"The Tango Singer" is not for everyone. It's not entertainment in the accepted sense. It is, rather, a perplexing intellectual puzzle that demands a considerable backlog of knowledge and a mind that's willing to work overtime. It also helps to have a burning and respectful love of Buenos Aires -- its geography, population and history.
The author, Tomás Eloy Martínez, was born in Argentina but fled the country during the years of military rule. He teaches now in the United States, but much of his work has been in the form of devotions and meditations on his native city -- an effort to recapture a past that often has been disgraceful or slippery or both. His earlier books, "The Perón Novel" and the terrific "Santa Evita," conformed to this plan, and so does "The Tango Singer."
The narrator here is an impecunious graduate student from New York City, Bruno Cadogan, who's been working on "Jorge Luis Borges' essays on the origins of the tango." Cadogan feels that he's mired in trivia, "just filling page after futile page." Besides, he's never even been to Argentina, but he doesn't worry too much about that aspect of things. He's read so many books and seen so many films about the country that he has a strong (if imaginative) idea of it in his head. Another academic, far more learned than he, tells him about a legendary tango singer -- a mysterious artist who's never recorded a note and never announces his appearances in nightclubs -- Julio Martel, better even than the godlike singer Carlos Gardel, "to whom all voices belonged."
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