Negative Illumination: Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night, Translated by Sergio Waisman

Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor

Piglia-Target in the NightIn November, 2015, Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s presidency in a run-off election, ending twelve years of Peronist-party rule by the Kirchners. Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night takes place before the fractured optimism of Perón’s brief return to power in the 1970s, but was published in 2010, the year President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner instituted controversial economic reforms including the siphoning of over 6 billion in currency reserves to pay off debt. In 2011, the novel won two of the most prestigious awards given in the Spanish-language literary world: the Rómulo Gallegos Novel Prize and the National Critics Prize. Along with its loaded political context, its acclaim should indicate that Target in the Night is much more than a detective novel, though it borrows masterfully from the rich traditions of Argentine noir and American crime fiction.

Concurrently, readers seeking the satisfaction of a detective novel or thriller may have to adjust their expectations. While the novel beats with the staccato drive of crime fiction and its sentences are shadowed with suspense, it belongs to a distinct genre of Piglia’s creation: paranoid fiction. The greatest surprise will come not from who did it, which is revealed fairly early on, but from how little it matters. Solving the crime is neither the primary motive of most of the characters, nor the point of the novel itself. Justice will not be served. Journalist Emilio Renzi, Piglia’s alter ego who appears throughout his work, in this case as the reporter dispatched to cover the murder in a provincial Pampas town, sums it up:

The investigation has no end, the investigation cannot end. Someone should invent a new detective genre, paranoid fiction it could be called. Everyone is a suspect, everyone feels pursued. Instead of being an isolated individual, the criminal is a group with absolute power. No one understands what’s happening, the clues and testimonies contradict each other as if they changed with each interpretation, and all suspicions are kept open. The victim is the protagonist and center of the intrigue, instead of the detective hired to solve the case or the murderer hired to kill. (252)

Indeed, the novel is more concerned with unraveling the mystery of who the murdered victim, Tony Durán, was and what brought him to the Pampas. Tony, a Puerto Rican from New York, arouses immediate suspicion because of his ability to cross the town’s carefully maintained racial and class boundaries through his scandalous relationship with the twin daughters of its founding Belladona family—despite his dark skin. The duality of darkness and light, reflected in the novel’s original title Blanco nocturno and carefully highlighted throughout by its translator Sergio Waisman, is the literary underpinning of Piglia’s political thriller. As the town’s erratic but effective inspector Croce, the first detective assigned to the case, affirms: “The investigation always starts with the victim, he is the first trace, the dark light.” (45-6)

Tony’s motives for coming to the unremarkable Pampas town are unclear, but Croce and others speculate that he sought “a place where he wouldn’t be treated like a second-class citizen” (14). While Tony achieves a coveted level of social mobility, mainly through his cunning and American currency, his dark skin serves as Piglia’s pretext for an astute skewering of Argentina’s racist history. Racism lies at the town’s very foundation as a former military post during the 19th-Century Indian Wars, an effective genocide against Argentina’s indigenous population. The starkly unequal land distribution in the Pampas is the legacy of a policy that Old Man Belladona explains “gave land to the army officers as far as their horses could ride,” and housing is plotted out according to social status, with the wealthiest residents at the top of the hill, and the darker, poorer residents fanning out below on the other side of the railroad tracks. Yet no one in the town is as dark as Tony, who cuts a starkly elegant figure in the white linen suit he wears to visit Old Man Belladona for the first time, yet is still mistaken for a servant and escorted through the back door by the maid. Tony is called “Sambo” by the town’s residents, as Old Man Belladona foretells:

‘There were a lot of blacks in the Río de la Plata area during colonial times, they even formed a battalion of mulattos and Negros, very determined, but they were all killed in the War of Independence. There were a few black gauchos, too, out on the frontier, but in the end they all went to live with the Indians. A few years back there were still a few blacks in the hills but they’ve died off. They’re all gone now. I’ve heard there are a lot of ways of differentiating skin color in the Caribbean, but here the mulattos are all sambos.’ (25)

Tony aligns himself with a second-generation Japanese night porter at the Plaza Hotel, Yoshio Dazai, who becomes the first suspect in his murder. The two become a dark/light pair of outsiders, each marked for unfortunate destinies: “‘And that’s why you’re going to find me guilty, for being the most foreign of all the foreigners in this town of foreigners’” Yoshio tells Croce upon his arrest, referring to the fact that Argentina, like the United States, was settled by immigrants. (62)

Waisman’s English title, though it apparently loses the duality of the original, cleverly borrows from a pivotal allegoric scene to capture the puns under the surface of Piglia’s Blanco nocturno. As Waisman explains in his introduction, “‘blanco’ in Spanish is not just ‘white.’ The most important meaning of ‘blanco’ in the context of the novel is probably ‘target.’ ‘Tiro al blanco’ is target shooting; ‘dar en el blanco’ is to hit the target” (IV). Shortly after Durán’s murderer is revealed, Renzi and Croce are on their way back to the town when, in the car’s headlights “All of a sudden, in the illuminated circle, they saw a rabbit, paralyzed by fear, white, in the light beam, it was a target in the night that they quickly left behind” (128). Digressive footnotes give the novel a textured, postmodern feel, sometimes added by the author and at other times by the novel’s characters. In this case, Piglia’s footnote to “target in the night” reads:

Ten years after the events narrated in this story, on the eve of the Malvinas War, Renzi saw in The Guardian that English soldiers were equipped with infrared glasses that allowed them to see in the dark and fire at targets in the night. As he read this, Renzi remembered that night in the country with the paralyzed rabbit in the beam of the searchlight from Croce’s car, and realized that the war was lost before it had begun. (128)

The Malvinas War, known to Brits and most others as the Falklands War, was a nationalist publicity stunt on the part of Argentina’s military junta to distract from its own atrocities. Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands off the coast of Patagonia and subsequent defeat by the British Navy was a costly farce that precipitated the end of the military junta in the early 1980s. Despite this, Argentina’s continued claim to sovereignty over the territories remains a source of nationalist pride, and memorials to the soldiers fallen in the Malvinas conflict can be found in many Argentine cities and towns. Waisman’s title compliments the novel’s noir tone, while underscoring its political purpose.

More omnipresent in Argentine politics than the Malvinas conflict is the figure of Juan Domingo Perón, populist president during one of Argentina’s most politically stable decades, 1946-1955. Ousted from office by a military coup, Perón was exiled and his party proscribed from elections until the mid-1970s. The anticipation of Perón’s return to power in 1973 hangs over the novel. Inspector Croce’s career in law enforcement is tied to Perón; when Perón is deposed, he loses his post but is reinstated after the return to democracy. Bravo, the town’s social reporter wants to be in Buenos Aires for Perón’s historic return: “Everyone here is sure that Perón is coming back and that the soldiers are going back to their barracks. They’re making as many deals as they can before the tortilla is flipped over” (107). Perón even becomes a point of reference in Tony Durán’s backstory, as Old Man Belladona says with a margin of respect, “‘Let me tell you, he was an exile, he was forced to abandon his country, with his family, because he believed in Puerto Rican independence. His family had always supported Albizu Campos, they never considered themselves citizens of the United States. You know who Albizu is, right? He was a kind of Puerto Rican Perón.’” (182)

As the mystery unravels, the Belladona family’s dark secrets become the center of the investigation, as the mad-scientist brother Luca Belladona’s abandoned factory looms outside the town, illuminated by its single, dystopian searchlight. Once an economic mainstay that produced car prototypes, the factory is destroyed overnight by the sudden devaluation of the peso, which leaves the Belladona brothers unable to pay off their investments in American equipment. Continuing the light/dark duality, Piglia describes the factory’s rapid decline as, “an act of negative illumination” (173). Still, on the walls of the decaying factory, Perón promises an empty hope: “The outside walls are covered by torn, re-glued posters and political graffiti, all seemingly repeating the same slogan—Perón Returns” (191).

Argentina is currently suffering from yet another cycle of inflation, as it was during the period in which Piglia’s novel takes place, and Macri campaigned on a platform of economic reform. The invisible force beyond Piglia’s mystery is the flow of capital between Argentina and the United States. Tony, a gambler who meets the Belladona twins in an Atlantic City casino, arrives with a large fortune in dollars and no one knows why. Many in the town speculate that he is a carrier, “someone who brings in undeclared money to negotiate, on behalf of a fictitious company, the prices for the purchase of the harvest to avoid paying taxes” (97). The faces on currency become almost characters in Croce’s unfolding investigation. “He saw General Grant’s face on the bill: the butcher, the drunk, a hero, a criminal, the inventor of the strategy of razing the earth, he’d go in with the army from the North and burn down cities and the fields, he’d only go into battle when he outnumbered his opponents five-to-one, he’d have all prisoners executed,” Croce muses on a single fifty-dollar bill abandoned at the end of the service chute that leads from Tony’s room to the hotel’s former kitchen (48). Croce’s elaborated internal monologue creates eerie parallels between the violence of Grant and the Argentine leaders who carried out the Indian Wars and the most recent military junta.

Later, when Croce is committed to the mad house, a tremendously translated satire of inflation ensues, with Piglia’s trademark dark and punchy humor: “‘In here,’ Croce said, ‘a cigarette is worth one peso in the morning and five pesos at night. The price goes up every hour you don’t smoke’” (158). Renzi offers a single cigarette to two patients and

The fatter of the two broke a one-peso bill in half and gave half of it to the other for a drag of the cigarette. Every time they took a smoke they would give the other patient half of the bill, and when they exhaled they would take the other half of the bill back. They paid with half a bill, took a smoke, exhaled, accepted half of the bill, the other would smoke, blow out the smoke, they would pass the half-bill back, the other would smoke—and the cycle accelerated and went faster and faster as the cigarette was consumed. (158)

Later, the men buy more cigarettes from Renzi using their half-peso bills, and then sell their cigarette butts back to Renzi, who returns them each half of the bill. Incredibly, they then put the bill back together with a bit of paste—“with one half of Mitre’s (or was it Belgrano’s?) face upside down”—and trade it for a new one from Renzi (161). The currency is so devalued as to be interchangeable; the farce of value is laid bare.

Piglia has created a work of negative illumination, shining a bright light into the dark corners of Argentine history and the relationship between debt and crime. Nothing is what it seems in Target in the Night, and Piglia reminds us that reality is rarely black and white.

 

Piglia, Ricardo. Target in the Night. Translated by Sergio Waisman. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015.

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Christiana Hills

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