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Martínez, Tomás Eloy. The Tango Singer. Trans. Anne McLean. London: Bloomsbury, 2006. [2004]

Buenos Aires is one of the great literary cities of the world, both in terms of the literature written about and in terms of its denizens' penchant for reading books, and I couldn't leave without shelling out (quite a lot of money) for at least one volume somewhere. I found this book in Libros del Pasaje in Palermo, and I recognized it as one of the "recommended reads" in my Rough Guide. Reading a bit of it in the store confirmed that the prose was captivating, and the story, which follows a hapless American grad student who heads to Argentina ten days before the towers fell in New York and leaves a month after the cacerolazo protests and the collapse of the Argentine economy toppled five presidents in ten days.

Bruno Cadogan, who's told as he lands at Ezeia that his surname sounds a lot like the Argentine Spanish for "they shit," is a grad student in literature nominally writing his thesis on Borges' essays on tango, and he heads to the Paris of the South looking for the tango singer Julio Martel, who's supposedly even better than Carlos Gardel but has never recorded a solitary note. Along the way he falls in with a local fixer on the make, El Tucumano, and winds up in the boarding house that is the same one Borges describes in "The Aleph." "People will say that none of this is important, and the truth is it isn't, but I'd rather not overlook the slightest detail (4)." Here's the thing about Bruno: he's a bit of a moron in that way that grad students can be (book smart, not life smart), and he's obsessed with labyrinths, and he's not the world's most reliable narrator.

It's got to be difficult to write about the city that Borges and Cortazar put on the global literary map, and in some senses it helps to think about this novel in terms of the fact that it's probably misnamed. Despite the fact that it's called after Martel (or Gardel?) and it's nominally about Bruno's obsessive search for Martel and then his obsessive quest to understand the meaning behind the locations of Martel's impromptu concerts around the city, it's not really about Martel, and in some senses Martel himself is obviously a fiction, a plot device: in the first place, nobody's better than Carlos, who sings better ever year. Similarly, Bruno's obsessive, it-can't-be-real-but-I-have-to-know quest for the aleph that is supposedly visible from under the nineteenth step of the basement staircase, and into and out of the labyrinths he sees, finds, invents in Buenos Aires, is on some levels a way of banishing Borges' ghost by foregrounding its presence.

Whether this is an accurate picture of Buenos Aires then or now is another question entirely, of course. The novel reads very atmospheric about the fall of multiple governments and the protests that overtook the city in the second half of 2001, and while on one level Bruno's story just carries on the literary mythos the aforementioned Borges and Cortazar established for Buenos Aires, Bruno's account does at times align startlingly with my own perceptions. It's certainly true that I've never had guidebooks disagree with each other quite so extensively, beginning with how to pronounce Porteño Spanish and including things like the existence, hours, and price levels of stores, museums, and transit, and it's also true that like Bruno and despite my keen sense of direction I did find myself spectacularly lost at several points in my treks around the city, despite knowing exactly where I was and where I wanted to go, and at one point did wind up going in a near-circle. But the way Bruno describes tango seems totally off to me (and I find it significant that he turns down invitations to learn), and given that his narrative contradicts itself at times, I really couldn't state definitively that this novel does describe Buenos Aires as it is. I recognized parts of the city I visited in the city that Bruno described, but all this was ten years ago and more.

The other thing is that I suspect that there are some places where the fact of translation is getting in the way - a few places where Bruno uses words that are obviously Porteño slang in Spanish, but that in English are just English, and I suspect it may partly be the translation that kept me from realizing until page 134 that Bruno was possibly bisexual and definitely in a relationship with El Tucumano. It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized that he was just gay.

The final thing, though, is that the book isn't about Buenos Aires so much as it is about its tainted history. Martel sings at the sites of unpunished crimes ranging from the city's heyday of immigration in the late 19thC to the arrests and disappearances of thousands of people under the most recent dictatorship, which banned tango and all other forms of group gatherings. It's these people that Martinez, who survived the dictatorship in exile, wants to memorialize, and though I don't know the truth of most of these anecdotes I suspect that a good chunk of them are true. All in all, this was an engrossing read, and well worth the rather inflated price that I paid for it.
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