ON a dawn as beautiful as any since the world began, a young man watches the sun rise from the balcony of his Buenos Aires hotel. "There [had] never existed a city as beautiful as Buenos Aires at that moment," he reflects. Exalted by the glory of the moment, he goes to write a letter full of joy to a friend; instead he writes another letter, an act of unredeemable baseness.
The young man's name is Bruno. He is an American who has just written his PhD on Jorge Luis Borges's essays about the origins of the tango, a thesis he wrote without travelling to the city where it all began. So in September 2001, when Argentina is again threatening to dissolve into financial and physical anarchy, Bruno travels to Buenos Aires on a different quest. In his native New York he has heard about a fabled tango singer who has never recorded and doesn't give concerts but appears regularly at bizarre venues across the city. Julio Martel has a voice that threads the air like the shadow of an angel's wing and Bruno is obsessed with the need to hear him sing.
That obsession is the sketch from which this remarkable novel starts. In its finished form, it is a painting burning with life, dazzling with ideas; in essence it is an exploration of Walter Benjamin's theory of history. Tomas Eloy Martinez, director of Latin American studies at Rutgers University in the US, is not an instantly familiar name in the Latin American canon although he was short-listed for last year's International Man Booker Prize won by Ismail Kadare. Martinez, born in Argentina in 1934, is two years older than Kadare and, like the Albanian novelist, has spent much of his life exiled from his native country. This is his third novel to be translated into English.
This is a writer familiar with the nature of obsession. As an exile from Argentina, he cannot help but write about, inquire into and trace out some map of understanding for the violent and unpredictable history of a country that in the early decades of the 20th century had claims to greatness. One of those claims has to be the tango, which has come to define Argentina and, specifically, Buenos Aires.
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