reading my way through every country in the world…

#9 – Argentina: Music, mystery and Martel…

The Tango Singer

By Tomas Eloy Martinez

Bloomsbury, 2006

First of all, where on earth have I been? Studying, studying, studying – I have had more assignments than you can poke a stick at for my Master’s and any time I sat down to write a post for this blog, an incoherent ramble emerged and I realised I was capable of nothing more than reading trashy magazines or watching bad reality tv rather than composing (hopefully) sensible and entertaining reviews.

However, apart from the trashy magazines, I have also been reading some fabulous world literature and have been to another four countries: Argentina, Senegal, Scotland and Japan which I will be rapidly posting about over the next few weeks. I also had my 31st birthday and was generously given a massive pile of new books which are now waiting patiently for when my trusty Lonely Planet book opens to their respective countries. These books are shelved on my beautiful new bookcase which I will post pics of in the near future, along with my gorgeous “New York Soho loft-style” reading chair – bliss!

Anyway, on to The Tango Singer. I have to confess that I chose this book purely because I adore the tango dance- if you have seen the tango scenes in Scent of a Woman or Moulin Rouge you’ll understand why (if you haven’t click on the titles above which are linked to You Tube scenes).

Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar tango up the screen in Scent of a Woman

I was also very excited about reading about Argentina as a number of friends have recently travelled there and have absolutely raved about the country. Having reading this book, I am beginning to appreciate why. The story centres around Bruno Cadogan (who suffers the misfortune of having a surname that if misheard as Cagan – which does occur in the book – means “they shit” in Spanish). Bruno, a scholar of Jorge Luis Borges, has recently finished a dissertation on Borge’s essays on the history of the tango when a friend tells him about the mysterious Julio Martel, a tango singer who stages impromptu  performances  all over Buenos Aires in what seem to be completely bizarre and random locations.

Bruno decides to travel to Buenos Aires to track down the reclusive singer and once there he becomes convinced that there must be some pattern or reason to Martel’s choice of venues which range from  a Jewish Community Centre to a Waterworks Palace to a street corner. He later discovers that all of these places reflect an “itinerary of crimes committed with impunity in the city of Buenos Aires” and which include Vasena, where 30 striking workers were murdered during 1919 in what was known as “Tragic Week, and the corner of Carlos Pellegrini and Arenales where a paramilitary gang murdered a politician.

Cadogan’s quest sees him traverse much of Buenos Aires, providing one of the richest and best evocations of place I have encountered in all my reading so far. We not only get a description of the city during the time the novel is set – the last few months of 2001 – but also passages about some of the most monumental historical events occurring in Argentina during the 20th century, incuding those taking place at the time of the novel when Argentina was rocked by civil unrest, strikes, street protests and a succession of five Presidents within 14 weeks.

Bruno’s search for Martel is not his only quest within the book. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires he makes acquaintances with a man who offers him a place to stay in a boarding house which Bruno realises is the house featured in a short story by Borges called “The Aleph”.

Jorge Luis Borges

Bruno becomes convinced that the house really possesses “the aleph” which Borges described as ” a point in sp ace that contains all points, the story of the universe in a single place and a single instant”and which would be apparent as a “small iridescent sphere of blinding light”. This preoccupation has him meet several weird and wonderful characters, including a librarian who Bruno later betrays, informing the authorities that the librarian is illegally squatting in the boarding house. Bruno is tormented by his cruel act, saying: “in Buenos Aires where frendship is a cardinal and redeeming virtue, as can be deduced from tango lyrics, every informer is a bastard (for which) there are at least six scornful words: snitch, stoolie, grass, nark, squealer, fink”.

Beyond the history and politics, The Tango Singer is a love letter to Buenos Aires, if perhaps penned by a writer who is not so lovesick that he can’t see his muse’s faults. Buenos Aires is variously described as: “a labyrinth that occurred not just in space but also in time” and ” so majestic from the second or third story upwards and so dilapidated at street level, (it was) as if the splendor of the past remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear”.

Perhaps the most memorable description is the following one:

“It’s always been a city where the poor are plentiful and where one had to walk with occasional jumps to dodge piles of dog shit. Its only beauty is what the human imagination attrbutes to it. It’s not surrounded by sea and hills, like Hong Kong or Nagasaki, nor does it lie on a trade route along which civilisation has navigated for centuries like London, Paris, Florence, Geneva, Prague or Vienna. No traveller arrives in Buenos Aires en route to somewhere else. Beyond the city there is no somewhere else: the spaces of nothing that open up to the south were called on the sixteenth century maps, Land of Unknown Sea, Land of the Circle and Land of Giants, the allegorical names of non-existence. Only a city that had denied so much beauty can have, in its adversity, such an affecting beauty”.

I loved this book, it was one of those reading experiences where you feel you learn something on every single page and that you have been transported to another place and time. It made me want to go to Argentina and to learn even more about the country itself. Next stop for The Literary Nomad? Scotland! See you then…

The Literary Nomad xx

General reading value: 4/5
Armchair travel value: 5/5

More on Argentina


Capital: Buenos Aires

Population: 40,134, 425

Area: 2,766,890 km2

Language: Spanish

Religion: Christian

Currency: Peso

Delay your stay: Hopscotch by Julio Cortozar; The Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig; Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges; The Hare by Cesar Aira; Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez; The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

2 Responses to “#9 – Argentina: Music, mystery and Martel…”

  1. I love the cover of this book and your review is fabulous. I am going to put The Tango Singer on my Christmas Wish List. Looking forward to your next book review.

  2. Alex says:

    Thanks Laura! Great to hear from you and definitely read this over the holidays but be warned – you will immediately want to head to Buenos Aires! :)

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