Monday, 2 December 2019

Book review: The Gods of Tango, Carolina de Robertis (2015)

I submitted early to the charm of this historical novel. You have to do this if you want to enjoy it properly. It relies for its basic elements on popular culture tropes, and while the story is rooted in truth – the anarchists and the immigration that helped make Argentina what it was are factual enough – the book is determinedly modern. It has a strange blend of gothic elements and ideas apparently drawn from pop-culture self-help books as well as a curiously high verbal register that meshes with the kinds of plot elements common to create drama that verges on melodrama. This aspect of the book makes it read, in parts, like the libretto for a 19th century Italian opera.

All things considered this is an unusual book, but it is one that deserves to be widely read.

Because I don’t want to give the game away, the bare bones of the plot will have to suffice as bait for prospective readers. In 1913 a 17-year-old girl from the countryside near Naples travels to Buenos Aires in order to be with her husband, whom she has married in his absence in Italy. But when she gets there on a ship she finds he has been shot dead by the police during a protest against Capital. Inspired by one of the girls in the house she shares in a poor part of the city, and having learnt how to play the violin from an old, blind man who performs on the street for coins, Leda absconds one night dressed as a man.

Most of the rest of the novel is about how she manages her adult life and is filled, unsurprisingly, with passion and violence. Buenos Aires is a city dominated by men; their pursuits when not at work become the background upon which Leda grafts the fabric of her existence. There is nostalgia in this novel, furthermore, not for a benign past – certainly nothing like that! – but, rather, for the true meaning of the tango. Who are its gods? You’ll have to buy the book and read it to find out.

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