as morbid spectacle, transforming us into pathological voyeurs who take pleasure in observing brutality and violence. As Thomas has written, “[t]he Sherlock Holmes stories, like any detective narrative, function like our cocaine, our diversion from some historical reality” (2). In that sense, as readers of detective fiction we act like hedonists and like the novel’s murderer who is described by the detective as an aesthete. The fact that the murderer is believed to have written the book of poetry included in the novel, establishes a clear link between poetry and the aesthete’s ethos. Thus, poetry proves to be not just insufficient when dealing with real-life violence but potentially dangerous in that it can detract from the pursuit of justice by becoming a self-indulgent activity. This happens to the protagonist of Horacio Castellano Moya’s novel, Insensatez (2004), who becomes overly preoccupied with the poetic quality of the testimonies of the Indigenous people who witnessed horrific atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army. The protagonist says,
…una mirada que me hizo temer que él me considerara un literato alucinado en busca de versos allí donde lo que había era una brutal denuncia de los crímenes de lesa humanidad perpetrados por el ejército contra las comunidades indígenas de su país, que él pensara que yo era un mero estilista que pasaba por alto el contenido del informe, por lo que me abstuve de leer cualquier otra frase…, 69.
In this passage we find an eerie, though subtle, similarity with the detective of La muerte me da, who fails miserably at bringing her criminal to justice but is quite proficient as a creator of prose. The fact that the detective’s reports are lengthy, but ultimately useless and are aesthetically pleasing, at least to her boss, lends credence to the notion that aesthetic activities and the job of pursuing of Truth and Justice are incompatible. This is reinforced by the fact that in order to “trabajar en sus casos necesita llamarlos Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro” and forget their names and faces (108) — that is, she must use plain, utilitarian language. In addition, the logical and non-emotional thinking that is needed to do detective work is contraposed to the enjoyment of language. We read, “[l]a Detective tiene que ver los datos como una unidad completa para poder identificar el contraste, la similitud” (109), and a few pages later “[a]sí, sin unidad sin completud, la palabra le gusta” (112). So, one possible reading of poetry’s function in the novel is that it reinforces the incommensurability between aestheticism — in the forms of literary pleasure and voyeurism — and social or political commitment.
The nexus between the literary and the voyeuristic enjoyment of violence come together in the novel’s mention of the Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614) who was accused of having killed hundreds of girls and young women in her obsessive desire to remain young. Alejandra Pizarnik published a book about the Countess, La condesa sangrienta (1966), in which she describes extremely bloody and sadistic acts of torture and murder attributed to the noblewoman. Significantly, when Valerio — the detective’s right-hand man — recalls his first encounter with the dead and mutilated body of one of the victims, he remembers being filled with shock, repulsion, and a deep, unconscious desire to take in the gory details of the scene. As he re-lives the memory — much as a killer would or a detective trying to reconstruct a crime — he reaches a kind of clarity declaring that Pizarnik was right when she concluded that “[d]esnudar…era lo propio de la muerte” (214). That line, taken from Pizarnik's book on Báthory and slightly modified with the verb ser in the present tense instead of the preterit (Desnudar es lo propio de la muerte), is also the title of that chapter. Its inclusion makes it clear that Valerio has read Pizarnik's book and learned a valuable though not necessarily straightforward lesson. While the reference to Pizarnik's work on the Countess, and the insight that Valerio appears to gain from reading it, appear to belie the vacuity of violence as spectacle or, more simply, the danger of its direct representation, Rivera Garza herself reiterates this opposition in the prologue of the novel.
Descreía radicalmente de las bondades del realismo para abordar con potencia política todos estos temas. Estaba de acuerdo con la Susan Sontag de Ante el dolor de los demás cuando argumentaba que el creciente valor de cambio y la glamourización de la violencia han impedido la comprensión cabal, es decir, la comprensión cabalmente política, de la experiencia humana del sufrimiento. ¿Cómo evitar tanto el morbo como la indiferencia cuando se trata del dolor ajeno? ¿Qué hacer para transformar el acto de ver un cuerpo destrozado (en la calle, por ejemplo) en algo que no sea puro voyeurismo o vacía fascinación? ¿De qué manera evadir el sentimentalismo artero con el que con tanta frecuencia se explota el dolor ajeno con fines de auto-agrandamiento? ¿Cómo evadir el shock comercial de la violencia y tocar, y trastocar si es del todo posible, el mundo de los sufrientes? 8
So, while Rivera Garza recognizes the morbid allure that violence can hold for us, she sees it as being made possible by a realist aesthetic, which by inference turns poetry — or a certain kind of poetry — into an antidote to the graphic representation of violence and its invitation to voyeuristic indulgence. But in the novel’s dynamic, the opposition that Rivera Garza posits between consuming violence as spectacle and poetry as the interruption of the representational regime that allows it, is unsustainable. Placed next to a body or to a wall enclosing the murder scene, the pieces of paper lined with poetic writing seem incongruent with the context of the here and now; they are a pure manifestation of language, opaque, and resistant to pragmatic interpretation; cold and icy to the brutality of the mutilated body. They seem to embody Ortega y Gasset’s deshumanización del arte or Adorno’s barbarism after barbarity. Reading the strips of paper with the cryptic verses of a mysterious Argentinian poet who killed herself will not solve anything. They are a dead end. A means in and of themselves. Disconnected from the reality they inhabit, they are unable to bear witness. More than a commentary on the detective novel or detective work, this aspect of the novel seems like an indictment of poetry’s inability to engage the present historical moment and prefigures discussions in Mexico about the poet’s role in a society plagued by violence, corruption, and impunity.
It is also possible to read the poems as an iteration of the bloody corpse because of their shared refractory quality and their inability to be read as signs that lead to unequivocal Truth. Afterall, the novel’s murderer is purportedly also a poet. This is not quite as unusual as it might seem since Moretti has already equated criminal enterprise in detective fiction with poetry — their shared characteristic being polysemy:
This is also part of the criminal’s guilt: he has created a situation of semantic ambiguity, thus questioning the usual forms of human communication and human interaction. In this way, he has composed an audacious poetic work [original emphasis]. The detective, on the other hand, must dispel the entropy, the cultural equiprobability that is produced by and is a relevant aspect of the crime: he will have to reinstate the univocal links between signifiers and signifieds…, 146.
While crimes can only be solved by reaching an epistemic certainty, poetry here acts as a barrier to that knowledge and that certainty. Ultimately, this is the main function that the poems serve in the novel: to make visible the limits of Modernity’s precepts by making legible the absence of epiphany. The opacity and inaccessibility of Pizarnik's poems underscore the absence of the epiphanic experience and its corresponding identification of the Clue within work of the detective. Detective work is conventionally tied to a rationalist, scientific, clinical, and disinterested methodology while poetry is its outside — a place of inscrutability and inaccessibility. Pizarnik's poetry is a placeholder, a stand-in for the epiphanic experience that never materializes. They are the material presence of a non-materialized experience and the trace of its impossibility. In this sense it is important to remember that William Wordsworth famously opposed poetry not to prose, but to “Matter of Fact, or Science.” That antagonism between poetry and empirical knowledge is maintained in the novel. The former’s conscription into the truth-seeking process of detective work speaks to the inherent volatility and haphazard nature of crime solving.
The fact that it is Pizarnik's poetry that is part of the murderer’s modus operandi is also highly significant because her poetry is most often self-reflexive and self-referential, imbued with the alluring deprecation of a disappearing self. The autotelic quality of her poems resists the urge to draw a direct link between them and the enigmatic figure of their creator and her well-known suicide. Jacobo Sefamí's analysis of one of her best-known poems is descriptive of her work as a whole and provides insight to our reading of the novel. The poem is “Solo un nombre,”
debajo estoy yo
Using a Lacanian perspective, Sefamí reads her name — the signifier — as disassociated from the image of her person — the signified. This disruption of the Saussurean sign leads to a proliferation of possible meanings, an open chain of signifiers that obfuscates and, in the case of the poem, buries, the signified. Pizarnik's verses in the scene of the crime are one more signifier without a clear and corresponding signified. The only thing we are left with are signifiers, signs, words without the recourse to univocal meaning; a proliferation of material phenomena amid the absence of the Clue. And Pizarnik's poems are also significant in that they point to an absence, make it evident, make its void present. As Sefamí states,
la fascinación por la obra de Pizarnik podría estar derivada no por lo que se dice, sino por lo que no se dice [original emphasis], por lo que está allí como una marca del enigma (96) […] la contradicción en la obra de Pizarnik es que a pesar de que hay escritura, mensaje, poema; lo que se lee, lo que se dice, va por caminos inaprehensibles, vacuos, silenciosos…, 100.
The inclusion of poems by Pizarnik introduces not just a complication into the reading of the detective’s work, but an aporia, an enigma, an obstacle without resolution. It’s not surprising then that the diegetic Rivera Garza ponders to herself:
¿Cómo decirle a la Detective que todo poema es la imposibilidad del lenguaje por producir la presencia en él mismo que, por ser lenguaje, es todo ausencia? ¿Cómo comunicarle a la Detective que la tarea del poema no es comunicar sino, todo lo contrario, proteger ese lugar del secreto que se resiste a toda comunicación, a toda transmisión, a todo esfuerzo de traducción? 60
It is in this sense that poetry in the novel functions as an anti-Clue clue, as a space of resistance to the semantics of logic and as a representation of the limits of detective work as an iteration of the episteme of Modernity. The bodies of the castrated men are like the poems themselves; not pieces of a puzzle waiting to be solved but puzzles themselves without any defining logic or point of reference. They are like the name of the city Belgrade that loses its meaning each time it is repeated by the detective. “Ahora la palabra pierde sentido… Ahora la palabra es sólo una ligerísima concatenación de letras. Apenas una cadena de sonidos. Una desmembración en ciernes. Así, sin unidad, sin completud…” (112). The nonsensical nature of the crimes is a reminder of the banality of evil and of the impossibility of making sense of it. It is also a reminder of the banality of Justice, of its precarity, capriciousness, and fragmented nature despite the State’s discourse that represents it as univocal, ideal, and infallible.
It is not surprising then, that when confronted by Pizarnik's poems, the diegetic Rivera Garza remembers the verse that reads “las palabras / no hacen el amor / hacen la ausencia.” It is an unproductive relationship, a process that yields nothing. So, while the poems and, more precisely, a correct and appropriate reading of them seem to be the key to solving the murders, they are not. Because a true reading of them does not demand they yield Truth as a discrete, undisputed, univocal, and self-evident fact. A proper reading of them leads us in the opposite direction. Just as Pizarnik's poems cannot tell us the reasons or motivation behind Pizarnik's suicide, cannot resolve its mystery, they cannot resolve the case of the castrated men. But more than this telling us something about the case or the detective, it tells us something about the process of knowing and meaning making, about its haphazard quality, and about the true wanton nature of Justice.
Crimes and Fairy Tales: Detective Work as Folklore
It is not surprising then that the detective’s failure is not limited to the case described in the novel but that it is endemic to her work as seen in another of Rivera Garza’s novels, El mal de la taiga (2012). The detective has retired after a litany of unsolved cases and now, significantly enough, writes true-crime novels. When a man asks her to work for him investigating his wife’s disappearance she reflects: “‘¿Pero es que no sabe usted de mis tantos fracasos?’ El caso de la mujer que desapareció detrás de un remolino. El caso de los hombres castrados. El caso de la mujer que dio su mano, literalmente. Sin saberlo. El caso del hombre que vivió por años dentro de una ballena” (9). The novel solidifies the relationship between crime-solving and fiction writing and clarifies it. “Los fracasos pesan. Redactar informes de los tantos casos que no había logrado resolver, sin embargo, me había ayudado a contar historias o ponerlas, como se dice, por escrito” (15). When crimes remain unresolved, the work for Justice gives way to fiction, as we have seen Moretti describe. However, the relationship is not one of opposition and mutual exclusion but of kinship and overlap, which is why, after writing so many police reports, the detective’s transition to being a full-time writer seems natural. It is interesting to note that the names of some of the cases the detective lists border on the fantastic such as “the case of the woman who disappeared behind a whirlwind” and “the man who lived inside a whale for years” as if they were fiction and not real-life cases, which again blurs the lines between crime-solving and fiction writing.
The fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” is mentioned repeatedly throughout El mal de la taiga as a metaphor for the two people the detective is searching for as part of her new case. The detective mentions that the fairy tale’s meaning has changed throughout history in accordance with the sociopolitical context in which it is retold. One of the more interesting observations made by the detective is that the nature of another fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood,” was fundamentally altered when its ending was changed from a tragedy — the bloodthirsty triumph of the wolf — to a happy resolution. “Pero en las versiones más antiguas, antes de que la lección moral se volviera un imperativo en los cuentos infantiles, el lobo no sólo triunfa, sino que lo hace de la manera más atroz” (34). The reflection on the social function of fairy tales invites a similar reflection about popular and literary representations of crime as culturally significant narrations. Just as fairy tales have a moral imperative, so too do narrations about crime — namely, that Justice is absolute, that Evil, as represented by the big bad wolf and criminals, will in the end be defeated by Good, as represented by the State, and its enforcers — the police and the justice system. Just as the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” had to be transformed so that it had a happy ending and the big bad wolf was defeated, stories about Justice must also have a happy ending. In a sense, the literary representation of detective work has the same moral imperative as fairy tales with the additional directive of making the happy ending a result of the detective’s use of scientific methodology and logical reasoning. Although, as we have seen, that directive is called into question when the key moment of the detective’s work is represented as the quasi-supernatural experience of epiphany.
Another important point of contact between La muerte me da and El mal de la taiga is the reading of diaries by the detective. One of the potential clues left behind by the woman whom the detective is trying to track down are her diaries. However, they, much like Pizarnik's poems, ultimately prove useless as clues that might lead to her whereabouts leading the detective to conclude that,
[s]e aprende poco en realidad leyendo diarios ajenos. Antes de partir había leído con todo cuidado los diarios de la mujer y, sin embargo, tenía poca idea de quién era o qué buscaba. Tenía tan poca idea de ella como ella misma al escribirlo, supongo. Los diarios, más que cualquier libro, en eso tuve que recapacitar mientras le daba vuelta a las tantas hojas, se escriben en esa clave íntima capaz de evadir el entendimiento del lector y, a menudo, del escritor mismo. De la escritora…, 23.
Evidently, the detective is speaking about the diaries of the woman she is trying to track down, but the passage also takes us back to Pizarnik who kept diaries that have been published and subsequently scrutinized by fans and literary critics alike. It also recalls Chapter 4, “El anhelo de la prosa”, in La muerte me da that is composed by an academic essay on Pizarnik's reflection, maybe obsession, with writing prose. Pizarnik's diaries make up much of her prose work and it is the diaries themselves that Rivera Garza analyzes in her essay. The significance of the Pizarnik diaries to our reading is that they mirror the autobiographical expectations that many readers have of (lyric) poetry and the blurring of the poetic subject with the biography of the poet. The relevance of Pizarnik here is also noteworthy as many of her early critical readers mined her poetry and diaries in search for clues that might explain her tragic end. Despite the existence of the autobiographical texts and the corpus of writing about them, the figure of Pizarnik remains enigmatic and opaque. It is noteworthy that in the quote above the detective states that writing — even the apparently most intimate kind such as diaries — can be written in such a way that its meaning is indecipherable, even to the writer herself. Writing, then, can be outside the purview of the conscious self and so, outside the realm of rationality, logic, and instrumentality. In a certain sense, and despite Pizarnik's desire to write prose and leave poetry behind, her prose is invaded by poetry, by its enigmatic nature. It could very well be that Pizarnik's desire for prose was a desire for clarity, for communication, and understanding. We could read the intrusion of her poetry into her prose as mirroring the infiltration of a pre-Modern understanding of knowledge — in the form of the epiphany — into the process of detective work. The same way that, as Moretti has written, mythic thought has been smuggled into rational scientific thought.
Moretti writes that “[b]ecause the crime is presented in the form of a mystery, society is absolved from the start: the solution of the mystery proves its innocence” (145). Moretti's statement can help us conclude our essay by elucidating its implications. The latter part of his statement, “the solution of the mystery proves its innocence,” is easy to follow since the positive resolution of a criminal investigation helps society justify its institutions. The former is harder to follow when paired with the latter. But it meshes well with our proposed reading in that Moretti's statement would be better understood if mystery were written as Mystery. Society is “absolved from the start” because crime, injustice, and violence are represented as a Mystery — in our reading through the inclusion of epiphany as the key to detective work — outside the purview of societal institutions. Instead of finding causes and potentional solutions to these issues, they are obfuscated and justified by ideologies such as racism, xenophobia, and social Darwinism or simply as fate or God’s will. It also makes sense that at one level the Clue and epiphany are needed to resolve a Mystery, and at another that the satisfactory resolution is subsumed as a result of science, rationality, and institutional processes. La muerte me da makes tangible a lack; the absence of the epiphanic moment that allows for a material fact to appear as the Clue that guarantees the instantiation of Justice. In doing so, it speaks to the paradoxical dynamic that Moretti has expressed by making the contradiction visible even as one of its components is absent.
My reading of La muerte me da doesn’t propose a key to elucidating all its enigmatic richness but analyzing it through the lens of the Clue and epiphany situates it within a larger trend in the representation of detective work that informs both. It may be tempting to limit any conclusion about the irresolution of the criminal investigation to Mexico or Latin America, in particular the problem of impunity, but the highly unconventional nature of La muerte me da calls our attention to its formal aspects and compels us to draw more general conclusions. The fact that the detective is never given a name and that the “d” in detective is capitalized so that she is the Detective, along with an absence of geographic markers and referents, reinforces the notion that the novel is a commentary on the representation of detective work in general and not in a particular time and space. Like fairy tales, detective fiction and detective true crime stories, are narratives that do more than just entertain or provide a resolution to a particular case. These stories present crimes as the staging of a morality tale in which societal institutions represent the Good, and the criminals, predictably, are the incarnation of Evil. Beyond this somewhat obvious observation, institutions offered the recourse to violence come to represent the safeguards of security, Truth, and Justice. More importantly, within Neoliberalism, these forces reify justice and policework as maybe the only instances of the State’s commitment to the social contract. This is especially true in so-called developed countries where impunity is not as conspicuous as it is in other nations such as Mexico. La muerte me da reveals that detective work devoid of the quasi-supernatural epiphany is subject to the limits of human knowledge, and the State’s supposed guarantee of security, Truth, and Justice emerges as fallible and haphazard. In some cases, Truth and Justice exist only as “endless inquiry”, that is, as nothing more than literature, a fiction reified as an ontological given. The corresponding implications are that Justice is not guaranteed, that it is contingent, filled with uncertainty and bias, and far from the ideals purported by the West.
Both were written by Rivera Garza and published independently from the novel. The essay is “El anhelo de la prosa” and in it, Rivera Garza analyzes the writings of Alejandra Pizarnik where Pizarnik reflects on her desire to write prose. The poetry book shares the same title as the novel and was published in 2007 by Bonobos, an independent publisher in Mexico, under the pseudonym Anne Marie Bianco.
Close writes “this text disarticulates not only the weary gender mechanisms of the novela negra, but also the fairly naïve realism of its contemporary Mexican variants, including the narconovela” (394). Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón states “playfully” that the novel is “a bad detective novel” since it does not conform to the expectations of the genre such as celebrating the “detective as an agent of social justice”, in its incapacity to offer “a glimpse of redemption in a dark world”, and, most importantly “in that it does not seek to ‘tell the whole story’, a normative role, which according to Mario Vargas Llosa, is the inherent tendency of all novels” (46).
Close asserts, “[h]ere and in her narration of the corpse encounter in La muerte me da, Rivera Garza seems to build on Julia Kristeva’s famous observations in Pouvoirs de l’horreur regarding the manner in which the abject, as manifested in the corpse, ‘sollicite et pulverize tout à la fois le sujet’”(397).
“Appearances, to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories, are called phaenomena. If, however, I suppose there to be things that are merely objects of the understanding and that, nevertheless, can be given to an intuition, although not to sensible intuition (as coram intuiti intellectuali), b then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia)” (A 249-250).
I mention Kant's noumena and further in the essay I mention Platonic Idealism as reference points to sketch out the notion of the Clue that I am presenting here. My objective is not to engage in a philosophical discussion of these terms, but to bring to light to a prominent feature in the representation of detective work in La muerte me da — a trait I contend is also present in the culture at large.
In the Argentinian detective film, El Secreto de sus ojos 2009, one of the protagonists – who significantly is a judge — makes a similar differentiation when she states “no sé si será la Justicia pero es una justicia” when speaking about the work she does within the fraught Argentinian legal system.
It may seem illogical to extrapolate a conclusion about justice in the real world from an analysis of a fictional detective’s work, but it is in line with my broader premise that epiphany is also used in the representation of detective work more generally, including in shows designated as “true crime.” Although exploring this further is beyond the purview of this essay, I can give one pertinent example of this: Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda. In that show, as retired detective Joe Kenda narrates his past cases, we see a dramatized representation of them, often they include a scene where Kenda scans the crime scene with seemingly super-human perception.
At least one prominent literary critic, Roberto Cruz Arzabal, has made this claim. See page 146 of his chapter on Rivera Garza’s poetry, “La multiplicidad, el cuerpo: líneas de fuga en la poesía de Cristina Rivera Garza.”
The detective says, “[e]stamos frente a un esteta…[f]rente a un esteta obsesivo que quiere darnos un mensaje sobre el cuerpo” (230).
The narrator tells us that the detective “no se había caracterizado por solucionar sus casos ni con rapidez ni sin ella, pero escribía largos informes repletos de preguntas y detalles que agradaban el sentido estético del jefe del Departamento de Investigación de Homicidios” (218).
“Pero el crimen también revela al que lo mira–al que pasa cerca y, lleno de miedo, se paraliza; al que cierra los ojos, escandalizado; al que se sigue de largo, esperando salvar su indiferencia o su prisa; al que, con los ojos abiertos, cae fascinado” (213). “Le atraía, como pocas veces, el escenario: el rojo de la sangre, la luz de lámparas, el tono grave de los cuchicheos. Había visto, hasta entonces, todo tipo de asesinatos, pero ninguno tan estilizado ni tan explícitamente sexual. El cuerpo, más que tendido en un callejón oloroso a orines, daba la apariencia de estar como puesto en escena. Un teatro de leyenda. La sangre, roja y pesada, parecía artificial. Y los genitales, ausentes, cortados con rigor quirúrgico, comandaban la atención y la vista” (214).
Rivera Garza herself has participated substantially in this conversation with books like Dolorse. Textos desde un país herido (2011), Los muertos indóciles. Necroescrituras y desapropiación (2013), and Con/Dolerse (2015).
This is precisely Carlos Abreu Mendoza's reading of the castrated bodies: “los hombres castrados… materializan la poesía” (309).
“La equivalencia exacta entre significante y significado pierde precisión si se retoman los mecanismos de transfiguración en el rébus del sueño: la incidencia del significante sobre el significado se da, según Lacan, a través de la condensación (sobreimposición de significantes, campo de la metáfora y de la neurosis) y del desplazamiento (deslizamiento de la cadena de la contigüidad, campo de la metonimia y del deseo). Es decir, el significado es elusivo, vedado, en tanto se transfigura en la representación de los significantes” (97-98).
“Dicen los estudiosos que Hansel y Gretel, la historia original de los hermanos Grimm, era una especie de advertencia contra la dureza de la vida en la Edad Media, un tiempo caracterizado por la hambruna y la escasez constante de alimentos” (22).