The madwoman and the report of the crime

Banksy, No Ball Games (Green), 2009


Commentary on the short story by Ricardo Piglia

The unveiling of a crime is a crucial element in police narratives, around which the investigative plot and its climax unfold. However, “A madwoman and the report of the crime”, by Argentine Ricardo Piglia, goes further. Even though it is short – only seven pages long – the detective story manages to reflect on the questioning of a past reality based on present data and discuss, in a metalinguistic way, the relationship between the interpretation of the world and literary writing.

The tale is divided into two parts, both narrated in the third person. The first presents the story of Larry, a cabaret waitress who had been living for a few days with Antúnez, an old and meek client whom she had asked to live together. Larry is the target of Almada, an aggressive man who humiliated her so that she would obey him – it is understood that he had some previous relationship with the woman. Thus, she could satisfy her desire to migrate to Panama or Ecuador. In this first part, a dialogue between Almada and a homeless person with mental disorders, who identified herself as Echevarne Angélica Inés, is described in the lobby of the nightclub where Larry worked.

In the second section, it is reported that Larry was murdered – at the end of the first, a message she leaves for Antúnez suggests that Almada had threatened her with death. The focus of the story is no longer on the woman and becomes the criminal investigation of her murder and feminicide, of which the homeless woman is the only witness. New characters enter the scene. Among them, the main one is Emilio Renzi,[I] linguist who worked at the newspaper El Mundo and that he was assigned by his boss, Luna, to cover the presentation to the local police of the suspect, Antúnez, and Echevarne's testimony. Unlike the other journalist present, Rinaldi, Renzi suspects that Antúnez would not be guilty and tries to understand the meaning of Echevarne's testimony, which apparently consisted of a series of disconnected sentences and unrelated to the investigation.

However, Emilio believed that the woman was trying to transmit, even under the alleged madness, her version of the crime. Drawing on his knowledge of Linguistics, he is able to identify a structure of repetition in the witness's delusions and realize that the terms that do not fit this mold form a sentence, which informs that Almada would have killed the waitress. As he disbelieved this deduction and feared reprisals from the police, Renzi's superior prevented the discovery from being published. Frustrated, the journalist tries to write a resignation and a letter to the judge in the case, but ends up writing a text that corresponds, exactly, to the opening lines of the first part of the short story written by Ricardo Piglia.[ii]

In the second part of the tale, the first step for Renzi to be able to deduce Echevarne's version of his monologue is to validate his speech and try to understand it. It can be said that this recognition is due to his training in Linguistics, which would enable him to try to extract the message about the crime in the middle of an apparently unrelated statement. However, another factor for this attitude is the fact that Renzi is not used to and does not agree with certain practices of police journalism,[iii] symbolized by the behavior of Rinaldi and Luna.

The former boasts such experience in the area that he was certain that Antúnez was to blame for the homicide, since, according to him, all the criminals supposedly had “the face of a pissed cat, (…) [they] always seem to tell the truth” ( p. 121), and disregarding Echevarne's pronouncement, classifying it as a mere expression of madness. Luna, on the other hand, is skeptical about the linguistic decipherment of the witness's version and resigned with the defendant's conviction, the victim's death and subordination to the official version of the case: “(...) I know one thing: we don't have to fix confusion with the police. If they say it was the Virgin Mary who killed him, you write that it was the Virgin Mary who killed him” (p. 124).

In this way, nonconformity and non-prejudice regarding Echevarne's “madness” and the possibility that she provided clues about the crime are the starting point for Renzi to be able to decipher it. It is a desire for a double decipherment: that of the report and, through it, that of the homicide.[iv] From there, Renzi records the deponent's speech and is willing to study it word by word. It is only under these conditions that the application of her linguistic knowledge allows her to decode Inés' message about the crime.

This procedure bears great resemblance to those of the so-called “evidential paradigm”, a method of analysis common to several areas – from Medicine to Painting – which is guided not by the verification of the macroscopic characteristics of an object of study, but of its neglected details (GINZBURG, 2011, p. 144).[v] In “Aluna…”, if the linguist were satisfied with just labeling someone with a psychiatric disorder, ignoring the complexity and details of Inés' enunciation, he would never have access to her version of the crime.

Thus, the tale suggests that analyzes based on evidence are far from involuntary.[vi] To make them, the cognitive subject must deliberately choose to examine his object of study with care and depth. As Carlo Ginzburg points out, evidentiary exegesis is not neutral, insofar as its object of analysis is not neutral either: “[t]here are no neutral texts: even a notarial inventory implies a code, which we have to decipher. “Every cited speech”, as Jakobson observes, “is made its own and remodeled by the one who quotes” (GINZBURG, 2007, p. 247).

Thus, it can be said that the investigator who performs an evidentiary analysis is far from being, in Hegel's expression, "passive in his thinking", when he detects the minutiae of what he studies and reorganizes them for a certain purpose, that of understanding. of your object. In the short story, we see Renzi's considerable effort in “remodeling” the statement to apprehend its meaning: he devoted three hours to deciphering and underlining the transcription of the monologue with “pencils of different colors and full of marks and numbers” (PIGLIA, 1989, p. 122). The character's commitment and her sense of responsibility – in wanting to publish the unveiling of Inés' testimony to help Antúnez's defense – contrast with the self-indulgence of the other two journalists. Their attitude can be summarized by Luna's recommendation, said in “sweet peace” (p. 124), for Renzi not to get involved.

Renzi definitely does not follow this guideline. He rejects detachment from the criminal case and remains steadfast in his analysis of Inés' statement. Faced with the impossibility of publishing his decipherment, he ends up starting to write a literary work, which is supposed to be the beginning of the first part of “The crazy one…”. There is a firm relationship here between the act of interpreting undertaken by Renzi and his decision to write literature.

Checking the first fragment of the story, it is noted that it presents the four characters involved in the crime dealt with in the second part and its entire plot conforms to the fact that Inés could have witnessed the murder and to the thesis that Almada was in fact the author of the murder. crime – his anger towards the waitress would imply the act. Therefore, from the perspective of Renzi's writing, the content of the first part of the short story works as a fictional filling in of the gaps in an interpretation that he believes to be true: Almada's guilt and Antúnez's innocence. What would be the reason for this fictionalizing procedure?

First, perhaps the question of semiologist Umberto Eco serves as an answer: “If fictional worlds are so comfortable, why not try to read the real world as if it were a work of fiction?” (ECO, 2006, p. 123). In Ricardo Piglia's tale, if the linguist dares to interpret Echevarne's speech, we raise the hypothesis that he would equally dare to imagine and provide an adequate narrative, a plausible nexus. In this sense, reading the real world as fictional would be an extension of the interpretation of the tangible world. More: fiction would be a space in which a certain view of reality can be sustained, while reality itself could offer obstacles to the expression of a point of view, such as resistance to the publication of Renzi's decoding.

On the other hand, Umberto Eco also states that in fictional stories “we look for a formula to give meaning to our existence” (p. 145). In this way, fictional writing would not be an escapism dissociated from reality, but a means of re-signifying it. The character Renzi, described as melancholy and disgusted – a trait reinforced by her desire to resign – can also seek a meaning for her own existence when writing, such as the scenario described at the end of the story, in which the city lights, like cracks in in the midst of darkness, they metaphorize some hope (PIGLIA, 1989, p. 124).[vii]. However, it is certain: Renzi would not refuse to interpret reality, even in the name of any comfort.[viii]

* Jose Bento Camasa He is a master and doctoral candidate in Social History at USP.


Eco, Umberto. Six walks through the woods of fiction🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2006.

GINZBURG, Carlo. The thread and the tracks. True, false, fictional🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2007.

GINZBURG, Carlo. myths, Emblems, Signs. Morphology and History🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011.

LEVI, Giovanni. “On Microhistory”. In: BURKE, Peter (org.). the writing of history: new perspectives. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 1992.

PEREIRA, Gustavo Freitas. RG Collingwood's Theory of History: formation, reception and main arguments. 2011. Thesis (Doctorate in Social History) – Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo, 2011.

PIGLIA, Richard. “The madwoman and the report of the crime”. In: Life imprisonment. São Paulo: Iluminuras, 1989, pp. 115-124.

PIGLIA, Richard. short forms🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001.


[I] Renzi is a character in several works by Piglia and alter ego by the author – whose full name is Ricardo Emilio Piglia Renzi. Piglia is the author of the trilogy of Diaries by Emilio Renzi – Training Years, The Happy Years e a day in life – Published in Brazil by Editora Hoje.

[ii] The intersection of the two sections is an asset of the text, which is in line with Piglia's theorization of the short story genre, in which “[a] visible story hides a secret story, narrated in an elliptical and fragmented way. The effect of surprise is produced when the end of the secret story appears” (PIGLIA, 2001, p. 90). In this case, the secret story is the suggestion of Renzi's metalinguistic authorship of the first part of the tale.

[iii] And journalism as a whole, since Renzi wrote reviews for the newspaper just to “make a living”, without the slightest excitement.

[iv] At a third and broader level, another decipherment envisaged by Renzi and to which those of speech and crime converge is that of reality. After all, the practice of journalism consists in the elaboration of representative and interpretative reports of the real – suggestively, the newspaper of the tale is called The World.

[v] According to the German art historian Aby Warburg, quoted by Ginzburg, “God is in the details” (GINZBURG, 2007, p. 269).

[vi] The evidentiary interpretation is also an important issue for the methodology of historical knowledge. This happens indirectly (GINZBURG, 2011, pp. 170-175), mediated by sources that allow the study of past phenomena from the critique of a researcher. Therefore, it is not by chance that the British RG Collingwood (cf. PEREIRA, 2011) compared the job of historian to that of detective. The branch of Micro-History, especially, is interested in details, as it studies historical phenomena through reduced scales of observation (LEVI, 1992).

[vii] It is interesting to note that the end of “A Louza…” deals with the issue of finding meaning in two ways. In terms of the text, the ending explains the search for meaning for existence through writing by the character Renzi and, in terms of reading, it allows the reader to build a reading understanding of the two parts that the text integrates as a whole. cohesive. Through the final paragraph of part II, the reader can interpret that Renzi is the metalinguistic author of part I, thus establishing a connection between the two excerpts. Analogously to this feature of the short story, Piglia defends in an essay: “[the] endings are ways of finding meaning in experience. Without finitude there is no truth (…)” (PIGLIA, 2001, p. 100). “The crazy one…” fits perfectly into this placement. The fact that Emilio Renzi is alter ego de Piglia corroborates the compatibility between the writer's thesis on the role of endings in literature and the outcome that is constructed in the short story.

[viii] This text was originally prepared as an evaluative activity for an edition of the History of Independent America II course, in the graduation in History at USP, taught by Professor Júlio Pimentel Pinto, whom I thank for reading and for the suggestions.

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