nthposition online magazine

Money to burn

by Jonathan Bryant

[ bookreviews ]

Ricardo Piglia's Money to Burn is a crime novel, right? Yes, but the events depicted happened in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in 1965. An account, then? With its mysticism and lyrical turn of phrase, and its stream of consciousness mixed with reportage, 'account' hardly seems a suitable label. Magical realism, possibly? In the style of Borges, but with more than a hint of Chandler at his best, of Runyon or Capote? Close, but what about the socio-political backdrop to the tragedy of this heist gone bad? It’s more a cleverly disguised polemic against the ambiguous positions capitalism forces us into on a daily basis than anything else. Capricious, see?

A gang of criminals raids a security van carrying approximately seven million pesos in Buenos Aires. They flee to Uruguay, where an Argentinean investigative team corners them. The siege of their hideout lasts 15 brutal hours and climaxes with the gang burning every note of the stolen money. So there you have it: the facts and the plot.

But, Piglia's faction, for want of a better term, isn't simply about reaching a safe conclusion. It's more a free-form study of how the events affected everyone involved in which the narrative slips between story-telling and reportage. One minute you are involved in the thought processes of one of the central characters; the next, listening to Piglia's narrator describing, in minute detail, the exterior of the besieged building, before the scene flows seamlessly into media reports, predominantly from El Mundo, although TV clips also feature heavily. The resultant - almost liquid - impressions could easily have become confused; in the hands of Piglia, however, they merge into something grippingly haphazard and yet beautiful. Imagine a heist film made by Richard Linklater and you'll have a fair idea of the nebulous reality concocted here.

The main theme that emerges from this confluence of narratives, is one dear to all students of history: how is the truth communicated, and whose version is eradicated from the record? It's not so much that Piglia comes at this problem head on, but rather that the analysis of the ‘truth’ arises from the multiple narrative voices. Witnesses’ accounts become twisted out of recognition in front of TV cameras, and participants’ assumed and/or researched impressions are regularly reworked to further blur fact and fiction.

One key scene that captures the complexity of communicating the ‘facts’, involves police surveillance specialist Roque Perez. Stuck in the bowels of the besieged building, he attempts to discern the gangsters' conversations via microphones connected to the heating system. "But the sound was either dead or muffled. And drowned in a confused sequence of signals coming from all over the building: a maddened and tortured multitude of groans and insults with which the imagination of Roque Perez (the wireless operator) struggled and failed. These were the screams of lost souls writhing in the agonies of hell, stray spirits locked inside the concentric circles of Dante's Inferno...”His loss of objectivity becomes pivotal.

Murderers, drug addicts, borderline psychopaths, yes; but the members of the gang are neither liars nor perverters of the truth - at least, not within the group. Despite their faults, they are bluntly honest and unlike the police officers (the heroes, upholders of the law, leaders of men), are acutely aware corruption is rife, and the escape from Argentina simply would not have happened had police and government officials not been guaranteed a cut. They burn the booty because if they surrender it to the authorities, it ends up back in the bank. By setting fire to it, they ensure that all the officials promised a bribe lose out, and will be forced into a chaotic aftermath of recriminations and investigations.

The baying public perceives the money as an innocent unwittingly caught up in the drama. Boundaries become fantastically blurred as arguments rage about the mental health of the gang; they must be criminally insane to do such an unthinkable thing and deserve care behind the walls of the sanatorium rather than death at the hands of the police. Media commentators, anecdotal evidence from bystanders channeled through TV and official statements from the police pull the narrative asunder, but one factor keeps the chaos in check and ensures the story's flow is never anything less than a torrent: Piglia's love of language and playing with words. Multiple and mixed perspectives are reined in and held within the perfectly crafted plot, and the dialogue of the central characters is poetic. "The police and the crooks [..] are alone in knowing how to make words come alive, so much so and so sharp they can split your soul apart like an egg breaking on the sharp edge of a frying pan,” says the young El Mundo reporter. Piglia graciously writes himself out of this appraisal, but his implicit inclusion in the text is a given by this point.

And while we're on the subject of language, let us also not forget Amanda Hopkinson’s skilful and sympathetic translation from the Spanish. Between the two of them, they make what could have been a tawdry and sordid account into something disturbingly otherworldly. This otherness is central to Piglia's book. All great crime fiction feeds off society's fascination for and repulsion with those who live beyond the law. In Money to Burn, the gang is a conduit between the acceptable reality of the overworld and the nihilistic drives of the underworld. Their actions rupture the membrane that binds the law-abiding majority and allows their anarchic universe to spill into ours.

The trick, which Piglia pulls off with aplomb, is to not let this chaos cloud his literary vision. There’s a crazed, confused and completely unwieldy story here, and yet he tells it without dumbing down, without selling the characters short, undermining the complexity of the events or giving the reader an easy ride. And when the ride is as adrenaline fuelled, brilliant and capricious as this, comfort deserves no real place within the equation.