Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
The God's Of Tango by Carolina De Robertis has one of those expansive, culturally descriptive yet dense with subjectivities and intersubjectivities quality that I have come to associate with many Latin American novels and novelists.
The story proceeds with moderation, beginning in late 19th early 20th century Italy with a young girl as protagonist, Leda. In the small provincial village and her family, there are seen to be tensions, secrets, and mysteries.
Her one young male contact is going to emigrate to Buenos Aires, Argentina for work that is supposedly available in an exploding industrial economy. Though she is only 17 she betroths him. He will send for her. She marriages him, her in Italy, him in Argentina via a surrogate of his uncle. She is sent for and ships off for BA. She arrives and is distressingly informed that he, Dante, has been killed in a union struggle. She needs to find her way, in deep poverty circumstances and life setting, though she has a tiny nest-egg that keeps her from the street and gutter.
She arrived with a few $$, some clothes, and a violin that she has not been able to learn to play in her Italian family and culture because she is not a man. Her father gives this singular violin with an apparent rich history that she loves, for her to give to her new husband, her first cousin. He never liked practicing violin. Since childhood she was captured by it. She loved to care for it as a child, and to watch and listen to music being played. She seemed to have a latent love for violin and music.
In this exceedingly coarse-grained story-line sketch of mine, she hears street music in a poor colony of the big city and became pulled to it as a silent observer. She finally asked one of the old master street musician to teach her. He balked - this is for men. This not beautiful, very lean, tall young woman persisted a bit and he acquiesced in small ways. Those in the busy patio of her rooming house were aghast, men and women.
After a while of crushingly tedious-for-her sewing work with the other women, and with which she couldn't really survive once her savings soon exhausted themselves, she conceived a frightening and almost sanity-busting plan. She cut her hair to man length, binds her small breasts, slipped easily into her deceased betrothed's clothes, grabbed her violin and the few pesos, and, leaving the rest behind, walked to another poor section of Buenos Aires, at some distance, to start a new anonymous life.
Speeding up the telling, she gradually gains opportunity as a young man to play tango in groups. One leader and skilled bandoneone player sees now-Dante's talents, enlists her, and gets the sextet gigs. They come to be recognized and eventually become the house tango orchestra for a polished affluent cabaret.
The story naturally has to account for her hiding her womanhood under a new persona. This is not easy, with a close band of men at their night-time work, after-gig drinking and brotheling, and at her boarding house. As one can imagine, how do you change clothes, clean yourself, accomplish toilet in privacy? She is plenty smart and socially adept within her disguise and continues to meet challenges successfully, always that tension of potential discovery in the background. Discovery would be a disaster of loss, embarrassment of revealed betrayal, and possibly violence.
Her musical giftedness of course develops and she becomes an inextricable member of this relatively seamless musical team.
She comes in contact with women who see her as a man and she comes increasingly to identify as a man. This a theme that has been around a few times in our and older eras; this unfolding is very organic, believable, almost invisible in plot construction, to my ears. There are physical intimacies, sex, fondnesses, close call dangers, and loves.
Thereby, this primary tale of tango's richly throbbing nature and evolution in the early 1900s comes also subtly to present to us readers the contemporary themes of cross-dressing, transgenderism, and homoerotic love and sexuality.
I meet regularly with a friend for 'integral', philosophical, and personal conversation and sharing. Maxi and his wife have been tangoing for a few years and they recently led a boot camp like series for locals who wanted and seemed to need more structure in their learning. I pimped this novel hard to him last evening.
I asserted to him that organically folded within the story was fresh rich tango inform-ation and feeling. Small details, graceful brush-stroke insights, feeling tones for tango and the times. Though he and they have been fairly studiously attentive to history, there would be some artful treats for them in this book.
This is a good novel. I started out in a mild plod and became almost unable to put it down. I started out nonchalant and ended up seriously choked up at this serious telling of life from birth to death, in which time, tango blew up, morphed, expanded, and rippled and riffed through cultures from Buenos Aires, in other slave-based South American cultures, to Paris and beyond, somewhat unrecognizable to the dismay and exaltation of tangoistas caught in its swelling and its various waves.
On pp. 148-151, learning to cope with her recently-established identity on the poor, mean streets of immigrant-worker Buena Aires:
"This new life brought many freedoms. She could smoke, she could walk the streets at night, she could curse and spit in the gutters. She could hold down a job that paid twice as much as anything a woman could do with her clothes on. But there were new demands. She had to be extremely careful with her posture (head up, shoulders squared) and her gait (long sure strides, no swaying hips). She had to exude confidence, if not outright bravado, at all times. She had to keep her voice carefully calibrated...
She could never drop her guard, not even for a moment, because it turned out, men sized up other men, not just sometimes, but constantly. She'd never realized the full extent of these of these invisible transactions until she was involved in them. Sometimes they were blatant, sometimes subtle, delivered with pursed lips or darting glances, sometimes behind a smile or coupled with a kiss on the cheek, all the while calculating your odds in case it came down to a fight. Because being a man meant facing possible violence at any turn. If you were helpless, it did not serve, as it could for a woman, to make you seem more innocent, more pure...
And she lacked the muscle of men around her; not only did she know this but the men around her knew as well. There was no way to conceal the narrowness of her shoulders, her lanky build. To make up for this, her persona had to be even tougher. She bought a dagger in a pawn shop...
Sometimes, deep in the night, she unbound her aching breasts and sat alone in front of a cracked mirror, staring at herself in the light of a single candle, amazed at what she saw. A not-man. Not-woman. A fallen-woman-risen-man. She couldn't tell what was stranger: that a man existed inside her, or that the world accepted his existence. She wondered why no one saw through her disguise. Perhaps people could see only what they expected, what fit inside their vision, as if human vision came in precut shapes more narrow than the world itself [sound philosophically familiar? :)], and this allowed her to hide in plain sight.
Hidden but not silent. Now she practiced out loud, in her little room. Nobody seemed to mind or even notice in the din of La Rete's days. A wild freedom to let her hands sing tangos, to refine her sound, which grew a little clearer and brighter each day as she practiced in that cramped rectangle where sunlight shone only through the slit beneath the door, that humble stinking space that she could love because it was her own, and when music possessed her, her first lover, perhaps forever, since even if by some miracle she managed to keep living on this knife's edge, undiscovered, surviving, besting death at its own game, she obviously could never have a man. She didn't mind the sacrifice. It seemed enough for a life, to give yourself to music the way nuns give themselves to God. To vow. To surrender. Only music, after all, made life bearable. Only with music did she feel--what was it? Free? Happy?
No, it was something else.
Music, arrow to pierce all barriers. Music, the great equalizer. Music, invader of centuries. Nectar of demons, whiskey flask of God."
[All errors are mine in transcription.]