The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis Recreates Buenos Aires at the Turn of the 20th Century
I was first drawn to The Gods of Tango by its title. Since the time I attempted to learn how to dance the tango in a Buenos Aires club some years ago, I have been fascinated by the art form, particularly the intensity of its music. Tango emerged as a serious movement in Argentina and Uruguay in the early 20th century, and promotional material for this novel mentioned that this was the backdrop for the story – which I knew would probably interest me.
It did – immensely. But after I’d read only a few pages of this novel, I knew that there was far more than the historical period to interest me. I was captivated by the overwhelming talent of the author. I had heard of Carolina de Robertis, but had not read her previous work. Her ability to tell a story, shape a character, and immerse the reader in the period, is remarkable. She tells me that her research for The Gods of Tango involved four years of studying scholarly texts in English, Spanish and Italian, and interviewing people in Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, and the United States about their relationships to migration, history, and the tango. This attention to detail shows in her story, but in the very best way. During the writing period, she consulted with historians, musicologists, musicians, and friends on the transgender spectrum; she took tango dance lessons; and she took violin classes to better understand her protagonist’s experience with her instrument.
This protagonist is Leda, who in 1913 leaves her small community in Italy to marry a cousin who had immigrated to Buenos Aires a couple of years before. Upon arrival, she discovers that he has been killed in an anarchist demonstration. She is able to initially live in the room he’d prepared for them, but knows she now has three choices: marry someone else, return to her parents, or make her own way in the world. The first two choices would require her to conform to society’s expectations, and there is also her burgeoning attraction to the tango to consider. Within months, she is playing the violin and immersing herself in the world of the tango. Since this is exclusively a man’s world at that point in time, she dons men’s clothing, changes her name, and succeeds in fooling just about everyone, including women with whom she becomes intimate.
I asked Carolina de Robertis if she was able to draw on real-life examples for this aspect of the novel.
“About two years into writing this book, I discovered the U.S. jazz musician Billy Tipton, who passed as a man for over 50 years, until his death at the age of 72. His biographer, Diane Wood Middlebrook, did an incredible job of piecing together Tipton’s experiences and strategies for survival, based on exhaustive interviews with his former wives, colleagues, and grown adopted children. I was able to draw on this case study in the development of my novel, from the nuts and bolts of how Tipton avoided bathroom breaks with the guys to his first wife’s pregnancy scares, which spoke volumes about Tipton’s ability to persuade others of his manhood in even the most intimate of circumstances. That latter detail made me realize that that I could get much bolder in my portrait! And so I did.”
She explains that the story came out of a visit to Italy in 2010, where she traveled to accept a prize for her first novel, The Invisible Mountain. “While there, I took a pilgrimage to the tiny town of Prepezzano, from which my great-grandparents had immigrated to Argentina about 100 years before. I connected with my incredibly wonderful relatives there, the descendants of my great-grandfather’s sister; they embraced me immediately as long-lost family. By the time I left, I knew that I had to write fiction that explored this village, and the great migration of Italians to South America.”
She points out that the turn of the 20th century was an incredibly fascinating time in Argentina’s history. Waves of poor immigrants were flooding Buenos Aires and transforming the culture. “The year in which the book opens, 1913, was a huge transition year in the history of the tango, when the new dance caught fire in Paris and caused the elite of Buenos Aires to finally pay attention to what they’d previously disdained as a poor people’s phenomenon. So the evolution of the tango connects richly with themes of class, sexuality, taboos, the meshing of cultures, and the expressions of a society in flux.”
I felt that her depiction of Buenos Aires at this time was both vivid and believable. When I mentioned this, she told me that it’s important to her, when recreating a historical setting, to make sure that it feels as physically real as possible—so the reader can be sensually immersed in its world. One technique she uses is to infuse scenes with sensory details beyond the visual: to evoke sounds, scents, flavors, and tactile dimensions. “It’s one thing to say that a tenement is dirty,” she says by way of example. “It’s another thing to say, instead, that it smells of bread, urine, and rotting cabbage.”
Thanks to her Uruguayan and Argentinean origins, Carolina de Robertis has been familiar with the tango since childhood. She shares that one of her grandfathers composed tangos in his spare time, and that the sheet music to one of his songs hung framed in their kitchen. To write this novel, however, she did need to research the origins and development of tango, which she accomplished through reading about it, gathering stories, listening to it and dancing it. I particularly enjoyed how she wove its evolution into the story – from a male art form associated with the underworld and the poor, to one embraced by society’s elite, with expansion to song and eventual acceptance of female performers.
I was pleased to hear that this author’s fourth novel is underway. She tells me that it’s set in Uruguay, and is “a sweeping intergenerational portrait of another long-marginalized history: the struggles, resilience, and incredible artistry of Uruguayans of African descent”. I’m sure it will illuminate a not-so-well known piece of the past, as well as challenge its readers to think about society and the forces that shape people – as she has achieved so wonderfully in The Gods of Tango.
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the web features editor for the Historical Novel Society. She served as the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.
Posted by Claire Morris