Knopf. 367 pp. $26.95
Times change. A century ago, Pope Pius X issued a pastoral letter against the tango, condemning it as degenerate, immoral, pagan. Today, Pope Francis insists that he likes it, that it lives deep inside him, that he often danced it in Argentina as a young man. Punctuating this striking reversal of opinion, hundreds of tango dancers flash-mobbed St. Peter’s Square on the pontiff’s birthday in December, twirling around on the cobblestones of the Via della Conciliazione in what the Catholic Church once would have called an obscene act. “I see the ‘tangeros’ are here,” Francis exclaimed, greeting the dancers with an amiable welcome.
Tango has had a long and storied career since it burst into the wild drinking establishments of Buenos Aires’s port and meatpacking district just before the turn of the 20th century. It began as a dance between men as they waited their turns in brothels: a strange, circling ballet, depicting mortal combat and often ending in just that. By the time Pius donned the red mantle, the dance was emphatically between sexes — a venomous strut — the reenactment of a tension between pimp and prostitute, with the man showing the woman a thing or two. Now, of course, the dance is taught to bright-eyed children, performed in glittering ballrooms the world over, hawked to tourists from Paitzdorf to Peoria. It may be an art form, but it’s also a booming trade.
All the same, it is in that earlier, meaner era — in the days of papal condemnation, of Kaiser Wilhelm’s strict ban and of Queen Mary of England’s censure — that Carolina De Robertis sets her potboiler of a novel, “The Gods of Tango.” And it is into the overcrowded conventillos of turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, those squalid slums filled with luckless immigrants and the stench of plonk, sweat and foul meat, that she thrusts her virginal heroine, a 17-year-old Italian bride named Leda. Stepping off the boat in 1913, a scant year before the pope’s jeremiad, she has no idea that the husband she has come to meet is dead, that the violin under her arm will be her salvation and that the music welling from flophouses will be the agent of profound change.
Leda is from the village of Alazzano, a day’s carriage ride from Naples. Married by proxy to her cousin Dante, an earnest, hard-working youth who is trying to carve out a better life for them in the New World, she seems to inhabit a numbed state: observing rather than living, registering emotion rather than truly feeling. She goes through the motions of her wedding without excitement or curiosity about what may await her across the sea. When this tall, gangly, unshakable young woman arrives to find that her husband has been killed in a brawl and that she is alone in a dangerous new land, decorum dictates that she write to her family, ask them to send money and wend her prudent way home. But something stays her hand.
She fends for herself by working in a sewing circle in the courtyard of her conventillo, alongside a few newly made friends. Slowly, tentatively, she gets a sense of Buenos Aires. She hears, to her astonishment, the tango, played right there, on a city street. An old man is the irresistible siren. “The sound ensnared her. It invaded her bones, urged her blood. She didn’t know herself; it now occurred to her that she knew nothing, nothing, nothing about the world, could not have known a thing when she didn’t know the world contained this sensation, such sound, such wakefulness, a melody as rich as night.”
Alone in her tiny room, she takes out the violin her father gave her as a gift for her husband, Dante. Women are not allowed to play, and Leda has never been encouraged, but her father had been a gifted violinist, and she had learned by internalizing every lesson he had lavished on her brother. Fingering the cadences silently, without sounding the strings so that she won’t alarm the neighbors — “Where had the old man put his fingers?” — she starts playing the tango, practicing until she is worthy of playing alongside the ancient on the street.
It is here that Leda makes a bold decision, almost unimaginable for a woman of her time: She will dress in Dante’s clothes, pass herself off as a man and pursue this musical obsession. She leaves her neighborhood, cuts off her hair, lowers her voice and embarks on a new life in the barrooms and brothels of that fierce port city. So it is that Leda becomes Dante, and Buenos Aires opens up to her in all its raw sexual splendor, forcing this newly transformed heroine into a life that is forbidden in a panoply of ways.
De Robertis — the Uruguayan-born author of two well-received novels, “Perla” and “The Invisible Mountain,” as well as a former women’s rights activist — is a natural storyteller, although not a particularly literary one: Her prose never soars, her characterizations are workmanlike, and her ambiences are not especially memorable. Strangely, we never truly hear the tango. We are given passages like these, meant to stir us to ecstasies we may have risen to in the past with the music: “She played tango after tango, songs that swelled, poured, flowed, strutted, raced, crept, crooned, sparked, howled, mourned, bragged, and battled with the air. She embraced them all, played them all. Her joy grew alongside her skill.” But we are told about songs, rather than made to hear them. The tango, in all its serpentine, flicking unrest, remains an elusive lover, even as Leda/Dante goes from romance to romance, woman to woman, conquest to conquest, weaving a tangled web of human deceit.
Strung like a leitmotif throughout is the mysterious end of Leda’s young friend back in Alazzano, a girl who began as a free, vital spirit and was changed by cruel fate into a lewd, slavering madwoman. It is this heartbreaking thread and the book’s relentlessly propulsive story of gender-switching in a perilous time that keep us rapt, turning the pages.
Never mind that a violinist cannot perfect the art of tango by fingering alone, without mastering a fiery but tender bow. Never mind that for all the drunken fools Buenos Aires may hold, a woman cannot pretend to be a man for long.
A generous critic might say that De Robertis has chosen her subject well. Those who know the tango, as Pope Francis does, will feel that it is a living coil, moving deep within them. And so, for all the book’s imperfections, a winding narrative emerges. We can imagine the soundtrack of Dante’s life.
Ron Charles will return next Wednesday.