May 17, 2006

Between The Covers

Translations have not appeared here — until now. Art as much as science, a well translated work (more difficult to achieve in fiction than in nonfiction) is almost as much a creative labor of love as the original, but how to know what's good, even excellent?

For years, undergraduates read Dostoyevsky, Freud, Homer in standard academic versions. Then new translations came along, heralded as capturing more truly than before spirit and nuance as well as substance and style. Maybe. Claims for one translation over another reflect literary taste and cultural traditions as well as linguistic sensitivity and expertise. In the case of The Tango Singer, however, three reasons suggested it was time to notice a translated book: 1) the establishment in 2005 of the prestigious International Man Booker prize, for which this novel was short listed; 2) the author, Tomás Eloy Martinez's knowledge of English and close involvement in the translation; and 3) the growing Latino population on The East End, some of whom, active in the arts, no doubt know and appreciate the literary heritage of, arguably, Argentina's finest writer, Jorge Luis Borges (d. 1986), whose influence permeates this book. A major irony — and an appropriate one — is that from paragraph one The Tango Singer sounds a bit like, well, a translation.

An author's note assures that, with two minor exceptions, "all the characters in this novel are imaginary, even those who seem real." That last phrase defines in part the surreal yet reality-based quality of this strange first-person tale which incorporates, within the narrative space of a few months in late 2001, much of the horrific and savage political history of Argentina. Though the story begins realistically in New York, in the voice of Bruno Cadagan, a graduate student at NYU who is doing his thesis on Borges's essays on the origins of the tango, it soon veers off into a series of tales within tales, once the narrator arrives in Buenos Aires, on the trail of someone he's heard about by chance. That someone is a tango singer with the adopted name of Julio Martel, whose remarkable voice is said to be even greater than that of the (real-life) Carlos Gardel (d.1935), but whose special province is singing in an early tango style, and whose special strategy, as it is slowly revealed in this book, is to sing for free but only in places identified with victims of torture and suffering. His recitals thus follow an "itinerary of crimes committed with impunity in the city of Buenos Aires."

Martinez, a journalist, academic, and award-winning novelist who has lived in the U.S. since 1982 and directs the Latin American Program at Rutgers University, has crafted in The Tango Singer a Borges-like novel full of signature elliptical scenes, hallucinatory confusions, and references and allusions to Borges's stories, especially "The Aleph," that try to capture what Borges felt about the "shamelessness" of Argentina its contradictions, beauty, degradation.

As Bruno observes, "Buenos Aires was so majestic from the second or third story upwards and so dilapidated at street level, as if the splendor of the past had remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear." It's a city where people "have the arrogance to exist too much," living in cafés or in splendid rotting facades, wandering aimlessly in the streets, hiding out in cellars, indifferent to reality. "There are no reliable maps of Buenos Aires, because the street names change from one week to the next." Imperceptibly, Bruno finds himself drawn into this passive insanity, and though he increasingly spends time with the singer's lover, he is always one step behind catching up with his elusive prey who somehow still manages to sing magnificently, though he is deformed and dying.

At its most significant, The Tango Singer connects the history of the tango in the 20th century with the country's despotic, ever-changing military regimes (five presidents in 10 days during the period Bruno visits) and the total collapse of the Argentine economy, with its attendant rioting. Ostensibly about Bruno's search for Martel, the book is essentially a labyrinthine quest, by way of circles of discourse (speakers nested within speakers), for some meaning in a country gone mad. An unusual novel, memorable and darkly prophetic.

The Tango Singer, a novel by Tomás Eloy Martinez, trans. by Anne McLean. Bloomsbury, 246 pp., $23.95.

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