Thursday, January 31, 2013

2,469: 1,001 Book Challenge - Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia


Ricardo Piglia’s Money to Burn was billed as a novelistic account of a real-life robbery that took place in Argentina in the 1960s and the ensuing siege of the robbers’ hideout in Montevideo, Uruguay.  In summary, a group of four men - Malito, the Blonde Gaucho, Kid Brignone and Crow, together with various hangers-on and acquaintances come together to rob a payroll truck filled with millions of pesos.  Their getaway is disrupted when some policemen spot two of them changing the numberplates on the getaway car and, following their escape to Uruguay, three of them are tracked down to an apartment to which the police lay siege for 15 hours.  Eventually, the crooks burn the loot before the police finally manage to kill two of the gang and seriously injure the other.

There you have it - a seemingly straightforward crime thriller, if maybe a little spiced up by the fact that it is based on truth.  Nothing more to see here, let’s just move along.  Only that would be a big mistake because to describe it as I have done above is a little like describing Animal Farm as an everyday tale of farm animals or saying that The Hobbit is about someone going for a long walk.

Piglia uses the factual framework of the robbery and siege with witness statements, official reports and newspaper articles to create a near stream of consciousness that jumps from reportage to impressionism to a quasi-mysticism that comes out when he delves into the broken minds of the gang members and Gaucho and Kid Brignone in particular.  It moves at breakneck speed and in a kaleidoscope of imagery that gives it the feel of an adrenaline rush or a drug hit that meshes perfectly with the dependency that the robbers have on almost every kind of narcotic you can think of.

It’s particularly skilful the way that Piglia skates along the edge of chaos and confusion, highlighting the sense of confusion that always surrounds events like the robbery, without turning the narrative into a mess.  He jumps around in time and from viewpoint to viewpoint but manages to keep the central thread from getting lost.

He makes an interesting motif of the seeming randomness and casualness of the low-lifes and the flotsam and jetsam of society - prostitutes, washed up singers, shady crooks with links to political extremists - who get caught up in the heist and suffer its consequences.  For example, the teenage girlfriend of Crow Mereles ends up being tortured for information by the police and Fontan Reyes, the failed singer, is murdered for his minor involvement.

But, in a sense, Gaucho, Kid, Crow and the rest are as much the heroes of the piece as the villains.  Despite their nihilistic violence and their sexual transgressions - rape, under-age sex and prostitution pervade the book - there is a fundamental honesty about their relationships with each other and a clarity of outlook on life that Piglia compares almost favourably with the police and the authorities.  These are, for the most part, corrupt, immoral and petty creatures who could even be said to be facilitators of the events through taking bribes and pay-offs from the gang.

And here Crow, Gaucho and Kid get their revenge by burning the loot and thereby both denying their conspirators their pay-offs and share of the booty and, in an environment where money is scarce, they deliver the ultimate two-fingered salute to the society from which they are outcast.  Not even their most gruesome acts can prevent the reader from a bit of grudging admiration for their defiance, even as the mob of spectators outside the besieged apartment try to lynch Kid Brignone as, grievously wounded, he is carried from the building at the end of the affair.

In amongst all this, Piglia explores the circumstances and events that have made Kid Brignone and the Blonde Gaucho into the damaged creatures we see and it is here that the writing becomes almost mystical as we get to read the thoughts and memories of the pair and gradually to recognise the strange but genuine love the two have for each other which, although consummated sexually, is more an emotional love.

This is meaty fare and not for the delicate or faint-hearted.  It is, however, loud, brilliant, thought-provoking and guaranteed to give a rush.  I don;t think this is nearly as well known as it deserves to be or as it would, I suspect, be if the author had been British or American.  If you do read it, don't top before the epilogue as there is a cool anecdote about how Piglia came to write it.  And, as a final note, it is wonderfully translated by Amanda Hopkinson who , despite a couple of clunky Anglo-Saxon slang words, manages to preserve the spirit and voice of the author.

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