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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Tango Singer

Tomás Eloy Martínez

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To purchase The Tango Singer

Title: The Tango Singer
Author: Tomás Eloy Martínez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 243 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Tango Singer - US
El cantor de tango - US
The Tango Singer - UK
The Tango Singer - Canada
The Tango Singer - India
Le chanteur de tango - France
Der Tangosänger - Deutschland
El cantor de tango - España
  • Spanish title: El cantor de tango
  • Translated by Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing parts, but uncertain in purpose

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 18/11/2005 Walter Haubrich
The Guardian A 28/1/2006 Adam Feinstein
The Guardian . 13/1/2007 Catherine Taylor
The Independent . 10/2/2006 Amanda Hopkinson
Independent on Sunday . 29/1/2006 Charlie Lee-Potter
The LA Times . 27/5/2006 Anthony Day
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 14/4/2005 Leopold Federmair
The Observer . 7/1/2007 Jonathan Beckman
Sunday Telegraph . 22/1/2006 Miranda France
TLS . 27/8/2004 Chris Moss
TLS . 14/4/2006 Chris Moss
The Village Voice . 7/7/2006 Anderson Tepper
Die Zeit . 7/7/2005 Eberhard Falcke

  Review Consensus:

  Generally impressed, but some much more than others

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ähnlich wie bei Borges wird Buenos Aires bei Martínez zu einer Stadt der Labyrinthe; die architektonischen Geheimgänge stehen in dem Roman auch für die Verwirrungen im menschlichen Verhalten. (...) Der Tangosänger (im Original 2004 erschienen) läßt sich trotz seines ernsten Hintergrunds auch als durchaus amüsanter Führer durch Buenos Aires sowie durch die Literatur und jüngste Geschichte Argentiniens lesen. Beladen mit viel Information, bleibt der Roman trotzdem eine spannende Lektüre." - Walter Haubrich, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "His latest novel, The Tango Singer is a work of hallucinatory brilliance (...) Bruno's quest for Martel involves an immersion in the complexities of Argentina's recent and not so recent history, but as so often, Eloy Martínez's mission is to resuscitate, transform and reinvent this history into a lived experience. For all his love of his homeland, the author is by no means blind to its faults (.....) This exhilarating and often poignant book, wonderfully translated by Anne McLean, has a liberating rhythm every bit as hypnotic as the tango itself." - Adam Feinstein, The Guardian

  • "Ambiguous, romantic and heroic, this is an unorthodox tale and an intoxicating love letter to Buenos Aires from the finest traditions of South American writing." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "Graphic descriptions abound of a city under siege by the migratory poor, camped on the streets, desperately attempting to find food or beg a living -- a city of ragged shadows and bonfires on corners, of a political structure in crisis. The city that Martel maps out for Cadogan is an even bleaker one, superimposed on an even blacker past. It is this recent history that Cadogan explores through a variety of subplots. The Tango Singer delivers on every Buenos Aires myth, but goes well beyond the familiar." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "For the first 40 pages, I thought I was suffering from a head cold. The unfamiliar Hispanic rhythm, the lack of speech marks and the hallucinatory plot fogged my thoughts. But fall into step with this novel and you will find it a rich and delicious experience. And it's hardly surprising that The Tango Singer is obscure because it is, after all, an elegant tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, the writer who made the labyrinth his personal literary metaphor. (...) The Tango Singer is much more than a card-sharp's showy sleight of hand. Ultimately it's a testament to man's desire to transcend death." - Charlie Lee-Potter, Independent on Sunday

  • "In Martínez's vision, it is language, sometimes fractured like pieces of plate glass left on the sidewalk after a political demonstration or the reflection of a caffeine-induced summer hallucination, that bends prosaic reality. In this way, the inner Buenos Aires and the concealed Argentina reveal themselves and their harsh history (.....) Martínez has left the reader with an incisive portrait of human consciousness in one of the most articulate and complicated places in the Spanish-speaking New World at the beginning of the 21st century." - Anthony Day, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Tomas Eloy Martinez is one the great Argentinian novelists. However, this book is disappointing, casually written and over-ambitious, but with insufficient propulsion." - Jonathan Beckman, The Observer

  • "At times reminiscent of Paul Auster, The Tango Singer has the makings of a satisfying thriller, but long digressions into Argentine history and literature inevitably disturb the tempo. This is an ambitious novel that might have done better to take its cues either from Borges or from the tango, but not from both." - Miranda France, Sunday Telegraph

  • "As with Eloy Martínez's earlier works, we get a clue-chasing plot imposed on what is primarily a politico-cultural essay about a many-layered city. (...) Memory and violence interest Eloy Martínez more than a yearning for Buenos Aires's belle époque, and he constantly explores tango's less sentimental vein." - Chris Moss, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book moves at a feverish, thriller-like pace, yet it is also riddled with false turns and fictions, mazes and puzzles." - Anderson Tepper, The Village Voice

  • "Nostalgists and bibliophiles may find solace or escape in Gardel's crooning and Borges's cryptic ficciones but in Tomás Eloy Martínez's pertinent, poetic evocation of a city he seems to love and loathe equally, there is no aleph, no crux, no one song that can explain or alleviate the woes of 200 years of self-deception and anarchy." - Chris Moss, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Tango Singer is the NYU graduate student Bruno Cadogan. In 2001 he gets a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Buenos Aires to do research for his dissertation "on Jorge Luis Borges' essays on the origins of the tango" -- enough, along with the grant he gets from the university, to live there "for six months, if not longer".
       Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Tango Singer is that it is narrated by this student who leaves New York in September 2001, and that the first mention of what one might have expected anyone discussing that period to focus on comes practically as an aside:

That evening, ten days after the Twin Towers were destroyed, I saw Buenos Aires for the first time.
       The events of 11 September barely rate another mention; indeed the author seems to go out of his way to ignore them (the narrator complains about how long it takes him to get down to Argentina, without mentioning that in those first post-attack days air travel was much stalled -- in fact, at that point in his story he hasn't even mentioned that these were the post-attack days ...). It may be jarring for American readers, but it's also an eye-opening perspective. The Argentina that Cadogan travels to is focussed on its own coming economic crisis -- which finally hits full force when Cadogan is there -- and local concerns easily drown out anything happening continents away. Americans, used to thinking that whatever happens to them is the most important (and essentially only) thing that matters in the world, surely will find this -- what essentially amounts to complete indifference -- jarring.
       (Cadogan's ignoring of the events in New York is, however, ultimately unrealistic: especially in taking a plane just a few days after the events, it seems simply unbelievable that it would not affect his plans -- or be on his mind.)
       Martínez does present Cadogan as very narrowly (self-)obsessed, focussed on a very limited world -- i.e. he is a typical graduate student (and typical also in that he is a lazy bum procrastinator and never gets much work on his thesis done). It is also the tango that takes hold of him, and specifically the tango singer of the title, Julio Martel. He first hears about him while still in New York, and in Buenos Aires Martel becomes his great obsession. A singer who "doesn't like any mediation between his voice and his audience", he makes no recordings, but is supposed to be even greater than Carlos Gardel. Cadogan is told:
the Martel experience is like another dimension, almost supernatural.
       Martel, of course, proves elusive. He does not sing at clubs any longer, but rather shows up in the unlikeliest places across the city and dazzles with his songs. Once on his trail, Cadogan invariably comes too late.
       A sickly, stunted hemophiliac Martel has his own style, the words often incomprehensible, amazing with:
a voice that rather than repeating images and stories, slid from one emotion to another, with the clarity of a sonata. Like the music, the voice had no need of meaning. It expressed itself alone.
       Of course, it is all hearsay -- Cadogan never stumbles across any of the public concerts --, and Martel (and his talent) seem as much myth as reality; in any case he is essentially unknowable. This fits with another of the novel's obsessions: Borges himself, and especially his universe-encompassing Aleph, said to be located in the cellar ... well, possibly of the very house where Cadogan takes a room. But the Aleph, too, remains elusive, the cellar blocked by the librarian Bonorino, the (im)possible just out of reach.
       The Tango Singer is a double-edged Argentinian tale, a paean to the beautifully mysterious city of Buenos Aires and a reckoning with the ugly recent history of Argentina. Buenos Aires is presented as a constantly changing city -- not merely in the usual urban-growth sense, but in an almost shape-shifting way:
There are no reliable maps of Buenos Aires, because the street names change from one week to the next. What one map affirms, another denies. Directions guide and at the same time disturb.
       The book is full of episodes of people not finding their way; indeed, it proves almost impossible to do so. "I walked for two hours without getting anywhere" is not an unusual experience. It is also an upended world -- Cadogan notes the seasonal change (when it is spring in New York it is fall in Argentina), and the all-night café's help substitute day for night.
       Some places are worse (or better ?) than others:
Hundreds of people have gotten lost in the deceptive streets of Parque Chas, where the interstice that divides reality from the fictions of Buenos Aires would seem to be located.
       In fact, the divide between reality and fiction is constantly being obscured (one way, also, of dealing with ugly history ...): among the more amusing examples are the fake tours put on for tourists, leading them, for example, "to all the big soccer stadiums simulating a day of classic matches", with hired crowds out front and the stadium loudspeakers simulating "the roar of a non-existent crowd". Cadogan says of the tourists:
They were each shown a Buenos Aires that doesn't exist, or maybe they could only see the one they'd already imagined before their arrival.
       Yet he barely considers that he may have fallen into the same trap. He, too, is presented with what may well be, more or less, illusions -- the Aleph, the tango singer, and the city, too.
       Following the trail of Martel, Cadogan wants to figure out the system by which the singer determines his next performance-place -- so that he can get there in time to hear him. The only connexions he can find is that the places are all part of Argentinian history: bad things happened here, small and large, and Martel's performances are, perhaps, homages to these crimes.
       The country that Cadogan finds himself in is one that is a master of forgetting:
In Argentina there is now a secular custom of suppressing from history all the facts that contradict the official ideas of the grandeur of the country.
       The tango singer's performances are tributes to the past -- but the memory-less present barrels ahead. The constant transformations all about (including that ultimate one, death) prevent Cadogan from ever establishing much hold on the past, as this is a city where even the Aleph can be bulldozed into oblivion.

       Martínez doesn't seem to be certain what he wants his book to be. It's a quest-tale, of sorts, but Cadogan's inertia find him constantly left behind -- or just too late. His feeble efforts at writing his dissertation suggest he's hardly a person to accomplish anything.
       There are other stories within the novel, broken-off tangents recounting some of those Argentinian fates; fully formed, they're not fully integrated into the novel -- as is they're almost too large for it (though quite interesting). The story of the tango singer and the history of Argentina makes for a solid foundation, but Martínez's Borgesian obsession also tends to distract. The Aleph (and the money-making scheme the fellow Cadogan takes up with comes up with, involving a fake version) is intriguing, but ultimately also feels like yet another loose end.
       Finally, there's Buenos Aires in those months, perhaps the novel's true central character. Martínez glowing portrait also comes to feel strained, and his descriptions of the city and its neighbourhoods, people, streets, history, and appearance are not always tied in well enough with the story proper. The financial crisis that strikes is nicely realistically presented -- the difficulty of getting one's hands on any money, the day-to-day consequences, the changed atmosphere of the city -- but again feels like something he wants to weave into his larger narrative, but is unable to do so.
       The content of The Tango Singer is fabulous, many of the ideas inspired -- but mixed and matched as it is it's simply too messy. Martínez writes eagerly, but the scraggly result is ultimately something of a disappointment.

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The Tango Singer: Reviews: Tomás Eloy Martínez: Other books by Tomás Eloy Martínez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tomás Eloy Martínez was born in Argentina in 1934 and died in 2010.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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