Friday, January 11, 2008

The Tango Singer

A book by Tomás Eloy Martínez.

Bruno Cadogan arrives from New York in an economically battered Buenos Aires in 2001 with a mission to interview and hear legendary tango singer Julio Martel so that he can finish his thesis on the origin of the tango. He is immediately befriended by El Tucumano, who finds him a cheap room in a boisterous SRO which, against all odds, is possibly the very building where Borges set his celebrated story The Aleph. (The Aleph is a point in space that contains all points (i.e. the universe) in a small iridescent sphere of light, in which one can see everything, from all angles, in infinite detail). He begins to believe that the basement apartment just might contain The Aleph at the foot of the nineteenth step.

The secretive and elusive Martel is rumored to be even better than Carlos Gardel, the greatest tango singer of the 1920’s and ’30s. A woman describes Martel’s hypnotic singing like this: " . . . it was the nightingale, the first lark from the world’s beginnings, the mother of all songs. I still can’t understand how he could have breathed, where he got the strength to keep from fainting. I found myself crying when I heard him sing…I myself was remembering things I never lived." Yet, Martel has never been recorded and his seemingly random venues are never announced. Both The Aleph and Martel become Bruno’s obsession. Both prove difficult to find.

"I had the feeling,” Cadogan says, “that in the Buenos Aires of those months the threads of reality moved out of step with the people and was weaving a labyrinth in which no one could find anything or anyone."

Buenos Aires is described to us as an illusory and incoherent labyrinth (which, in reality, it sort of is in some neighborhoods). It causes Bruno to be perpetually lost, wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night as the city disintegrates into chaos as a consequence of the economic crash. The streets are clogged with roving demonstrators, the night belongs to homeless children, some shops are pillaged, and others simply close down. Against this backdrop, Bruno becomes convinced that Martel’s apparently random concerts are actually based on some mysterious formula and begins mapping them, frantically trying to solve the riddle before the sickly, decaying Martel dies.

Bruno’s quest is best described as hallucinatory, which makes for some interesting, if not challenging, reading.Martínez keeps us deliberately off balance, just like the protagonist.There are stories within stories, fictional, but supported with enough historical facts and factual descriptions of Buenos Airesthat they are believable. Eventually we, and Bruno, learn why they are presented to us in the book.

Of particular interest to me were the often exquisite, if not phenomenal descriptions of Buenos Aires ". . . majestic from the second or third story upwards and so dilapidated at street level, as if the splendour of the past had remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear.

An outstanding book! - John



Blogger Ralph Murre said...

Your future as a reviewer is assured. Very nice!

8:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home