You think you’re reading one novel but, then, suddenly you realize you’re reading another. This is the dazzling transformation that slowly comes upon you reading Carolina De Robertis’s rapturous novel, The Gods of Tango. And then you stop and take a breath and ask yourself, “Isn’t this what fiction is supposed to do?” Catch us off guard, surprise us, and convince us by the art of the possible. And you have to say, “Well, yes—of course this is what De Robertis has been doing all along.”
I thought I was reading a novel about the emergence of Tango, in Argentina, beginning just before World War I. Seventeen-year-old Leda, from the small village of Alazzno, in Southern Italy, leaves her country after an arranged marriage, in order to join her cousin Dante, who is already is Buenos Aires. But, after a twenty-day crossing of the ocean, when she leaves the ship expecting to see her husband, she learns that he is dead, shot a few days earlier by police during a riot, when he was protesting work conditions with a group of so-called “anarchists.”
All Leda has brought with her, besides a few personal items, is her father’s violin, which he insisted that she give to Dante. The men who worked with him have saved his clothing for Leda and taken up a collection to provide her for food and a place to stay for a couple of months. A blind street musician introduces her to tango music, and although Leda was taught by her father how to play the violin, it’s only men who play the new music—mostly in bars and brothels, where no decent woman would be seen. Leda doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t want to return to Italy as some people have suggested. Being a widow at seventeen in her Italian village would be frightful.
She’s fingered the violin, silently, afraid to let anyone know that she can play the instrument. In the secrecy of her room, she has also put on Dante’s clothes. Soon she realizes that all she wants is to become “the person she became when she was locked in her room, in Dante’s clothes, playing soundless music. This strange new music, this tango, which could sing parts of her soul she’d never spoken. In those late-night moments alone in her room, she was freer than she’d ever been, freer than she’d ever thought a woman could become.” In Italy, the patriarchy so dominated women that they could be abused by men (their fathers, even their brothers) and nothing would be done about it. In Buenos Aires, she can become a woman of the streets or accept a low-paying position as a seamstress. “Migration,” she realizes, “is a cruel whore.”
Then one day, Leda puts on Dante’s clothes, has her hair cut so she looks like a man, and leaves the room where she has been staying. She moves into a tiny room in a building with men. When she’s on the streets, no one bothers her. She begins smoking, lowers her voice, binds up her breasts, and tries to walk like a man. Pretty soon he’s got a better job in a cigarette factory. At night, she goes with some of the men into the bars where Tango is played. When a violinist is shot, she tells the proprietor that she can play the violin and, soon, she’s playing there every night, learning the songs she has practiced silently in her room for weeks. It all seems pretty easy, almost too easy, especially when she is hired by the leader of another group to play with them.
As the tango developed, it grew from small ensembles of four or five musicians: a couple of violins, a bandoneòu, a bass, and shortly a piano, as the groups became larger and more popular. “She didn’t know how she did it, where the steadiness came from. Everything in her life was unsteady: pesos, bread, work, her hole of a room, the intense proximity of neighbors who must not under any circumstances discover what she was. Her life could be upended in an instant, and this truth often made her feel fragile, brittle-boned. And yet, when she stood on a stage (or in a corner when there was none) and played, something else awoke in her, a sureness so vast it seemed to belong not to her but to some mountain, some monster, some ancient thing. Not a sureness of survival—never that. A sureness of motion. A sureness of rhyme. A sureness of sounds bound together by desire.”
Shades of George Sands and other women who have taken on the appearance of men in order to succeed in their careers. De Robertis makes all of this convincing, especially the subterfuge “Dante” must employ with the men in the tango group so that they never question her gender. The group itself and tango slowly become more respectable, playing in quality restaurants that permit both men and women as their clientele. For women were liberated also: “…the dance floor gave them permission they didn’t otherwise have: permission to move, permission to touch a man in public, permission to breathe a slightly looser breath.” Tango no longer appealed to lowlifes but to the upper class, and its attraction extended well beyond Argentina, to Europe and the United States.
One night still under the guise of being a man, Dante hires a prostitute to educate her how to approach a woman so the woman will be sexually satisfied—and not just the man. That incident becomes a turning point in her own sexual being as she discovers her attraction to women. De Robertis links this shift convincingly to the way that women musicians and singers were slowly becoming part of tango groups, breaking the lock that men had on the artistry since its beginnings. The novel also moves well beyond the years of World War I, as other social changes began to take place even in cultures as heavily macho as Argentina.
The Gods of Tango transforms the history of a frenetic musical genre, as the music itself transformed the lives of those who created it.
Carolina De Robertis: The Gods of Tango
Knopf, 384 pp., $26.95