Friday, 15 May 2015

Book Review: Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló is not just a very passionate Latin-American dance that fascinates aficionados all around the world, but in a way it represents life itself with all its ups and downs, above all love and pain. For this week’s review I chose a novel in which tango serves to magically link the fates of two sets of people living at different times and in different places. Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló is at the same time the unusual story of the modern-day tango lovers Rodrigo and Milena who seize any opportunity to dance tango in their scarce free time and who are unknowingly involved into the tragic events which the tango passion of Natalia and Diego brought about through the hands of Natalia’s husband Rojo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1920.

Elia Barceló was born in Elda, Alicante, Spain, in January 1957. She studied first English and German Philology in Valencia and then Hispanic Studies at the University of Alicante. In 1981 she moved to Innsbruck, Austria, where she finished her studies, became a professor at university and got married. As from 1979 several of her science-fiction stories were published in Spanish fanzines and magazines earning her some renown as a science-fiction writer and leading to the publication of her first book, the science-fiction novel Sagrada (The Holy Woman), in 1989. The author has since written books in a variety of genres including Young Adult fiction; most notable among her work for adult readers are the two novels available in English: The Goldsmith’s Secret (El secreto del orfebre: 2003) and Heart of Tango (Corazón de Tango: 2007) Her latest published work is Anima Mundi (2013). Elia Barceló lives in Innsbruck, Austria, with her family.

The novel Heart of Tango interweaves the stories of five people, those of a married couple and the wife’s assumed lover living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1920 and those of a man and a woman of today. A man, who is only later identified as Rodrigo, seizes the opportunity of a tango night in Innsbruck, Austria, to indulge in his passion for not just the dance but for the entire attitude to life which it expresses. Soon a woman who seems to breathe the spirit of tango with her entire person attracts his attention and, of course, he dances with her the whole night through not saying a word. Back in his hotel he finds a scrap of paper in his pocket with the name Natalia and an address in La Boca, Buenos Aires, on it. A few months later the place turns out to be a derelict house which hasn’t seen a living soul in decades. However, in a small museum he finds his mysterious dancer… in a picture dating from 1920 titled “The tango is a low cry”. On a November night a woman called Milena makes a similar experience during a tango event at a theatre in Salzburg, Austria. Also her nameless partner seems to incorporate the spirit of tango and disappears into the night without a word only leaving behind a yellowed business card that displays the name Diego Monteleone and an address in La Boca, Buenos Aires. Like Rodrigo she finds her taciturn partner in the museum… in another picture from 1920 titled “The tango is a festering wound”. While the tragic story of love, despair and passion of Diego, Natalia and her jealous husband Rojo unfolds, the two passionate tango dancers from Europe are drawn to the same place where they finally meet each other and close the story of those long dead. 

The narrators of Heart of Tango are five people filled with a passion for tango which overcomes space and time. There are two alternating plot lines each told from the first-person point of view of the respective protagonist. The framing contemporary story shows Rodrigo and Milena who are led to Buenos Aires and united by the two tango loving ghosts or apparitions. The main story, however, is set around 1920 in Buenos Aires shedding light on the events which tie Diego, Natalia and Rojo together beyond death and which are not only the perfect expression of the heart of tango but at the same time a portrait of the ways of living as well as morals in the poor immigrant quarter of La Boca. Spinning a magical story which is clearly influenced by the works of Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges, Elia Barceló skilfully managed throughout the novel to evoke the atmosphere of tango, while she also made the emotions and reasons of all protagonists feel very authentic and real. Some say that the story is a bit heavy-going and confusing, while I was captured by it at once and read the entire novel in only one go during a quiet afternoon. Unfortunately, I have only its German edition at hand which prevents me from saying much about the author’s original language. If the translator took the required care to “imitate” the Spanish original, it must be a pleasure to read and not too difficult. 

The novel Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló might not be to everybody’s taste, but it definitely was to mine although in general I’m not easily impressed by magical realism or ghost stories. As far as I can tell, this one is still little known in the English-speaking world as is the author. Heart of Tango definitely deserves a greater audience and therefore I’m happy to be able to recommend it to you.

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