January 2016

Felix Haas

fiction

Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Sergio Waisman

Ricardo Piglia's work is not uncharted territory in the American literary world. However, some may know him better as a professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures at Princeton, rather than an author in his own right. Born during the Second World War in a Buenos Aires suburb, Piglia spent some time working for various publishing houses in the capital before he finally took to the pen himself to give us his 1980 novel Artificial Respiration. Not a terribly prolific writer of novels, his latest, Target in the Night was published in 2010 in Spanish, thirteen years after its predecessor.

On first sight, Target in the Night looks like a detective novel. However, what smells and feels like one is not in the classical sense, continuing the Argentinian tradition of pushing the genre's boundaries, first set by literary giants Borges and Bioy Casares. The book itself explains this literary conundrum and suggests that we think of its story as "paranoid fiction" where:

Everyone is a suspect, everyone feels pursued. [...] No one understands what's happening, the clues and the testimonies contradict each other as if they changed with each interpretation, and all suspicions are kept open. The victim is the protagonist and the center of the intrigue.

Target in the Night tells of betrayal, corruption, and, ultimately, murder (obviously) in a small Argentinian town in the Provence of Buenos Aires in the early seventies. "An elegant [American] mulatto" comes to town, following the Belladona twins, whom he had met gambling one night in Atlantic City. As the twins are the daughters of the town's richest industrialist, naturally money appears to be involved and when the American is killed, 100,000 dollars seemingly goes missing. At this point, two great antagonists step onto the stage: Chief Prosecutor Cueto and Inspector Croce. Croce, the Sherlock Holmes of the story, is painted as a recluse whose "whole life was dedicated to his job," his cases "famous throughout the province." However brilliant, he is eventually outmaneuvered and "moved into retirement" by the powerful chief prosecutor. Cueto has his mind set on who the culprit is. However, he appears to have a personal stake in the matter, being somehow involved with the Belladonas' large, dormant factory.

Throughout the book, there is no clear protagonist. Instead, Piglia employs a tactic, perhaps first used by Alfred Hitchcock in his cinematographic masterpiece Psycho, where the protagonist is killed partway into the film. For the second part of Psycho, Hitchcock offers a somewhat drastic replacement, employing the protagonist's psychopathic killer as the new central character. Piglia dares a similar, but less drastic, shift. In the novel's first part, Inspector Croce comes closest to taking the role of protagonist. When he is ultimately pushed off center stage, Piglia replaces him not by his antagonist, as Hitchcock did, but by the Buenos Aires journalist Renzi. Stepping into the inspector's footsteps, Renzi comes to favor Cueto's alternative, albeit somewhat colorful, version of what had really led to the death of the American. As such, he starts to take a closer look at the Belladona family, particularly the young son Luca who has his mind and heart set on reviving the family's factory and comes to tell the journalist the tale of how his "brother and father [...] succumbed to the siren song of that vulture Cueto."

Piglia's strong suit is his characters and their many voices. They are woven into something where indeed "the clues and the testimonies contradict each other [...] and all suspicions are kept open." At the end, we might come to favor Croce's and Renzi's version of the events, but ultimately are left without a full resolution. The book´s many extravagant characters form a colorful microcosm and make the novel an entertaining and often quite funny read.

Target in the Night embeds its many voices in a quiet prose, which steps back so others may be heard. Further background information on characters or events is often captured in one of the novel's many footnotes, allowing the text to flow free and enhancing its overall character of a police procedural. About its now-published English version, one should perhaps say more than simply stating that here Piglia's voice is carried by Sergio Waisman's beautiful translation. The novel's English translation is published by Deep Vellum, a Dallas based nonprofit publishing house, which only opened shop in late 2014, focusing on quality translation of world literature. Having already brought many noteworthy international authors, hitherto unpublished in the English language, to new readership, we may only wait and see (and as kindly pointed out by the book's end note: donate to) what Deep Vellum will bring to us in the future.

A classic detective novel only on the surface, Target in the Night has a deeper layer where a tightly woven construct lives, consisting of manifold voices and characters, all brilliantly constructed and interlinked. Piglia shows great mastery in executing what he wants us to think of as "paranoid fiction" and wholly deserved the prestigious 2011 Rómulo Gallegos prize for the "rigorous observation of facts and characters" and the "sharpness of [...] language" of this novel. Bizarrely, in awarding this prize to Target in the Night the judges may have resolved one of the novel's open ends. The prize money of the Rómulo Gallegos is the exact amount that went missing in the novel itself: 100,000 dollars.

Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, translated by Sergio Waisman
Deep Vellum Publishing
ISBN: 978-1941920169
288 pages