The Paranoid Fiction of Ricardo Piglia’s “Target in the Night”
Every once in a while you need to spend some time in the nuthouse, or in jail, to understand what this country is all about.
Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night takes place in a small rural town in Argentina about 1972, toward the end of the long exile of Juan Perón. Target in the Night is a tale of betrayal and corruption, written loosely in the form of a police procedural. Here’s the obligatory summary of the plot: A mysterious American of Puerto Rican heritage moves into town at the invitation of the two daughters of the town’s richest industrialist. When the American is murdered in his hotel room and a rumored $100,000 seems to have gone missing, witnesses point to the night porter, Yoshio Dazai, an Argentine of Japanese descent. (Piglia loves to remind the reader that Argentina is a nation of immigrants.) Police Inspector Croce is skeptical, though he has no choice but to arrest the hapless Dazai. Croce ultimately becomes convinced of Dazai’s innocence but is out-maneuvered by the Chief Prosecutor, a devious man by the name of Cueto, who forces Croce into retirement. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who has arrived from Buenos Aires to cover the story, begins to collaborate with Croce to solve the mystery.
Croce is a wonderful character who “loved everyone like a son” – because, the narrator quickly adds, “he didn’t really know what that feeling was like.” He’s an eccentric, intuitive detective who “sees things that others didn’t” and continues the lineage of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Fortunately for the reader, this is not really a police procedural but a richly nuanced and sometimes adventurous novel. Piglia’s novel roams through discussion on philosophy, the Jungian analysis of dreams, and the nature of freedom, but hardly a page goes by without some subtle commentary or analysis of the recent history of Argentina, where “there are no values left, only prices.” In Piglia’s Argentina, corruption has twisted the rules of the game so that only the innocent and the idealists are doomed. As Inspector Croce says: “If you find a clean hundred thousand dollars and you don’t take it…they know you can’t be trusted.”
Much of the pleasure of reading Piglia’s novel arises from the curious nature of his bemused and generally omniscient narrator, who tells the story from a distance. The narration takes place at least a decade after the events of the murder and is accompanied by occasional footnotes showing that our meticulous narrator can easily turn pedantic. (There are hints scattered throughout the book suggesting that the journalist Renzi – who appears in other works by Piglia – just might be the narrator.) At times, the narrator seems to hover over the town like a drone, looking down on the movements of participants and listening to the swirl of rumors that comprise daily life.
In that town, like in all the towns of the Province of Buenos Aires, more news was batted around in a single day than in any large city in a week. The difference between regional and national news was so vast that the residents could retain the illusion that they lived an interesting life.
In the end, the mystery of who killed Tony Durán is only partly solved. As he prepares to head back to Buenos Aires, the journalist Renzi contemplates the inconclusiveness of the investigation.
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 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, instead of the detective hired to solve the case or the murderer hired to kill.
Target in the Night is perhaps less ambitious than Piglia’s earlier novel Artificial Respiration, which I wrote about recently, but it’s more accessible, especially for non-Argentinian readers.
Ricardo Piglia. Target in the Night. (Deep Vellum, 2015). An English translation by Sergio Waisman of the 2010 Spanish novel Blanco Nocturno.