Book Review: “The Tango Singer” by Tomás Eloy Martínez
It’s a literary labyrinth, a Buenos Aires travelogue, horrific history, magical realism, and more. Must read it along with Borges’ Aleph.
Martínez, who died only a few years ago, is a writer’s writer. I haven’t enjoyed a literary journey, such as his book led me on, since my days of reading Camus’ novels. Bruno Cadogan, the narrator, arrives in Buenos Aires ostensibly in search of the origins of tango. Thus begins a Sisyphus-worthy search for answers as Bruno desperately stalks the tracks of one mysterious tango singer, Julio Martel (oddly enough, there is a real-life Julio Martel singer).
We begin to understand early on that the search goes beyond the literal and that the author (via his narrator) is excavating not only his native country, Argentina’s dark history (brutal dictators, forced prostitution of immigrant women, the Dirty War), but also the lofty literature of his compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges. Bruno is lodged in an apartment on Garay Street in Buenos Aires’ San Telmo barrio, where a metaphysical story unfolds, rather has unfolded, in a Jorge Luis Borges story called The Aleph.
You must read The Aleph simultaneously with this novel! It’s a long short story. There is a scene in The Tango Singer where the narrator is lost in a maze in a barrio, suffering heat prostration thanks to the unrelenting southern sun and no shade to offer respite. I was living in Buenos Aires while reading this novel, so I found this labyrinthine barrio and walked it. It is there indeed but less spectacular than many of the other places in the book I had already visited (love fiction that also serves as reliable travelogue — for example, Francine Prose’s novella, Three Pigs in Four Days, is a tour of Paris).
The actual apartment on Garay Street is also less than spectacular. But I can still recall the virtual experience of this book in the end, as if I myself were lying at the bottom of a stairwell staring into the dark void, watching the universe expand from the Big Bang in all directions. Perhaps it was the Borges story that imprinted this imagery on my brain. The Tango Singer put me in the same cosmos. Read it and let me know if you don’t expand in all directions.