Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia, trans. Amanda Hopkinson

The tragic, seamy underbelly of Buenos Aires

Ricardo Piglia dominates Argentine writing. Born in 1941, he inherited Borges' suspicion of genre, his exploration of writing and reading - and his attraction to the seamy underbelly of Buenos Aires. Piglia's fictions are parables of creativity within the nightmare of his country's recent history. He offers brilliant off-the-cuff comments, has a vast knowledge of crime thrillers, and has re-jigged the Argentine literary tradition as urban and anarchic.

Yet his output is meagre and experimental. So it came as a surprise when he published this prize-winning recreation of the hold-up of a security van in Buenos Aires and a 15-hour shoot-out in Montevideo. Here was a thriller that had sprung from Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, with respect for the locale, for the way his thugs talk, their weapons, their pasts.

Piglia combed police records, the press, psychiatric reports and witness statements. As in Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a journalist chronicles events that escape from hindsight. Renzi, this journalist, reappears from Piglia's earlier work and is insulted by the commissioner in charge of the case as a know-all, lacking respect, with his glasses and goose face - a mocking self-portrait of the writer.

The story follows a gang of cold-blooded killers, two of whom are called "the twins" as they are gay lovers. They almost get away with their booty, but trip up and shoot to the death in a flat in Montevideo.

These thugs imitate Hollywood films and childishly watch themselves on the news. However, Piglia is up to more than the clever weaving of a true-crime story. His epigraph is from Brecht: what's worse, to rob a bank, or to found one?

According to him, Buenos Aires lacks urban myths. The gauchos have become thugs who kill from stolen cars. His main character, the "Blond Gaucho" Dorda, is a secret hero, who burns the money snatched from the van. He is society's scapegoat, the idiot who suffers for others in an Argentine version of a Greek tragedy.

Given Argentine history, parallels can be drawn with the urban guerillas who raided banks and were decimated by the police and military in orgies of violence. Despite these reverberations, I found the novel sentimentalises these thugs. Amanda Hopkinson's translation deals well with Piglia's studied slang, and has useful notes.

The reviewer is professor of Spanish at UCL

Comments