erasing clouds

Book Review: Tomás Eloy Martínez's The Tango Singer, translated by Anne McLean

reviewed by anna battista

“A sad thought you can dance,” reads a comment about what is universally considered one of the most sensual and powerful dance in the world, on the wall of the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires. The tango and its history have always inspired writers, singers, musicians and artists across the globe. Jorge Luis Borges wrote about it in “The History of the Tango”: “The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still guards, as does all that is truthful, a secret.” Tomás Eloy Martínez, one of the most celebrated contemporary writers from Latin America, attempts to untangle the secret of tango in his latest novel.

Born in Tucumán, northern Argentina, in 1934, Eloy Martínez worked as a journalist in Buenos Aires until 1975, when he was forced into exile by the military regime. Praised by Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes, Eloy Martínez is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, among them also Santa Evita, the most translated book in Argentinean history.

His latest work, The Tango Singer, is probably the best book in translation that came out this year so far. Eloy Martínez tells in it the story of Bruno Cadogan, a North American student who travels to Buenos Aires in 2001 to track down Julio Martel, a legendary tango singer who might inspire him in writing his PhD dissertation about Borges’s ideas on the origin of the tango. Martel is an elusive and mysterious character: the crippled singer with a unique voice between a tenor and a falsetto, has never released any records - his repertoire includes in fact early tangos that only real experts seem to vaguely know or remember - and usually turns up unannounced at different venues and in different parts of the city, singing for whoever wants to listen to his amazing voice, often for the ghosts of a long-lost Buenos Aires.

As he tries to track him down, Bruno draws a map of Buenos Aires, meets amazing characters and thinks he has discovered Borges’s imaginary Aleph, a small sphere of light that contains the story of the universe. In Bruno’s quest Argentine culture, politics and history - especially contemporary history with its economic crisis - mixes with fiction, while Martel sings “so what once was returns and nothing remains as it is.” Indeed, Martel chooses the venues for his concerts as homage to the people who died in those places: for example, he sings opposite the Athletics Club, a place of torture under the military dictatorship; opposite a factory where striking workers were gunned down during the Semana Trágica of 1919, and in the abandoned Waterworks Palace, where, at the end of the 1800s, the body of 14-year-old Felícitas Alcántara, murdered by a police inspector, was found. Myth and history intertwine in various subplots, forming the background for a hypnotic novel, as labyrinthine as the streets of the Argentinean Capital.

Tomás Eloy Martínez’s The Tango Singer is a moving and spellbinding novel, a beautifully page-turner full of poetry that will make you dream about Buenos Aires, about its inhabitants and its heroes and villains.


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