Target in the Night
by Ricardo Piglia
(Deep Vellum, 2016)
The literary murder story, from Dostoevsky to Dorothy Sayers, aspires to tell us more about the state of the living than the condition of the corpse.
In Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night (translated from the Spanish by Sergio Waisman) the living are in a state of paranoiac denial and self-harm, and the corpse is the whole of Argentina. Perhaps this is a natural consequence to being lucky enough to have survived Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War,” a time from 1976 to 1983 when tens of thousands of suspected subversives were forcibly disappeared.
Target in the Night, released in English by Dallas’ Deep Vellum Publishing, starts off like some smutty Chester Himes noir before heading down into full-on King Lear territory. A biracial gambler named Tony Durán has been found stabbed to death after enjoying a scandalous ménage à trois with a pair of Argentine twin sisters who were vacationing in the states.
Suspicions are raised as soon as the suave Durán drops by Buenos Aires for a visit with a briefcase full of American money. In no time the doomed thrill-seeker becomes the body at the center of an investigation that will land an eccentric detective in the loony bin and lead a journalist to pine after the literary road not taken as well as a couple of sexy suspects along the way.
Piglia is a respectful stylist. His latest novel does not so much innovate on the literary advances made by notable Argentine experimenters of the past, but rather works their meta-fictional mannerism into his own bend of high-minded low-life detective storytelling. The effect is closer in spirit to Julio Cortázar than James Ellroy.
Regarding crime novel devices, an Argentine writer would be hard-pressed to come up with anything more dramatic than recent news coming from Argentina. In 2015, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner dodged a metaphorical bullet when Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor who was set to testify against her for alleged ties to 1994 car-bombing at a Jewish center, took a very real bullet and died on the eve of his testimony.
In a coy nod to the high improbability that any new fiction can reach the level of Argentine news (or get close to the literary marvels that have already been attained by Argentine masters such as Macedonio Fernández or Jorge Luis Borges), Piglia describes the reading tastes of the town archivist, a woman who devours everything by writers like Jane Austen, Henry James and Edith Wharton but will not touch novels by Argentine writers.
As one of the twins involved with the late Tony Durán says, “those stories, she already knows.” Most readers will not, however, be familiar with the kind of fatalism and the general acceptance of societal demoralization that Piglia’s characters seem to take for granted.
In Target in the Night, political correctness takes a back seat to the hangover of extreme nationalism, and the ideal family man is represented as a patriarch with flexible views regarding incest and immovable opinions on Juan Perón. A remarkable nonchalance comforts the reader along a tale of corruption, prejudice and carnage that could in a less urbane writer’s hands inspire some toward anxious revolutionary action.
When Emilio Renzi, the jaded journalist at the heart of the novel, starts to talk shop with a decadent gossip columnist, he receives a lesson in the kind of world-weary rationalization that can be taken for the tone of the tome as a whole. “I’m the town’s social conscience,” says the gossip columnist, “I say what everyone thinks but no one dares to say.”
Target in the Night is in no way a social novel; it is myopic and mannered like what Saki would have done to a P.D. James thriller. “Snobbery is the only way to survive in these places,” the gossip advises. Oscar Wilde might have switched “snobbery” for “artifice.” In Target in the Night, Piglia has made it clear the temperament for surviving real-world tragedy might in the end be a highly informed literary art.