Argentina’s flamboyant culture and troubled history are explored from an unusual perspective in this third translated novel from the Argentine-born (now U.S. resident) author of The Perón Novel and Santa Evita.
It recounts the scholarly adventure (and intellectual awakening) of American Ph.D. candidate Bruno Cadogan, a Borges scholar who travels in 2001 to Buenos Aires to research both his dissertation topic (the treatment of the eponymous dance’s history in Borges’s essays) and a subject suggested to him during a brief meeting with the cultural historian Jean Franco: legendary “tango singer” Julio Martel. Thus, with convenient if somewhat arch irony, Bruno arrives in Buenos Aires, and finds lodgings at the boarding house famous for being the supposed inspiration for Borges’s great, maddeningly coy and enigmatic short story “The Aleph.” That story imagines the existence of a theoretical “point” at which all other potential points converge. And, as it happens, the elusive Martel’s artistry runs a somewhat parallel course. Chronically ill and perhaps near death, the tango singer performs only free concerts, unannounced except by “underground” word of mouth, in abandoned buildings, warehouses and slums throughout his city. His songs are patchwork distillations of Argentina’s history, epic laments that chronicle the experiences of immigration and exile and, more generally, a long, sorrowful reiteration of cultural, ethnic and political conflict. This is an ingenious concept, and Martínez handles it quite cleverly, doling out information in quick little bursts of introspection, surmise and narrative. But this structure betrays him into overloading the novel with discursive commentary—and the result is that the central story of Bruno’s seekings and findings ultimately becomes neither convincing nor especially interesting. And yet, the image of the tango singer as his country’s moribund yet stoical conscience is hard to forget.
Worlds better than Martínez’s banal Perón-inflected novels—and reason enough to understand why some readers consider him one of Latin America’s major literary exports.