In trying to decide what to read for my blog post on Argentina, how could I not choose a book called The Tango Singer? Many people are aware of the iconic dance, but outside of Argentina, less may be known about the singers whose music helped provide the atmosphere for the tango’s fiery passion.
This novel, by Tomás Eloy Martínez and translated by Anne McLean, follows the journey of New York University graduate student Bruno Cadogan as he struggles with his dissertation about Jorge Luis Borges’ essays on the tango’s origins. A chance meeting with an acquaintance convinces Bruno to travel to Buenos Aires to hear a tango singer named Julio Martel, who is rumored to be better than even the legendary Carlos Gardel.
Thus begins Bruno’s frustrating search for Martel, who doesn’t make regular appearances, but rather sings in inexplicable venues at random times. Bruno seems to always just miss Martel’s latest performance, and his pursuit becomes ever more frantic as he learns of Martel’s failing health.
Bruno develops another obsession shortly after his arrival in Buenos Aires – an overwhelming desire to see the aleph Jorge Luis Borges wrote about in his short story, “The Aleph.” Bruno may or may not be staying in the same boarding house in which the story was set, and one of his neighbors may or may not have a vantage point from which to see the aleph.
At this point, I felt the need to take a break from The Tango Singer in order to read “The Aleph.” Borges describes the aleph as “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending.” When the story’s narrator finally sees the aleph, here is how he describes the experience: “I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a tattered labyrinth (it was London).”
This idea of a labyrinth is a recurring theme in The Tango Singer, which may account for the book’s labyrinthian structure. Interspersed between descriptions of Bruno’s search for Martel and his plots to see the aleph are tales of political intrigue and horror from Argentina’s past, both distant and recent. Perhaps these are the spaces Bruno’s neighbor references when he says that “the shape of a labyrinth is not in the lines that form it but in the spaces between those lines.”
Entering the labyrinth of this book, I was never quite certain where the story was taking me or how it was going to get me there. What is certain, however, is that I savored every step in this mystical journey.
For purposes of this blog, I try to make foods that are mentioned in the books I’m reading. That was not an option with The Tango Singer, as very few foods were even discussed. After reading this passage, in which Bruno talks about a movie he’d seen, it became even more clear that I’d have to look for vegan Argentinian recipe ideas somewhere other than this book:
“A week later, in a series at the Malba, I discovered a short from 1961 called Faena (Slaughter), which showed cattle being knocked out with hammers and then skinned alive in the slaughterhouse. I then understood the true meaning of the word barbarous and for a whole week could think of nothing else. In New York, an experience like that would have turned me into a vegetarian. In Buenos Aires it was impossible, because there was nothing to eat but beef.”
On that cheery note, I decided to try my hand at making vegan empanadas, using meatless crumbles instead of ground beef. I found the recipe at greenstraightup.com. The instructions for the dough mention baking powder, although that’s not one of the listed ingredients. I made my dough without it and it turned out fine. I used the first filling recipe, and it was really good. Next time, I think I’ll try to make dessert empanadas.
At one point in The Tango Singer, many of Bruno’s neighbors are forced to move to Fuerte Apache, a settlement just outside of Buenos Aires that had been created to house the poor. Bruno’s landlady’s response is, “I wouldn’t go for love nor money. I don’t know how they can take those poor children there.”
In searching for an organization for this week’s blog post, I found that Habitat for Humanity is helping develop stable communities for low-income residents living on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. To help people like Bruno’s neighbors, my donation this week is going to Habitat for Humanity Argentina.
NEXT STOP: BANGLADESH
(Originally published on October 29, 2016.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.