I enjoy listening to tango music even if, for me, the dance itself is a spectator sport. I also enjoy reading about tango’s origins, and the trajectory it took from the slums of Buenos Aires to Parisians salons, whence it returned with a veneer of respectability. Today, it’s often about Vegas-style floorshows, with skilled musicians and dancers, that pay superficial homage to its origins, while participatory milongas preserve something of the past. There’s nothing quite so gritty today, though, as there was a century ago.
Novelist Carolina de Robertis, a fellow Oakland resident who’s also an acquaintance of mine, addresses those complexities in her recent effort The Gods of Tango (in the coming months, I plan to publish most of an interview I did with her in preparing a short article on Uruguay for a national magazine, but confidentiality prevents disclosing more details at present). De Robertis is a true cosmopolite, born to Uruguayan parents in the United Kingdom but long resident in the United States. She has three passports and, with Buenos Aires family connections, would probably qualify for a fourth.
The Gods of Tango starts with the immigrant experience – or rather with the pre-immigrant experience, since her youthful Italian protagonist heads for the Americas to be united with her husband (also her cousin) in a proxy marriage. When Leda arrives in Buenos Aires, though, she learns that her Dante has died in a political protest and, ambivalent about returning to her dysfunctional Italian family, she decides to remain in Argentina.
In the process, running out of money, she becomes a seamstress, living in the tenement room her husband had rented, but her wages are insufficient to remain there. The depiction of life in the immigrant barrio of La Boca (pictured above, in the not too distant past), where she discovers the allure of tango and begins to play the family violin she brought, inspires her to make it her vocation – despite the musicians’ overwhelmingly macho subculture. She leaves her original tenement, cuts her hair, wears Dante’s clothing, and even adopts his identity – moving to a San Telmo tenement where she is literally closeted. De Robertis’s depiction of the extremes to which Dante must go to protect this new identity offer eloquent insights into everyone’s living conditions – not just those of one unique individual.
Recruited to a tango orchestra, Dante manages to fool everyone, including more than one woman with whom she/he becomes sexually involved. That may sound preposterous, but there is precedent – in the US, Billy Tipton – born Dorothy Lucille Tipton – passed decades as a male jazz pianist in the western states. Leda, though, can’t avoid the intrigues and violence that are part of the early tango scene and, eventually, has to flee for his/her life – but manages to keep the secret. Saying more than that would be a spoiler but, in the end, this apparently improbable novel tells us that many contemporary issues are not so new as we might have imagined – but it does so without indulging in anachronistic projections.