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A sexy idea that moves you – The Gods of Tango, by Carolina de Robertis

eBook published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2015, 864 pages.
eBook published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2015, 864 pages. (Paperback 384 pages)

There is a lot of tango-ing in this novel, The Gods of Tango, as well as an eyebrow-raising amount of erotica. I bought it because I had enjoyed the sweeping family drama of De Robertis’s previous novel, The Invisible Mountain. I have learned to do the Argentine Tango, so I expected a novel about the dance. What I did not expect in this novel was the theme of drag artists in the history of the tango. Yet, despite the shock to the reader’s system, De Robertis succeeds in this novel by stimulating the reader’s mind though her descriptions of the development of the tango as an art form, the dancers and performers of the tango, the history of drag artists’ involvement in the tango, and the history of Buenos Aires. And she reaches the reader’s emotions though her impassioned descriptions of music, loneliness, courage, desire, lust and love. Music as a lover, dancing as lovemaking, the tango as the immemorial representation of tragic love? Oh, yes, De Robertis does it with aplomb, all 860-plus ebook pages of it.

The problem of gender, or “identifying as…”

The lead character, “Leda”, starts off as a woman with aspirations of becoming a tango violinist. To do so, she takes on the identity of her deceased husband, and becomes “Dante”. In the process, she falls in love with women, some of whom find her out and reject her, and some who don’t. De Robertis swings to and fro between male and female personal pronouns and names, often in the same sentence, and does not use “their” or “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. But in any case, Leda is not transsexual, or transgender. She is simply a cross-dresser (out of necessity) who eventually, permanently identifies as a man, living with a woman who becomes his wife, and he dies as a man. (See, there is that problem with pronouns again…)

“The funeral was crowded with well-wishers from the tango world, their neighbourhood, from all of Montevideo, and all of them agreed that Dante made a good-looking dead man. How about that, Dante? Rose thought at the corpse as the coffin lid closed for the last time with a tidy click like the clasp of an instrument case. Just what you wanted.” (p.841)

Background to the story – too sexy for the elite

Men in Buenos Aires dancing and playing the tango (ca. 1900)
Men in Buenos Aires dancing and playing the tango (ca. 1900)

Believe you me, this gets complicated. The point is that, in those days, in the mid to late 19th century in Argentina, only men were allowed to perform in bands and become professional musicians, and dance the tango.

For those who do not know, the Argentine tango is not the abrupt, long-striding, twisting “Ballroom Tango” you may have seen on Dancing with the Stars, where the couple is in a rigid hold, sometimes even moving apart. The “Argentine Tango” is where the woman leans into the man, with full body contact, and they sway to the rhythm together, and the woman flicks and twists her leg between and around the man’s legs. The music and the dance started out fast-paced, with a nod to its roots in the drum music of slaves from West Africa. Then, as the form became more sophisticated, it slowed down. These days it is slow, with a distinct call-and-response look to it, and very sexy. Even back then it was so sexy, in fact, that it was just too shocking for upper-class people to dance it, and for men and women to dance it together.

By 1912, dancers and musicians from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. As the dance form became popular with upper and middle classes around the world, Argentine high society adopted the previously low-class dance form as their own and dance palaces for the tango were established – as the novel illustrates. In 1916, Roberto Firpo, an extremely successful bandleader of the period, cemented the arrangements for standard tango sextet: two bandoneóns, two violins, piano and double bass. This is also in the novel, when the band in which Dante plays hires their first pianist and expands the number of band members to include a singer.

Today, the Argentine Tango is as typical of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as cevicherías are typical of Lima, Peru. It is the dance of ordinary people as well as performers and tangos only are danced at “milongas” or tango parties.

Drag performances and finding love

This potted history is depicted in the novel, as are the development of bands, styles of tangos and the emancipation of female jazz and tango singers. De Robertis keeps to the basic facts, even precisely referring to 1917, when folk singer Carlos Gardel recorded his first tango song Mi Noche Triste (meaning “my sad night”), causing a sensation and resulting in the tango being associated forever after with the feeling of tragic love. From then on, the tango was sung as well as danced. (See the video at the bottom of this post.)

I had commented in an earlier post about the challenge in Künstlerromane of depicting sound (music) in words. It is a challenge to the writing style of the author. De Robertis exhibits a flamboyant style of writing in this novel, I would even call it labile, loose, like stream-of-consciousness, but it does the trick when it comes to the novel’s themes. There are few plain sentences. The paragraphs have a syncopated rhythm, like a tango in fact, with long, drawn out sentences or phrases contrasting with one-word or two-word statements. She frequently emphasizes a particularly dramatic word or thought by putting it in italics. Most paragraphs contain a metaphor, a simile, a comparison to something, and not just something plebeian or expected, but something exotic. So much effort, so many words, but then, I can hardly imagine anything more difficult than to depict not only the world of tango music, but the world of drag artists, of someone who lives as both a man and a woman:

“Sometimes, deep in the night, she unbound her aching breasts and sat alone in front of the cracked mirror, staring at herself in the light of a single candle, amazed at what she saw. A not-man, Not-woman. A fallen-woman-risen-man. She couldn’t tell what was stranger: that a man existed inside her, or that the world accepted his existence. She wondered why no one saw though her disguise. Perhaps people could see only what they expected, what fit inside their vision, as if human vision came in precut shapes more narrow than the world itself, and this allowed her to hide in plain sight.” (Pp. 353, 354)

Other than a few digressions between Dante/Leda’s past life in the Italian village of “Alazzano”, and his/her current life in Buenos Aires, it is a straightforward coming-of-age novel, in terms of plot. In terms of characters, dramatic tension and settings however, it is a jarring, sock-in-the-head assault on the senses. I waded through the passages about sex almost trying to avert my eyes from the page, but, that being said, the sex scenes are not gratuitous, there are plots, passion, expectation, etc. all leading up to the moments. There is an indication, early on in the novel, that sex for Leda would not be straightforward:

“…what is this, she thought, what is this, my cousin made beast and now his body goes taut, push, silence. His weight rested against her. She held him. She felt starved for something – for what? A kind of knowledge.” (p.52)

Leda faces starvation in Buenos Aires, having arrived there only to find that her husband, who was also her cousin, had died. And so she puts on her dead husband’s clothes and assumes his identity, becoming “Dante”, learning to play the tango and eventually joining a band. From there, her journey is filled with music and that “kind of knowledge” that she is looking for and eventually finds with her lover, Rosa, a woman who sings the tango in a man’s suit – another drag artist, in fact.

Impassioned style works best with the tango

De Robertis’s passionate writing style is most effective when she describes the tango. The best way to explain this is to quote a few passages. Can’t you almost hear the music in your mind as you read? She makes the tango come alive with her words.

“How much had changed since then, since those days when the tango was fresh and young and has a percussive drive and vibrancy, before it passed trough the hands of hordes of immigrants, before it got slowed down by the bandoneón and the spirit of lament. The bandoneón, that boxy German instrument, accordion-like, made for voluptuous mourning. But the percussive bones of the tango were not entirely gone. They hovered under the surface, stepping, pulsing, tak-tak-takking in this music that was, along with the perfume vial, the only thing that had stayed with him all these years in which he had lost so many things…” (p.276)

“Except with the tango. The music itself seemed to carry something of this land in it…some nights, as she played on those torchlit summer stages, she felt the continent beneath her feet – the bedrock buried far under the wooden planks – moan in grief. Or perhaps it was pleasure. She didn’t know. But the moan was there; it wrapped itself around the backbone of Joaquín’s bass, those solid notes that formed a skeleton around which the melody could flex and breathe. The moan sailed along the underside of the bandoneón’s warm howl and echoed between the piano’s restless notes. It rose and fell around them, a ghost-sound in their midst, a disembodied echo, a throb of untold wounds and glimmers and urges and colors; the throb of América; the continental heartbeat, unleashed.” (p.515)

“There was no tango without music, and then the music came from her, from them, the music makers: she pressed her strings and fifty women’s shapely ankles moved in time, fifty lovely backs arched, fifty thighs lifted along trousered legs, on, blessed kick, hook, sliding. Oh, bodies pressing as she pressed the sweet neck of her instrument and watched from the stage.” (p.439)

Listen to the music on the video, below, of the couple dancing in Buenos Aires – you can hear the “tak-tak-takking” in the music, as well as the “moan” of the bandoneón.

Music as a lover, dancing as lovemaking, the tango as the immemorial representation of tragic love? Oh, yes, De Robertis does it with aplomb, all 860 plus pages of it.

Why the “gods of tango”?

In answer to the question, it is simply that the tango is based on the primitive rhythms of African slave music – “the sound of America with the sounds of Africa inside it”:

“The tango begins with the drums, and the drums are prayer, and they’re still underneath the rest of it.
Yes.
All right.
And so?
And so, my friends. Tango is the sound of the gods.” (p.674)

A good idea that moves

Ultimately, Leda/Dante’s secret is exposed – as the reader knew all along it would happen – and the two women (or man and woman?) flee to Montevideo in Uruguay.

“As the boat launched onto the Río de la Plata, they held each other close, humming tangos to mesh with the slosh of waves and, finally, falling into a gauzy, dreamless sleep.” (p.810.)

In English, the river is called the dull and faintly ridiculous-sounding name “River Plate”. And that is the difference between this novel and any other on the subject: De Robertis has done what any good author must; combine a good idea, or premise, with emotion. She took what could’ve been bland historical facts, and filled them with the hot breath and passion of the Americas. She took the “River Plate” and made it the “Río de la Plata”.

The author’s aim explained by Yann Martel

Celebrated Canadian author Yann Martel explains this requirement in the introduction to his collection of short novels, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios:

“My developing sense was that the foundation of a story is an emotional foundation. If the story does not work emotionally, it does not work at all. The emotion in question is not the point; be it love, envy or apathy, so long as it is conveyed in a convincing manner, then the story will come alive. But a story must also stimulate the mind if it does not want to fade from memory. Intellect rooted in emotion, emotion structured by intellect – in other words, a good idea that moves – that was my lofty aim.” (Copyright Yann Martel, 1993; published in Canada by Vintage Canada, division of Random House, Canada, 2002.)

Bill Tipton
Bill Tipton
Azucena Maizani
Azucena Maizani

De Robertis stimulates the mind though her descriptions of drag artists in tango (she refers to Billy Tipton, jazz musician, as well as Azucena Maizani, early tango singer and drag performer, in her acknowledgements), the development of the tango as an art form, and the history of Buenos Aires.

She reaches our emotions though her impassioned descriptions of music, landscape, loneliness, courage, desire, lust and love. It says something about her skill as a writer that I did get through all those passages about sex without throwing down my ipad in embarrassment and flipping forward speedily. She reminded me that love, no matter how it is or between who it is, is a beautiful thing that takes much forgiveness and acceptance by both parties. And that takes some doing, in my opinion.


More on the tango

Mi Noche Triste

Here is a recording of Uruguayan Alfredo Zitarrosa (March 10, 1936 – January 17, 1989) of Mi Noche Triste, mentioned in the novel. Gardel’s original recording sounds very soft and scratchy, but Zitarrosa plays the guitar beautifully here. This is old-school tango, and while Zitarrosa was Uruguayan (just across the river), I’m sure Argentinians who believe the tango is solely theirs, will forgive me its inclusion.

Argentine street tango

Here is a video of two very good Argentine Tango dancers on street in Buenos Aires. You can see that is quite different from the Ballroom Tango. Watch the sweeping legs and the close contact between the dancers, and listen to the faintly “moaning” music. Note also the emotional connection between the dancers. The Argentine Tango is very difficult, if not impossible, to dance with a stranger.

Astor Piazzolla

The one recognizable composer of tangos, apart from Carlos Gardel, is Astor Piazzolla (March 11, 1921 – July 4, 1992). In fact, his 1959 tango, Adiós Nonino, (meaning “goodbye Grandpa”) was played by Carel Kraayenhof at the wedding ceremony of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of The Netherlands (born Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti) on 2 Feb. 2002. By now his compositions are regarded as classical, not dance music. Queen Máxima was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The whole church full of royals and posh people had to sit perfectly still while it was played, not that I’m crazy about the soaring choir in the background. It made Queen Máxima cry, perhaps because her father was not at the wedding.

“Blue Tango”

I grew up with my parents dancing the tango in the living room of our little house in the town of Riviersonderend (meaning “river without end”) in South Africa. Their favourite, played here, was the huge 1952 hit, “Blue Tango” by Leroy Anderson. This is of course a European or Ballroom Tango, not Argentine, but when I hear it I see my Dad again, who has died, both dancing it and playing it on the piano. I’m sharing it here for your enjoyment.