Monday, 29 September 2008

money to burn [ricardo piglia]

Money To Burn is a brief, curious crime novel. Published in 1997, it describes a real 1965 bank robbery that took place in Buenos Aires. In the aftermath, the gang escape to Montevideo, where three of them become involved in the mother of all shout-outs, after finding themselves holed up in a police trap. In his epilogue, Piglia explains that he compiled most of his notes for the book in the sixties, then left them in a drawer for nearly thirty years before rediscovering the material and turning it into Money To Burn.

There are similarities in his approach to Capote's In Cold Blood, a book that some adore, and I have found on the various occasions I've grappled with it to be unreadable. Piglia's style occupies a similar middle ground to Capote's. Part reconstruction, part psychological exploration of a collection of delinquent criminals. The book opens describing Kid Brignone and Gaucho Dorda, two of the three who took part in the shoot-out, as being like twins. The pair met in a psychiatric prison, were occasional lovers, drug addicts and fearlessly psychopathic. Piglia's narrative occasionally darts away from its description of events to offer an imagined insight into their thinking, articulating their dreams and confused desires. However, having dipped into their minds, the book flips back into the wider narrative in an instant, thereby developing a strangely uncohesive narrative that sometimes feels like neither fish nor foul.

Piglia, who prefaces the book with a quotation from Brecht, resists any temptation to editorialise, attempting to stick as far as possible to accurate sources. So the fate of the gang's leader, who managed to avoid getting trapped in the safe house, remains unknown, something the author notes in his epilogue. He also recounts a meeting he himself had, on a train to Bolivia, with a woman who claimed to be the girlfriend of Mereles, the third gangster in the shoot-out. This moment, thrown away at the end, opens up another vista, which is why this story should have resonated so strongly in the author's mind that he felt a desire to revisit it thirty years after the event. In a sense, one suspects, he is also revisiting his own past, a lost world of Studebakers and stool pigeons. In spite of the effectiveness of the drama of the shoot-out, captured in subtle detail over three chapters at the book's conclusion, the author's insistence in absenting himself from the text frustrated me, all the more so when his brief appearance in the epilogue cast so much light on this lost fable from another time.

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