By Ricardo Piglia

Ricardo Piglia’s Money to Burn is a capricious novel that slides its many shifting faces in and out of the reader’s consciousness like a loose-jointed Rubix cube.

      It’s a crime novel, right?

      A cursory glance would have you easily agreeing with this statement, and then comes the deeper revelation that all the events depicted within the book actually happened in Buenos Aires and Montevideo in 1965. An account then?

      With this level of mysticism, lyrical turn of phrase and stream of consciousness mixed with reportage? ‘Account’ hardly seems a suitable label to pin on the constantly undulating surface of this tale. A work of magical realism then? 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 undertow that forms a brooding backdrop to the unfolding tragedy of this heist gone bad? More a cleverly disguised polemic against the ambiguous positions capitalism forces us into on a daily basis than anything else.

      Capricious, see?

      The facts, as they stand in the less wandering eye of recorded history, run thus.

      A gang of habitual criminals raid a security van carrying approximately seven million pesos in Buenos Aires. They then flee with their ill-gotten gains across the boarder into Uruguay where they are finally cornered by the Argentinean investigative team – led by Commissioner Cayetano Silva. The subsequent siege of their hideout lasts 15 brutal hours, and climaxes with the gang burning every remaining note of the money that they seized.

      So there you have it. The facts and the plot laid bare. But, if you think that we’ve somehow soiled this book’s immense, troubling and romantic power by revealing its historical origins and ending, you’d be mistaken.

      Piglia’s faction, for want of a better term, simply isn’t about reaching any kind of safe and recognisable conclusion. It’s more a freeform study on how these historic events affected everyone involved.

      He achieves this wonderful mixture of realism, and mood and characteristic impression through number of literary techniques. But chief among these is the flexible way in which the narrative slips between story telling and reportage. One minute you’ll find yourself intimately embroiled 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. A typical scene like this then flows seamlessly into reported accounts from one of the media outlets of the time – predominantly the newspaper El Mundo, although snippets of TV coverage also feature heavily throughout.

      The resultant, almost liquid-like trail of impressions could so easily have become muddled and confused. In the hands of Piglia, however, they merge and blend to create something grippingly haphazard and yet beautiful. Imagine, if you will, a heist film made by Richard Linklater and you’ll have a fair idea of the kind nebulous reality concocted here.

      The main theme that arises from this conglomeration of narratives, is one dear to all modern students of history. How is the truth of an event communicated, and whose version gets eradicated from the official record?

      It’s not so much that Piglia comes at this problem head on, but rather that the analysis of the ‘truth’ arises as a result of the multiple narrative voices outlined above.

      Regularly witness accounts become twisted out of all recognition as soon as they find themselves standing in front of the TV cameras. Moreover, the assumed and/or researched impressions of those involved are regularly reworked in order to further blur the demarcations between fact and fiction.

      One key scene that wonderfully captures this whole complexity in 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 as series of 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…”

      While the image of a diabolic descent is commonplace within the book, it’s Perez’s loss of objectivity to personal interpretation that serves as a cornerstone for Piglia’s presentation. And it’s with the gang itself, and the interactions between its members, that this single factor becomes most telling.

      Murderers, drug addicts, borderline psychopaths… The classifications easily stick to them all. But liars or perverters of the truth they are not – at least not within the context of the group itself. In fact, despite all their faults, their representations of themselves are bluntly honest. Unlike the police officers feigning roles of the hero, or upholder of the law, or leader of men, the gang are acutely aware of the facades these standpoints represent. Corruption is rife, and the escape from Argentina simply wouldn’t have happened if certain police and government officials hadn’t been guaranteed a cut of the takings.

      As such, the poignant and laughable motivation behind the burning of the booty, is the gang’s conviction that if they can’t have it then nobody will. If they surrender it to the authorities, then it simply ends up back in the hands of the bank. By setting fire to it they ensure that everyone within officialdom promised a bribe loses out, and are then subsequently forced into a chaotic aftermath of collective recriminations and investigations.

      However, within the eyes of the baying public, this finale becomes translated into the most heinous act imaginable, and the money – usually considered the root of all evil – unbelievably becomes a misused innocent caught up within the drama.

      Once again, boundaries become fantastically blurred as arguments rage about the mental health of the gang. They’re obviously criminally insane to do such an unthinkable thing and, as such, deserve care behind the walls of the sanatorium rather than death at the hands of the police. Media commentators, more TV channelled anecdotal evidence from bystanders, official statements from the police… All conspire again to pull the narrative asunder through their collective influence post immolation. But one factor continually keeps the chaos in check and ensures the story’s flow is never anything less than torrent.

      Piglia’s linguistic love and manifest playfulness with words makes every page epic, almost legendary. The multiple and mixed perspectives are reigned in and held within the inevitable, but still perfectly crafted, plot arc while the dialogue of the central characters easily becomes the poetic highlight of the piece.

      “The police and the crooks (so Renzi thought) 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.”

      So says the young reporter from El Mundo within the novel. Of course, Piglia graciously writes himself out of this appraisal, but the implicit inclusion of the author is literally a given by this point in the text.

      And while we’re on the subject of language usage, let us also not neglect the work of Amanda Hopkinson and her skilful and sympathetic translation from the Spanish. Between the two of them, they manage to make what could so easily have been a tawdry and sordid account, something disturbingly otherworldly.

      It’s within this inherent otherness that the central flux of Piglia’s book is captured. A flux, as with all great crime fiction, that feeds directly off society’s fascination and repulsion with those who live their lives beyond the law.

      What we encounter with Money to Burn is, ultimately, a ‘when worlds collide’ motif with the gang acting as a conduit between the acceptable reality of the overworld and the nihilistic drives of the underworld. They, through their actions, rupture the membrane that cossets and blinds the law-abiding majority and, in doing so allows a large part of their own anarchic universe to spill over into ours.

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