28 April 2009

Review: Plata Quemada

A group of Argentine criminals have got what could be a great heist planned out. They will grab the municipal payroll in a daring daytime robbery, then cross the river and slip into Uruguay until the heat dies down. The gang includes Gaucho Dorda and Nene Brignone, who are lovers; Cuervo Mereles, who swaggers with outlaw charisma; and Malito, a cold-blooded and calculating man and their defacto leader. The robbery goes off as planned, but they soon find themselves on the run, guns blazing as they drive their getaway car through the streets of Buenos Aires. Though the events related in Money to Burn seem outrageous enough to belong to a Tarantino film or a pulp crime novel, Ricardo Piglia as invented nothing in this hypnotizing tale of crime, loyalty and vengeance.

Piglia has a minor personal connection to the story, having met Mereles' ex-girlfriend in 1966 while on a train ride to Bolivia. During the trip, she told Piglia a confused and seemingly incredible story of the man she had been in a relationship with and the crimes he had been involved in. Though he never saw her again, he became fascinated by the story and began to research and attempt to write about it. It was a project that he ended up setting aside for the better part of two decades, only to return to and finish later.

Plata Quemada is a novelistic retelling of true events, with Piglia acknowledging where the historical record is ambiguous or incomplete. The only license taken is in the extent to which we get inside the heads of those involved, not just the criminals but also the police who are hunting them. What emerges is a fascinating portrayal of criminality and politics in Argentina and Uruguay of the 1960s, as well as an unforgettable portrayal of characters far outside the pale.

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