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Authors: Elia Barcelo

Heart of Tango

BOOK: Heart of Tango
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Heart of Tango


Translated from the Spanish by David Frye

An imprint of Quercus
New York • London

© 2010 by Elia Barceló

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of the same without the permission of the publisher is prohibited.

Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.

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Street, 6
Floor, New York, NY 10019, or to
[email protected]

ISBN 978-1-62365-243-2

Distributed in the United States and Canada by Random House Publisher Services
c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The squeezebox moans, the light's too bright;
night falls on the dance floor and pretty soon
the shadows are gathering, shades of
Griseta, Malena and Mariester.
The shades the tango drew to the dance
make me recall her, too;
come on, let's dance, it hurts me so
to dream of her shining satin dress.

Whose ghost haunts the violin?
Whose sentimental voice,
tired of long suffering,
has started sobbing like this?
Perhaps it's her voice,
the voice that suddenly
fell silent one day.
Or perhaps it's my drink—
It can't be her voice,
her voice has passed on;
it must be nothing more
than the ghosts in my drink.
Like you, she was far away and pale;
her hair was dark, eyes olive gray.
And her mouth, by the early light of dawn,
was the sad hue of the rose.

One day she failed to show, I waited long,
and then they told me of her end.
That is why the shades of tangos
recall her to me again and again, in vain.

Lyrics to the tango “Tal vez será mi alcohol” (“Perhaps It's My Drink”), later renamed “Tal vez será su voz” (“Perhaps It's Her Voice”). Lyrics by Homero Manzi (Homero Nicolás Manzione Prestera), music by Lucio Demare, first recorded on May 6, 1943. It was later sung by Libertad Lamarque in a version written for a woman, in which she recalls a man:

Like you, he was far away and pale;
his hair was dark, eyes olive gray.
And his hands were smooth and his verses sad,
like the keening of this violin.









met her at a milonga on an April night when the wind gusted with the fury of cyclones, carrying on its back the scent of the river and the damp forests, dark and menacing, that surrounded the small mountain city where my work had once more led me.

It was past eleven when I arrived, and as soon as I opened the door the atmosphere inside was almost enough to make me turn back to seek the shelter of my hotel and the sleep I badly needed after so many hours stuck at the computer screen, struggling to impose order on the chaos of the company that had contracted my services. But my addiction proved the stronger, and when Gardel's voice hit me, still hesitating on the threshold, with his first words—
If you know how my soul still harbors the love I once felt for you
—I knew I'd stay, at least for as long as Gardel kept singing, for as long as some woman's body might cling to mine in silence and allow itself to be swept away by the tango's witching charms.

Women there were in plenty, as always, spread out against the walls, looking dreamy or hungry, slowly smoking in the nooks and
corners of a dance hall dimly lit by a couple of floorlights shining through filters of pink fabric. In the center, in the open circle between tables, a few couples dressed in street clothes danced solemnly, eyes closed.

It wasn't the first time I'd been to a place like this, a sort of parish church multipurpose room, long tables pushed up against the walls, heap of paper cups and soft drinks in the furthest corner, tall windows trembling and shaking in the night wind. Still, it always moved me to the core to find, even in a small central European city and on a work night, people like me who were ready to give up a few hours of rest to abandon themselves to this music, albeit in an ugly, soulless dance room with a portable player and a pile of C.D.s.

Innsbruck had always struck me as a sad city, maybe because I had always seen it by night, after the sun had set, or early in the morning, before it had risen. A gray city of gray people, as if the weight of their history, of so many dead over so many centuries, formed a kind of tombstone that wouldn't let them lift their eyes, their souls, their voices. At this moment I got the fleeting impression that I was surrounded by ghosts; but tango blurs things, blears things, much as alcohol does, and the ghosts made good company for my nocturnal self, the self I rarely think about by day and that takes full control of me by night at a milonga, that springs up with desire for a time that I have never known, with nostalgia for a woman who never was, waiting for me back in La Boca.

No-one greeted me. As I hung up my raincoat and sat to lace
my dancing shoes, several women's eyes passed over me, attentive, expectant, observing my deliberate and precise motions to measure how skilled my body might be, how fluid my steps across the dance floor, how sure my arms in announcing my desires.

No other civilized activity still exists in which the male of the human species can dictate what he wants, and the woman will follow him, devotedly, confidently, surely. The Argentine tango is the only contract that can never be broken. Perhaps that is why it became my passion on that far-off day when I discovered it on a trip to Buenos Aires.

My nocturnal self—the tango dancer, the milonguero, the self that no-one in my daylight life has met—stood up and once again, through a miracle that astounds me no matter how many times it is repeated, my whole body changed, became aware of its weight, its expertly distributed equilibrium, the soft brushing of the leather soles of my shoes against the polished parquet floor, the firmness of my hips, the way my chest expanded and shone like a beacon, searching for the woman who would reflect its light.

Then I saw her. Standing at the other end of the hall, one shoulder leaning against the jamb of a half-opened door through which filtered a breeze, rippling open the razor-keen slit in her tight, satin skirt to reveal a leg, iridescent in black silk. Smoke rose from a cigarette held in her long, delicate fingers, as if she had forgotten it, by her thigh. She wore high-heeled dancing shoes with crisscrossed buckles.

In the low light I couldn't see her face, which turned outward as if to see something beyond the door. I could just make out her long black hair, coiled in a tall chignon held in place with an antique tortoiseshell comb sprinkled with tiny stones which, like the gold rings dangling from her ears, glittered in the pink darkness.

She was an engraving torn from an old album, a sepia-toned photograph, a woman whose likes exist only in the stories I used to tell myself at night before sleep, inspired by the verses of tangos. Next to her all the other women suddenly seemed hazy, dispensable, and the concealed passion that might be seen in the bodies of these Central European women for a few dimly lit hours in the dance hall when they forgot their everyday lives as dentists, secretaries, housewives—a poor, willful passion that I knew so well—was relegated to other nights and other places; pale, dim memories when faced with the dazzling, impossible reality of this woman who seemed to be waiting for me and only me, a stranger blown in by the wind, like in some old movie.

She didn't see me walk over. I don't think she even heard me. But, dropping her cigarette at the first strains of “Volver”, she turned toward me and her eyes drank me in. Black eyes, resplendent as mirrors, framed by long lashes. A moment later we were dancing.

It was like flying; like being immersed in deep warm water that throbbed to a rhythm rung by an old, sweet grief, a vague memory lost in time. It was like finding something that I had had to forget
in order to keep living, something that filled me now to brimming over with its vastness. It was everything I thought I had been making up all these years, and now it dazzled me in the vividness of its perfect reality.

She clung to me like a silk handkerchief. With every molinete that she twirled around me I was overwhelmed by her scent, the scent of a woman, and her eyes—solemn, stern, half closed in pleasure—sparkled like jewels. It was as if she could read my thoughts, as if she already knew half a second before I hinted at a movement what I was going to ask her to do, and as if her body were bending to my desires, a single body unfolded into two figures and united by music.

We didn't exchange a single word. It wasn't necessary. What could we have said to each other that wasn't already there—in our feet, weaving patterns on the floor; in our bodies, surrendering to that eternal rhythm? Any attempt on my part to speak German would have broken the magic spell, and I was horrified at the idea of speaking to her in Spanish and finding that she could not understand me, or hearing her German accent answer me with a few phrases that she had learned in night classes.

For a moment I thought that she might be a Spanish speaker, that we might be able to escape at some point through the door she had been leaning against, perhaps to smoke a cigarette in an empty garden and chat in our own language. But then would follow the routine of what's your name and what kind of work do you do,
the terrible moment of finding out that this splendid woman who danced like a Buenos Aires goddess, as if she had stepped out of a Quinquela Martín painting of docks and tenement life, was merely an Argentine psychologist in exile, or a Dominican woman who sold underwear by day.

Her lips brushed lightly against my unshaven cheek and I knew we were thinking the same thing. That we had come here to dance, that the night was ours, that a miracle of fate had brought us together in the middle of the night, in the center of Europe, to let ourselves be swept away by the magic of tango. And that this was enough.

We danced one song after another, never stopping—a milonga that enhanced her elegance, a few Pugliese tangos that seemed to surprise her for a moment with their sorrowful, rending wail.

BOOK: Heart of Tango
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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