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Ricardo Piglia: Plata quemada (Money to Burn)

This was actually the second book that Piglia wrote but he initially decided not to publish it. His various papers, including the manuscript of this novel, were packed away and stored with his brother. When his brother decided to move, the papers were returned and Piglia, at that point, decided that the novel was worth publishing. After revising it, he published it in 1997.

It was submitted for and won the Editorial Planeta Argentina Prize (not to be confused with the Editorial Planeta Prize, awarded in Spain). The writer and architect Gustavo Nielsen (link in Spanish), who had been a finalist with his novel El amor enfermo [Sick Love] sued, not because of the quality of Piglia’s novel but because, according to Nielsen, Piglia was too close to Planeta. Nielsen eventually won (link in Spanish). I must admit that I had never heard of Nielsen before this and I am fairly certain that Piglia’s reputation will surive much longer than Nielsen’s. This list (in Spanish) of the 100 best novels of the past 25 years (as of 2007) puts this novel at No 47. Nielsen, of course, does not appear.

But this was not the only legal trouble Piglia had with this novel. Blanca Rosa Galeano, who appears in the novel as Nena, was the girlfriend of Carlos Mereles who was involved in the robbery described in the book and eventually killed by the police. She gave birth to a child while in prison for her involvement in the robbery, with Mereles as the father. Her claim was that she wanted to keep this hidden from her family, friends and future employers. She lost the case, as the judges pointed out that the facts were in the public domain.

Claudia Dorda also sued. In the book, her father, one of the criminals, Roberto Dorda, is shown as being, at least in part, homosexual and a drug user. Though she did not win, the judge ordered Planeta to pay her costs and, initially, said that the blurb at the front of the book saying that the book was a true story would have to be amended. This decision was later reversed as the judge pointed out that nowhere in the book is the name Roberto Dorda used but, rather, he is referred to either simply as Dorda, by his nicknames Gaucho or Gaucho Rubio [Fair-Haired Gaucho] or, in one case Marquitos.

I am sure that there are other books that have been sued three times but I do not think that there are any others on this site, except perhaps for Knausgaard who was sued by various family members.

As for the book itself… As shown above it can best be described as a true crime novel. It is about an actual bank armoured car robbery that took place in Buenos Aires in 1965 and ended with a shoot-out in Montevideo. The robbery seems to have been quite complicated, as various people who did not take part in the actual robbery seem to have been involved in the idea of the robbery and its planning. Various politicians and police officers may well have also been implicated, most of whom escaped scot-free. However, though some of these shady and shadowy characters are mentioned, the book is mainly concerned with the actual robbery and its immediate aftermath, primarily the shoot-out in Montevideo.

We actually start with Dorda (mentioned above) and his friend Brignone. These two are so close that they are nicknamed The Twins. It is suggested that the two had had a homosexual relationship (hence the lawsuit by Dorda’s daughter) but are now merely friends. Though called The Twins, they do not resemble one another at all. Indeed, the narrator comments that it would be difficult to find two more different people.

Piglia’s style is to follow the various characters but, at the same time, throw in other sources, such as the comments of the witnesses or excerpts from the newspapers. The witnesses are, inevitably unreliable, often contradicting one another. They also spread rumours, for example about how much money was actually stolen.

The idea seemed not a bad one. The bank was located in a quiet, well-to-do area of Buenos Aires, so there was likely to be little traffic around. There were guards but they turned out to be woefully inadequate for the job. One even had thoughts of committing a heist himself, to help pay for a sick daughter.

Piglia gives us psychological portraits of the main players. All, inevitably, have some flaws and/or a criminal past. Some are drug users, others have various sexual perversions, others have mental problems. Dorda, for example, is nervous and is worried about their escape route being blocked. He also hears voices. Dorda, however, is also a cop killer. According to the psychiatrist at the prison where he served time and met Brignone, he was a sexual obsessive, his libido was out of control, he was dangerous and psychotic. He has a long hatred for the police, based on his experience with them and therefore tries to kill them whenever he can, as he does in this robbery.

Indeed, the general feeling of the criminals is that it is essential that they kill the guards, to avoid both witnesses and to avoid the guards firing back. They use sub-machine guns and fire at will, more than once killing innocent bystanders. At times, they seem quite careless, leaving behind clues for the police, who are themselves not too competent and possibly, in some cases, involved. However, the criminals are so careless that the police soon track them down.

There is also a concern that the criminals might be political terrorists. Son como los argelinos, están en guerra con toda la sociedad, quieren matamos a todos [They are like the Algerians, they are at war against all of society and want to kill us all]. (Note that this translation from the Spanish is mine and is not necessarily what was used in the published English translation.) There is also a fear that disaffected Peronists have formed terrorist groups and these criminals might be related to them.

Blanca Rosa Galeano, one of the ones who sued Piglia, came from a well-respected middle-class family (hence her desire to preserve her name) and she informed on the gang. Several people were arrested, though several of the main perpetrators manage to flee to Montevideo.

Piglia gives us a more or less chronological account of events and it is both exciting, with car chases and bodies all over the place, but interesting to see his take on the criminals and their psychology. Some of their activities have been thought out but some clearly seem to have not been thought out. All too often their reaction to events is a gut reaction. For example, their mad car drive through the streets of Buenos Aires, spraying bullets all over the place, seems insane, drawing attention to themselves.

Piglia got much of his information from the press, with the Argentinian and Uruguayan press reporting in great detail on the case. Interestingly enough, we meet only one journalist in this novel. His name is Emilio Renzi. Emilio Renzi is, of course, the alter ego of Piglia and, as we know Piglia was a journalist, we must assume that this is him reporting on the case.

I do not know whether this novel is the forty-seventh best Spanish-language novel to appear between 1982 and 2007 but it is still very well done, as we follow the criminals, the accounts of the witnesses and the press reports. No-one comes out of this particularly well, with the police and politicians seemingly implicated, the police corrupt and brutally violent (allegedly to stop the criminals from talking about police involvement) and the criminals themselves psychopathic, mentally unstable and serious drug users. Piglia tells his story well and clearly was very close to it. He does not hide his political views – the police and politicians are corrupt – but does not let them spoil the writing of a well-received novel.

Additional information: journalist Leonardo Haberkorn wrote what is claimed as a factual account of the events called Liberaij. La verdadera historia del caso Liberaij. [Liberaij. The True Story of the Liberaij Case]. It has not been translated and is difficult obtain outside Argentina/Uruguay. Incidently, Liberaij is the building where the final shoot-out took place. You can read a review of it in Spanish. I have seen a copy and flipped through it. It seemed to be a (fairly) straightforward journalistic account. Piglia’s novel was made into a film called Burnt Money.

Publishing history

First published by Planeta in 1997
First English translation in 2004 by Granta