From the Caribbeans, we move to the South American continent. Argentina occupies a large portion of the Southern American cone and is the largest Spanish speaking country in the world. It is a middle power in international affairs and has a strong fast growing economy with a very high score on all the human development indices. The country has a tormented history of dictatorship and civil wars. However it is one of the few countries in the world to attempt to make amends for the past sins so thoroughly. After democracy was restored, the families of missing citizens from the dictatorship era have been awarded compensations to the tune of $200,000!
Argentinian literature is a mammoth creature, roaring its head in the world literature jungle. Authors and poets like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar have elevated the stature of Argentinian literature in the world’s eyes. Main Argentinian cities have bookstores that never close.
For my reading, since I am specific about sticking to novels as much as possible, I am choosing The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez. It is an opportunity to look into the Tango culture on which Borges has written popular essays and into the life in Buenos Aires, the capital city.
If ever there is a book which veers way off from its blurbs, then its The Tango Singer. The novel is set in the shadow of Borges and is as much a homage to Argentinian literary giants as an exploration of Buenos Aires. A good background reading would be Borges’ essay on the origin of Tango and his short story, The Aleph.
The story is about Bruno Cadogan from New York who travels to Buenos Aires to write his dissertation for the Fulbright grant he has received. Once is Buenos Aires, he hears about and is fascinated by the singer, Julio Martel, who has a legendary voice, performs century old tangos for no particular audience in unexpected places in the city, has no recordings whatsoever of his voice and is drawing a mysterious map of the city with his performances. Bruno, in search of Martel’s next performance, comes in contact with unexpected spheres of life in the city. Also he finds a cellar which was probably depicted in Borges’s story, The Aleph. Although the story itself mentions that no such object actually exists, many people, along with Bruno, seem to think it is real and are constantly in search of it. This leads him to come face-to-face with another layer of life and in the process, Bruno also loses his heart to another man. This pilgrimage of sorts introduces him to a country going through turmoil, its people suffering torture, violence, forced evacuations, all the time fighting for a better future.
Most of the novel comes across as a disjointed set of events from history and concurrent time thrown together, with a new character thrown into the potpourri in every chapter. Its difficult to get absorbed into the story and I found it hard to empathize with any of the characters or the author for a long while into the novel. However some elements like the long winding commentary on loneliness in a big city and the bizarre obsession in Argentina with the corpses of dead politicians are interesting. Buenos Aires is lauded as a city with wonderful cafes “perfect for writing novels. Reality didn’t know what to do there, so wandered around loose, hunting for authors who would dare to tell it.” and “Thirty years earlier, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been surprised that Buenos Aires housewives would buy the Hopscotch and One Hundred Years of Solitude as if they were noodles or lettuce and take the books home in their grocery bags.”
The disjointed elements in the story do get tied in a neat bow in the end and turn quite poignant. The author sounds most honest when he says the protagonist’s attraction for Julio Martel’s lover is in reality “a craving to contemplate her abyss“. It ends on a hopeful note that the world still spins due to the likes of the Tango singer, who in spite of his frail body and failing health tries to do his bit to bring peace to a world racked with violence, through his art.
“Human beings, as insignificant as we are, always try to live on.”
While I am not completely satisfied with my choice for reading from Argentina, where one is really spoiled for choices, I am happy to be acquainted with the thriving literary culture and will purse some of the more popular names for further reading.
Other Options from Argentina:
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel – Macedonio Fernandez
A novel with a unique literary setting, having more than 50 prologues
The Buenos Aires Quintet – Manuel Vazquez Montalban
A contemporary novel with a commentary on the effect of history