Inside the Map: On Two Novels by Pola Oloixarac

One of Jorge Luis Borges’s most enduring fictions is the one-paragraph story “Del rigor en la ciencia” (“On Exactitude in Science”). Structured as a fragment of ...

One of Jorge Luis Borges’s most enduring fictions is the one-paragraph story “Del rigor en la ciencia” (“On Exactitude in Science”). Structured as a fragment of an apocryphal chronicle, it imagines a map that corresponds with its territory at a ratio of 1:1. In other words, a vast visual representation overlays precisely the stretch of land it represents. The inheritors of this monstrous map, “who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been,” rejected it, judging it useless, and left it to wither exposed to the elements. But the map’s disappearance was not complete: it left “tatters” behind, in the scrublands of that mad Empire, “inhabited by Animals and Beggars.” These tatters stand as reminders of the branch of knowledge once known as geography: the afterlife of a map as big as the land itself.

Borges’s map has also had a significant afterlife. In the opening paragraph of Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Jean Baudrillard calls the story “the most beautiful allegory of simulation”—which in our age might mean anything from a film to a tweet to the entirety of social media—before arguing that our present, or at least his own, no longer fits within the story’s contours. Instead, Baudrillard argues, in advanced capitalism the map precedes the territory; simulations generate the real; or, alternatively, the speculative distinction between the two seems to vanish. (From his perspective, Borges’s map today would come first, with the material world generated thereafter, or the map and world would simply have become the same place.) Such thinking gives us, among other cultural artifacts, the plot of The Matrix (1999), where the simulated world is the first world known to humans. The movie explicitly references Baudrillard on several occasions as it seeks to reckon with the hallucinatory strategies of accumulation carried out under neoliberal capitalism. Here, the map doesn’t just dominate “real” life: it produces reality, in a strategy meant to seduce us, distract us, and, eventually, use us against ourselves.

The work of Argentine novelist Pola Oloixarac grapples with these same questions of simulation and reality, hallucinatory pleasure and pragmatic action. Her first novel, Las teorías salvajes, published in 2007—with an English-language translation (Savage Theories) appearing in 2017—contains various references to Borges, while journeying to a denouement centered on a viral hack of Google Earth: today’s ultimate map defying its territory. Her second novel, Las constelaciones oscuras (2014)—out in English, in 2019, as Dark Constellations—similarly ends with a hack of a world-spanning system: a massive surveillance operation that uses DNA samples to match our genes to our locations. In both cases, an expansive, highly detailed map of the planet functions as the smoke and mirrors of global capitalism, generating reactions that remain within the map system as either dormant forces or neutralized resistance (or some indistinguishable mix of the two).

However, what constitutes the originality of Oloixarac’s work is her representation of daily life, with a richness and color only hinted at by either Borges or Baudrillard. Her novels do more than allegorize the pursuit of knowledge or theorize the ontological status of the real in an age of unreality. Her multifaceted characters show something of what it’s like to inhabit a fleshy body in a world awash in representations—which is to say, our own world.

What are the rituals of courtship and friendship like in this world? What about office work, lab work, schoolwork? Oloixarac’s novels suggest answers to these questions, offering glimpses into the lives of Argentina’s urban middle class over the past few decades (with a focus on subcultures affiliated with academia, the arts, and the technology sector) as they navigate spaces pregnant with digital information.

These are ethnographic questions, so it is appropriate that the discipline of anthropology occupies a central place in Oloixarac’s work. Savage Theories begins with a paragraph describing a ritual passage to adulthood practiced by the Orokaiva people of Papua New Guinea; then a break in the text introduces the Argentine milieu that will predominate throughout the narrative. “The life of little Kamtchowsky,” we read, “began in the city of Buenos Aires amid the violence of the Years of Lead, in the late 1970s; her earliest memories dated to the return of Argentine democracy known as the Alfonsinist Spring.” Phrases like “the city of” and “known as” seem meant to address readers unfamiliar with this setting. In other words, the introduction of Kamtchowsky seems to promise a continuation of the ethnographic mode with which the novel begins. But this impression of anthropological distance is belied by the subsequent narrative, which often assumes that the reader possesses intimate cultural and geographical knowledge of Buenos Aires. One character captures this combination of external observation and close introspection, describing himself and his peers as “self-obsessed bourgeois ethnologists.” Very much like a digital map, Oloixarac’s narrative zooms in, portraying intimate life, and also far out, to planetary scale.

In a 2013 editorial in n+1, Oloixarac is mentioned briefly as an example of a writer of “uncompromising work” that is “thorny” in its international orientation, as “opposed to the smoothly global” of what we know as world literature. The opposition set up here—between “thorny” attempts to convey local circumstances beyond local borders and the smoothing away of any barbs that would challenge the consensus of global elites—casts light on the balancing act she performs. Indeed, both Savage Theories and Dark Constellations elucidate the relationship between the thorniness of the territories we inhabit and the translation of our experiences into the map of global governance. Concretely, Oloixarac shows how these two spatial delineations overlap and transpose social forms, often sharply hierarchical ones, from one level to the other. Put another way: she shows just how much today’s maps work to impose themselves on the territories they depict.


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Through detailed portraits of daily life, Savage Theories tells the story of Kamtchowsky as she grows up in Buenos Aires, in a context marked by dictatorship (1976–83), hyperinflation (much of the 1980s), the neoliberal regime of Carlos Menem (1989–99), and the unraveling of the national economy under the weight of foreign debt (a crisis that came to a head in December 2001). Kamtchowsky is the daughter of university graduates, and her aunt was a leftist militant during the 1970s who addressed her diary entries to Mao Zedong (coded as “Moo”). As a young adult, Kamtchowsky finds some notoriety as a video artist whose work draws on her experiences with drugs and sex in the local club scene. By the novel’s end, she participates in the hack of Google Earth, which happens through a video game titled Dirty Wars 1975.

Her story alternates with the first-person account of a university student who seeks to correct a series of errors in her professor’s work. She pursues the goal of righting his wrongs and thus completing the “theory of egoic transmissions,” which seeks to account for the geographic distribution of historical events as they affect the present. We see her attempts ridiculed and rebuffed, and follow her subsequent navigation of the power imbalances of gender and age in her university and its intellectual culture. Both she and Kamtchowsky are young women with clear visions of their present circumstances. Both strive to articulate these visions in relationship to the past, but in ways that do not fall prey to the pieties of official memory.

Dark Constellations, in turn, is organized around the narratives of three characters. Niklas Bruun is a 19th-century naturalist whose writings and sketches have inspired a scientific project based in Bariloche, a Patagonian city that has, over the years, attracted both tourists pursuing outdoor adventures and Nazi officials seeking to escape trial. Bruun’s insights were there integrated with biometric data collected and shared by various Latin American countries to map the “life trajectories” of individuals. Both Cassio, a hacker and gamer who grew up with the expansion of the internet, and Piera, a younger scientist who has arrived in Bariloche after spending time in Silicon Valley, end up working on this project, known as Stromatoliton. They become instrumental in hacking its operations, extending the data collected beyond the reach of any one state, a result that promises chaos but in the end comes to nearly nothing: “The market collapse was shocking, but lasted only a fraction of a millisecond; in that tiny lapse, a substantial amount of money changed hands so that everything else could stay exactly the same.” The novel leaves us roughly there, with the impression of capitalism’s nihilistic indifference and adaptive resilience. Then, briefly returning to the discourse of nature, Oloixarac ends with a final suggestion that the making and unmaking of species continues uninterrupted in the present.

The challenge lies not in deciding to reject or accept the map, but in finding satisfying ways to narrate our lives within its parameters.

The preceding summaries fail to do justice to the intricacies of each novel’s plot. The difficulty of breaking down these narratives into brief paragraphs reflects two important aspects of Oloixarac’s narrative work. First is her ambition to embed the particularities of her characters and settings in a much broader story: the story of science, of theory, or of capitalism. Each of these spheres of human existence seeks to transcend specific circumstances, performing acts of translation that render them intelligible beyond their immediate time and place. Oloixarac is hyperattentive to both levels, the particular and the general, signaling frequently their mutual constitution.

A good example of this dual attention, in Savage Theories, occurs when a group of kids mugs a professor with whom the narrator has just had dinner. The young people are described in both sociological categories and everyday terms: “One of the two correlatives of capitalist perversity,” the narrator says, “took a deep huff from the plastic bag in his hand, and stared at me. Loki was thin, light on his feet, with coarse skin stretched tight around his proletarian bones” (150). This young man is a real, palpable character; he is simultaneously portrayed, however, as a symptom of a system that exceeds his immediate reality.

In Dark Constellations, we find a similar correspondence between the droplets of lived experience and the waves of history, in a brief passage that traces discourses of “freedom” from the counterculture of the 1960s through the financialization of the economy. Transformations in lifestyle and culture, Oloixarac posits, correspond with a general formlessness. “Little by little, paper currency will draw for itself a curve that grows ever more distant from its reference—a tendency shared by abstract and conceptual art.” What Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski called, years ago, the “new spirit of capitalism” is cast in terms of currency finding its authentic being in blockchain money: “Completely void of any connection to anything real, money will find its true Hegelian self in cryptocurrency.”

This generalization of abstract form also underlies the second reason that Oloixarac’s narratives don’t readily lend themselves to summary. Her plots seem to desire to include everything and to signal the importance of the smallest details. All narrative, however, implies exclusion: to open one door means leaving other doors closed. For this reason, many experiments in storytelling that try to include everything are necessarily, and often intentionally, boring. Works by Georges Perec, Andy Warhol, and Chantal Akerman, for example, fit into this category, as do some works by Mario Bellatin and Francis Alÿs. Closer to home for Oloixarac, many of César Aira’s novels parody the difficulty of choosing what to include and what to leave out, just as Borges’s Aleph, that shimmering globe that makes everything on the planet visible at once, is an immense antinarrative device.

Oloixarac describes her own Aleph in narrating the hack to Google Earth, a scene that includes Borges and his friends, the glowing Aleph itself, and other characters and scenes from Argentine literary history.1 Borges himself famously wrote that authors create their own precursors through creative readings and misreadings of the past. This idea appears in Savage Theories as a modified quotation—“Every porn star creates his or her precursors”—and at least part of Oloixarac’s negotiation of detail and generality in narrative seems like a navigation of precursors.

To this dialogue with literary history, she adds insight about the shocks of technological change, specifically in how search and surveillance technologies remake the self. We are characters, Oloixarac has written elsewhere, in “the greatest novel ever conceived by any human endeavor of representation, Google.” This “novel” seeks to exceed the strictures of narrative, enveloping all detail into itself and bypassing the linear causality of one event leading to another, typical of most storytelling.


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Most of us don’t reject this attempted representation of everything, the way that the inhabitants of Borges’s imaginary empire discarded the map that covered the territory. I, for one, use Google Maps all the time. The challenge, however, lies not in deciding to reject or accept the map, but in finding satisfying ways to narrate our lives within its parameters. Oloixarac’s novels don’t offer a solution to this murky question, but they do situate us within its depths—where the sea of data envelops our bodily selves, where we find ourselves to be simultaneously code and flesh.

Perhaps Oloixarac’s suggestion is that this is as good a place as any from which to narrate: here, at this improbably large scale, where reality is strange and vast; and here also, zoomed in close, where all is as we left it and nothing seems to change.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. icon

  1. See Juan Caballero’s article “The Borgesian Monad Contaminated and Buenos Aires Photobombed,” Lucero 22 (2012), for a lucid discussion of Borges’s Aleph in Oloixarac’s novel.
Featured image: Detail of New Map of the Republic of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay, made and published by the Cartographic Office of Pablo Ludwig (1914). Wikimedia Commons