Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Tango Singer –Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez

This is the second book of the Argentine writer Tomas Eloy Martinez, I have read.

Bruno Cadogan, a writer from New York arrives in Buenos Aires to interview and write a book on the elusive and legendary Tango singer Julio Martel and complete his dissertation on Jorge Luis Borges's essays on tango. Martel has a great voice like the famous Carlos Gardel and sings old tangos. Unlike the handsome and popular Gardel, Martel is physically deformed and suffers from diseases and constant pain. Martel never records his songs and so the only way to listen to him is to see his live performances. But he shuns theatres and public and performs in plazas, streets and in front of certain buildings and monuments. He appears in the venues without notice and starts singing heart rending tangos. Bruno tries to follow the trails of Martel and unravel the mystery behind the choice of venues, dates and lyrics for each performance. He discovers that there is a pattern to Martel´s choice of places and dates for his performances. These form a map of the darkest moments in the city’s past. They relate to historic events including massacres in such places as well as tragedies related to his personal life and that of his friends. One of Martel´s boyhood friends joins the Montoneros Guerilla group and is involved in the kidnapping of General Aramburu. The Group used him as hostage to ask for the return of the body of Evita which was secretly hidden by the military dictatorship. They kill Aramburu when the dictatorship refuses to give in. Later, the group kidnaps the body of Aramburu from the cemetry and uses it as hostage to ask for the return of Evita´s corpse. More on this in my previous blog

During one of the wanderings in the labyrinths of the city following Martel´s trails, Bruno comes across Alcira,the girlfriend of Martel. Alcira´s love for Martel is unrequited love. Martel does not treat her well and is cruel to her sometimes. But Alcira loves the voice of Martel and is unconditionally devoted to him and takes care of him till the end. She takes Bruno to the hospital where Martel is fighting for life. Martel picks up the strength to sing a last tango
¨Buenos Aires, cuando lejos de mi ¨– Buenos Aires , so far from me…
Martel dies, after singing this last tango. Bruno´s admiration for Martel is now transferred to Alcira with whom he falls in love. He wants to marry her and take her to New York. But she does not foresee herself to a life outside the Argentine labyrinth and disappears when he goes to use the toilet in the café.

The life of Martel is like the theme of a typical tango, evoking tragedies, frustrations, bitterness and pathos. But Martel lives through them with zest and passion.

Tomas gives a glimpse of the recent history of Argentina through the stay of Bruno when he is caught in the December 2001 financial collapse of Argentina followed by the historic economic and political crisis. The Argentine government declares the largest debt default in world history and devalues the currency by three times. His bank account is frozen and his movements in the city are disrupted by the public protests and traffic blocks. The hungry and angry mobs riot against the government, attack public properties and loot super markets.

Tomas portrays vividly the cafe culture of the elegant city of Buenos Aires . Bruno spends most of his days and nights in the cafes of the city. Cafes are not just for coffee. Like many Porteños ( inhabitants of the city of Buenos Aires) Bruno takes refuge in the cafes, where he reads, researches, reflects and people-watches in between cups of cafe. Argentines including writers such as Borges had used the cafes of the city for inspiration, writing, meetings, celebrations and rantings and ravings against governments, world and life.

Through a sub plot in the novel, Tomas recreates the famous Aleph story of Luis Borges, the Argentine genius and writer. In the building where Bruno stays there is a basement in which a mad and reclusive librarian lives. Bruno is convinced that this basement is the same as in the house of Beatriz in the Garay street mentioned in the short story of Luis Borges with the title Aleph. In his story Borges says he saw Aleph while lying down in the dark cellar and counting off nineteen steps. After the intial panic of darkness of space and fears, Borges says he saw Aleph, which he describes as

-a point in space that contains all other points
-the only place on earth where all places are, seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending
- a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance.
-millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive
-daybreak and nightfall
-the multitudes of America
-all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected him
Borges concludes ¨I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth¨.

Bruno has been trying to go to the basement to experience and encounter Aleph. Finally when he goes there,the building is demolished and Aleph is gone.

Tomas has cleverly blended his fiction with the realities of Argentina and Buenos Aires creating a magical realism. It is difficult to know which is magic and which is reality. Argentine history and real life are merged with fantasy seamlessly. Tomas has used the name of Julio Martel, a Tango singer, who died in february 2009. But the story of the Martel in the book is totally different from the real life of Martel.

Tomas is perceptive in describing Buenos Aires and the Porteños. Here are some excerpts
- Buenos Aires city is so majestic from the second or third floor 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.
-The true labyrinth of Buenos Aires is its people. So near and at the same time so distant. So similar on the outside and so diverse within. Such reserve, which Borges tried to assert as the essence of the Argentine, and at the same time such shamelessness.

-I thought the cafes were perfect for writing novels. Reality did not know what to do there and wandered around loose, hunting for authors who would dare to tell it. Everything seemed very real, perhaps too intense you could feel it burning up and stinging the skin…

I like the hypnotic story telling of Tomas leading to delirium and suspension in magical realism. He helps the readers to understand and experience the authentic and labyrinthine Argentine spirit and psyche. I have already bought my third book of Tomas Eloy Martinez. The title is The Peron Novel. I am sure Peron would have given ample material and provocation for Tomas to dig deeper into the Aleph of Argentines.