In order to appreciate fully The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez, one should have some knowledge of the writings of twentieth century Argentine writer, poet, and National Library director Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Not only does Borges and his short story “The Aleph” (1949) form an integral part of The Tango Singer, but Martínez also makes frequent references to the labyrinth, a Borges motif. There is some similarity between Martínez’s writing and Borges’s, and the labyrinthine nature of The Tango Singer, with its philosophical and metaphysical content, magnifies the resemblance.
“The Aleph” opens in 1941, with Borges telling of his yearly pilgrimages to the house of his deceased love, Beatriz Viterbo. In the process, he meets Beatriz’s cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, a poet writing an endless work describing the world in minute detail, which he knew about from a treasure in his basement. He took Borges to see it, making him lie on the floor to gaze upward at the nineteenth stair. There Borges could see a small brilliant sphereinside of which could be seen everything in the universe, all times and all places, simultaneouslythat he called an Aleph.
Martínez uses this Aleph as part of the plot of The Tango Singer. The focus and intent of the work appear to be to portray the history and culture of Argentina via peoples’ memories and storytelling. The book opens on September 1, 2001, with narrator Bruce Cadogan, an American graduate student, on a plane to Buenos Aires. Using the funds from his New York University grant and a Fulbright Scholarship, he is responding to the call of Argentina’s capital not only to finish his dissertation on Borges’s essays on the tango but also in response to a desire to find a little-known tango singer named Julio Martel. An odd figure, crippled by some wasting disease, Martel is known for singing the old tangos during unannounced performances. Cadogan’s quest to hear Martel sing the old lyrics is sparked by his interest in Borges, whose writings on the tango reflect the dance as it existed in Argentina before 1910, when it served as the dance of sailors and prostitutes, with knives flashing as fights erupted and men dancing with other men to practice their steps.
Cadogan’s recent feelings of futility, of wondering if he was squandering his life pursuing a doctorate in literature, had coincided with his running into Jean Franco in a New York City bookstore. Franco, from Columbia University’s English department, is one of two people Martínez acknowledges as real in his otherwise fictional book. Cadogan notes that Franco needs no introduction, although he hints at her profession when crediting her expertise in the field of Latin American literature studies, saying that “she knew Borges was going to be Borges before he did. Forty years ago she discovered the new Latin American novel when only specialists in Naturalism and Regionalism were interested.” Franco asks Cadogan whether he knows of the Argentine tango singer who calls himself Juan Martel, who sings the old tangos but refuses to be recorded, even though he has a mellifluous voice that reputedly exceeds that of legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel in quality. His interest thus piqued, Cadogan decides he must go to Argentina to hear this elusive singer.
Cadogan arrives in Buenos Aires to find that his plans for lodgings have fallen through. He accepts the offer of a man he meets in the telephone queue who says he knows of a clean boardinghouse. The man, a taxi driver with a hard-to-understand last name, announces that everyone calls him El Tucumano, meaning the man from Tucumán. The boardinghouse he has in mind is situated on Garay Street, where Borges’s character Carlos Argentino Daneri had the apartment with the Aleph. According to Cadogan’s map, the locations of Daneri’s apartment and El Tucumano’s...
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