My blog is called History and Books and Dance and Stuff so a historical fiction book about tango ticks pretty well all the boxes. And The Gods of Tango has quite a lot of Stuff too. In fact it’s a vast, sprawling work about tango and Buenos Aires and Italy and sexuality and those old tango perennials, love and death.
I can’t begin to discuss the plot, partly because there are twists and turns and I don’t want to spoil it for you and partly because the 384 packed pages defy synopsification. (Is that a word? It should be.)
What you need to know is that the story starts in 1913 with Leda arriving in Buenos Aires, leaving a narrow life in a village just outside Naples in search of opportunity in the New World. In the first of many shocks in the book, all her plans are thrown into disarray before she has even left the boat and she finds herself struggling to survive in a city that seems to teeter forever on the edge of madness.
It’s a story packed with characters, all so perfectly drawn that you never get lost, but one of the biggest, most important, characters is Buenos Aires itself and particularly San Telmo, a part of the city I feel particularly at home in. The danger, excitement and opportunity of the city is perfectly captured. It is overcrowded and filthy (even more so in 1913 than now). Yet, as today, it holds you. Leda knows that Buenos Aires destroys its children, yet she cannot bring herself to leave. A peaceful life in a small Italian village is no longer something she can settle for.
Leda falls in love with tango. The music, she thinks, can save her. And it does, though it means she must sacrifice everything. (No spoilers, but ‘everything’ isn’t too much of a stretch here.) She carves out a life in the violent world of tango. She is there as tango moves from the bars and the brothels to the dance halls and eventually the grand clubs and cabarets, even achieving an international respectability. But for Leda, it is always about the music of the people, starting with the rhythms brought from Africa with slavery. (The Gods of Tango is unusual in featuring a black bandoneon player whose grandfather was probably a slave. Argentina used to have a substantial black population but no one talks about that now.)
If you are interested in the history of tango (you’ve probably realised I am), then The Gods of Tango is worth reading just for its description of how and why the music developed through the Golden Age. But the book is much, much more than that. I’ve never read a book by a woman which understands so well the reality of being a man. And when she deals with different aspects of sexuality, she writes better than anyone else I have read, or ever expect to read.
De Robertis has won prizes and fellowships and is definitely a ‘literary author’, a label I am generally suspicious of. But this is someone who has earned their reputation through extraordinary hard work as well as an exceptional ability to write. Leda’s life in Italy was researched in Italy. De Robertis reached Italian emigration to Argentina and Afro-Argentinian history (an area which, as I’ve mentioned, is generally overlooked). She studied the violin as well as tango history and learned to dance. She has explored Buenos Aires today and developed a deep understanding of its history. And she writes fantastic prose. (I just said that, but I’m saying it again.)
I’m getting carried away. All I can say is that this is an astonishing book.