The Gods of Tango
by Carolina de Robertis
First Published in July 2015
From Goodreads: From one of the leading lights of contemporary Latin American literature—a lush, lyrical, deeply moving story of a young woman whose passion for the early sounds of tango becomes a force of profound and unexpected change.
February 1913: seventeen-year-old Leda, carrying only a small trunk and her father’s cherished violin, leaves her Italian village for a new home, and a new husband, in Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, she discovers that he has been killed, but she remains: living in a tenement, without friends or family, on the brink of destitution. Still, she is seduced by the music that underscores life in the city: tango, born from lower-class immigrant voices, now the illicit, scandalous dance of brothels and cabarets. Leda eventually acts on a long-held desire to master the violin, knowing that she can never play in public as a woman. She cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes “Dante,” a young man who joins a troupe of tango musicians bent on conquering the salons of high society. Now, gradually, the lines between Leda and Dante begin to blur, and feelings that she has long kept suppressed reveal themselves, jeopardizing not only her musical career, but her life.
Richly evocative of place and time, its prose suffused with the rhythms of the tango, its narrative at once resonant and gripping, this is De Robertis’s most accomplished novel yet.
Every once in a while there is a book that so completely sweeps you off your feet that you sit down to read fifty pages and the next thing you know, it’s hours later and you’ve turned the last page to discover you’re no longer in a luxurious night club in 1910s Buenos Aires. Such was my experience with Carolina de Robertis’s lyrical novel about music and identity set against the rapidly changing background of Argentinean culture and history.
“That’s what happens to melodies: they get lost in the air. Just like memories. And the body. Memories and melodies and the body dissolve after we die. A musical instrument is not like the body, not at all; like the soul, it carries on.”
-Carolina de Robertis, The Gods of Tango
This is the story of Leda, an Italian girl engaged to her cousin Dante. Before their wedding, he leaves to make his fortune in Buenos Aires. After a year or so, he sends a letter urging her to join him in Argentina. They are married by proxy and the next day Leda says good-bye to her family and everything she knows to set sail for the New World. After three weeks at sea, she arrives to find that Dante is dead. Suddenly a widow on the razor’s edge of destitution, Leda is reluctant to return to Italy, where she will be forced to wear widow’s black for years and give up her own dreams and desires to serve the men in her household.
Music is one of the things that calls to Leda in Buenos Aires. Her father gave her a violin that has been in the family for generations, and she takes it up, inspired by the seductive new sounds of a dance called the tango. Because of its sultry nature, the tango is considered fit only for brothels and back alley cabarets- places Leda, as a woman, cannot go. Left with no options that allow her any freedom, Leda cuts off her hair, takes up her dead husband’s clothes and name, and heads out into the city in the guise of a young man, there to seek a new future with the music she loves.
It’s a struggle to survive, especially for a woman disguised as a man in a man’s world. Leda/Dante cannot just live in a communal room like other bachelors do. She must be exquisitely careful about when and where she goes to the bathroom, must constantly remember to look others in the eye and not look diffidently away like she was taught. She must walk like a man and spit and smoke and drink like a man. And she must behave like a man around women, a fact that awakens old desires within her- desires she feels monstrous for having even as she seeks a way to fulfill them.
As the story progresses, Leda and Dante merge more and more until Dante the man is as present as Leda the woman, though Leda can never quite escape her femininity and fully become Dante. The ebb and flow of woman to man to woman shows in shifting names and pronouns. When Leda must take note of her female biology or her disguise, she is referred to as ‘she’. But in those moments of music and passion, when he is free to become the man he wants to be, Dante is entirely ‘he’. These shifts begin relatively early and grab the reader’s attention at first, but as the narrative goes on, these changes are fluid and go unremarked.
The writing itself is luxurious and musical, beautiful even when describing the stench of the poorest sections of Buenos Aires. The rhythms of de Robertis’s writing are evocative of the tango itself, turning a dance that seems almost old fashioned now into something new, exciting, and dangerously sexy. It makes the reader understand why the characters are willing to devote their lives to this music, not to make themselves famous, but to make the tango famous. To take this music and its rhythms– the drumbeats of African slaves and the lowest of immigrants– and turn it into something immortal. To take this new sound and make it their own.
If I have anything against this book, it is how the narrative occasionally flits away from Leda/Dante and lands on secondary or tertiary characters, providing insight into their lives though they often never appear in the book again. Another maddening thing is the entrenched misogyny that the male characters almost universally express. This is, sadly, true to the period. History has never been kind to women. It had been even crueler to those who do not conform to their society’s definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
But in the scale of de Robertis’s remarkable story, my POV issue is minor. The misogyny is not minor, but its presence, however uncomfortable and maddening it is, cannot help but be part of Leda/Dante’s story. It is ever present in history, and its entrenched nature in The Gods of Tango makes other characters’ open-mindedness heroic and heartbreakingly beautiful.
“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. Awake.”-Carolina de Robertis, The Gods of Tango