The Tango Singer, by Tomás Eloy Martínez

I picked this up because I felt a little weighed down by the other books I was reading and wanted something light instead and easy to read. The Tango Singer is certainly that, it slips by in that simple style of many a modern novel. But unlike many a modern novel, it’s also quite interesting.

The plot: an American post-graduate student goes to Buenos Aires to track down a legendary and unrecorded tango singer.

On his travels, he discovers Buenos Aires, its present, its history: the murderous past of its dictatorships, the present financial and political meltdown. The novel is set in 2001/2002 – at the beginning, as he’s leaving the United States, he mentions, in passing, the 9/11 business, before the novel descends into its real political concern, the economic and social collapse of Argentina, which comes to pervade the novel’s background. (Europeans could no doubt do well with reading this). Not merely is he obsessed with tracking down his tango singer, but he ends up living in the house where Borges’ Aleph resides and attempts to find that too. There’s a lot of Borgesiana in this novel.

As you’d expect with a South American novel, it’s often hard to decide what’s fact and fiction. Indeed, so scanty is my knowledge of Argentine history, I didn’t even bother. He could, I suspect be making many things up. I got the same impression reading his Santa Evita. To that novel, I felt, this one compared well: for a start, it’s shorter; which in my mind is a good thing, since many passages in Santa Evita seemed to go on far too long. This only happens a few times in The Tango Singer, most notably in the section which some people kidnap a corpse (does Tomás Eloy Martínez always have a kidnapped corpse in his novels? it seemed a bit shoe-horned into this one).

I’m sure I had more to say, but I forget it now.

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7 thoughts on “The Tango Singer, by Tomás Eloy Martínez

  1. I liked both this and Santa Evita quite a bit, which makes Eloy Martínez two out of three for me so far (I didn’t enjoy his El vuelo de la reina, a novel about “newspaper wars” in Argentina which I found to be a tad too pro forma “political thriller” for me). The mix of apparent fact and disguised fiction is one of the things I like about the author, but it’s funny how often he gets praised to the skies by some and derided by others as a lightweight “popular” author. Have you read his Perón Novel? That’s the one I most want to read next by him, but somebody gifted me with another title, so I don’t know if that’s the one I’ll end up with.

  2. I have Santa Evita on my piles but this sounds like a book I would like as well.
    I don’t think a novel is necessarily lightweight just because it is entertaining but maybe you meant something else.

  3. I think I am caught somewhere between praising it and finding it too lightweight. I guess the style just slips easily by and it never searches too profoundly into anything. It entertains yes, but in a quite easy superficial way. Perhaps there is very little emotion in the book too, very little that really engages: the narrator is a nobody (an american phd student, for Christ’s sake, as if he’d fallen into Argentina out of a Philip Roth novel – I say Philip Roth, obviously I know nothing about contemporary US literature). – No, I’ve not read The Perón Novel, just this and Santa Evita.

  4. I see what you mean. I find those PhD students or other academics populating the US novel quite tedious.

  5. Well, it could be worse: they could be doing an MA in creative writing. – I imagine Eloy Martínez wanted a) an outsider through whom he could examine the Argentine situation, and b) someone who’d likely appeal to an American audience.

  6. Obooki, I think you’re probably right on “a” and wrong on “b” above. Eloy Martínez taught at Rutgers University for many years, so my guess was he probably felt he could write a good student character rather than believing that a U.S. student character could pump up U.S. sales. In my admittedly biased opinion, U.S. readers aren’t really interested in South American fiction no matter where the protagonists are from.

  7. Yes, I forgot about that. I was thinking of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (a) set your book in America, b) including eccentric English pastimes like cricket, but explain these for Americans). All Lat-Am writers seem to teach in American universities – I suppose that’s where the money, and there’s less likelihood of being tortured and killed.

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