The Gods of Tango
By Carolina de Robertis
This is a switch from my usual reading in that it’s general literature rather than genre, but I ran across some recommendation for it that I can no longer recall and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did because it’s really very good.
The writing is very lush. Very poetic. And generally a style that I enjoy a lot and Anna dislikes to the point of finding it unreadable. But it’s an appropriate style, too, for a story set in Beunos Aries in the early 1900s, as the immigrant communities ballooned and the tango developed as a music style, a dance, and a culture in the cross cultural whore houses that catered to that population.
The story line follows Leda, who at seventeen marries by proxy her cousin Dante and sets out on her own from Italy to join him in Argentina. The marriage and trip is entirely by her own decision as she longs to escape the small, traditional Italian town where everything is proper and no one acknowledges the horrors that happen behind closed doors. Upon reaching the massive immigrant city of Buenos Ares, Leda discovers that her husband died at a union strike just days before she arrived. She is now a widow in a city overrun by male immigrants from around the world, where women are divided into two groups: pure women supported by husbands or fathers and whores.
In her new city, refusing to return to her family in Italy, Leda considered her options along with her growing passion for tango music (and the thought of playing on the violin her father gave to her husband) and makes the dangerous decision to avoid both paths available to women, and to dress herself as a man instead.
I particularly liked how, while Leda is the main character and the story line follows her experiences, periodically there’s sections that show the events from another character’s perspective – and that perspective includes whole histories of who that person is and what they have experienced to bring them to this point. Even as the characters may have shallow views of one another, we the reader see how much the actions and interactions of the characters are driven by their pasts.
It is all very literary. Which is not something I generally say as a compliment. Normally I find “literature” just tries too hard to be “real” and misses both realism and story line, but this was actually really well done.
One warning though, is that the book is extremely graphic in its discussion and presentation of sexuality. The Buenos Aires culture is full of machismo, the demographics have many more male immigrants than female immigrants, and prostitution is the only job priced without the assumption that a woman is merely supplementing her husband or father’s income. Sex is discussed and had in a variety of permutations on a regular basis and described with physical, mental, and emotional detail. In addition to this, one of the driving themes throughout the book is Leda’s struggle to come to terms with what happened to her girl cousin but never acknowledged when she was twelve and her cousin thirteen.
But that said, it is a really good book that I almost skipped reading, but instead stayed up way too late finishing three days after I started.