Speaking in tango: Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien

As much as I love Jorge Luis Borges, a fair criticism of his literature is that, in a career that spanned five decades as a writer and editor, he never wrote a single credible, rounded character. His short stories and essays concern themselves with ideas, metaphysical gambits, and linguistic constructions. His gnarled, cold, mock-academic prose challenges the conventions and usefulness of language to stylize human experience. He’s interested, on a macro scale, in how we use language to construct ourselves. On the micro level, however, individual humans are mostly left on the cutting-room floor.

For Westerners beyond those most dedicated to Argentina’s culture, the country’s other literary touchstone is the epic poem Martin Fierro. Essentially an elegy for the diminishing Argentine frontier, it’s told from the limited perspective of Fierro, a gaucho—Argentina’s version of the cowboy, in both fact and mythical significance—whose way of life is disappearing. The poem ends with Fierro leaving Argentina’s encroaching government and city-fying ways forever, tears streaming down his face.

So, essentially, Argentina’s most widely-known literary exports are a character type that no longer exists and a writer who was never that interested in characters in the first place.

In Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina, Brian Winter fills his memoir/cultural critique with many richly developed characters—those he meets, those he reads about in history books, and one (the tango) that isn’t a person at all but feels as rounded and complicated as one. From dancehall lotharios and tango instructors to taxi drivers and the expatriates they transport, Winter’s people leap off the page. Even the bit parts feel fleshed out.

Towards the beginning, he finds himself wandering the streets of Buenos Aires, and meets the character that will loom largest over the book:

On just my second day in Buenos Aires, I had been wandering, still strangely unaware of my new surroundings, through a street fair outside the Retiro train terminal when I heard a tinny radio playing. I was on a quest to buy an alarm clock, hoping in a rush of blind optimism that one day I might actually need one to wake me up so I could go somewhere important. Retiro was where newly arrived immigrants had once left the port city for a promising new life on the Pampa, but these days, most trains had stopped running; the operator had gone bankrupt, and Retiro was now mostly a place to buy either suspiciously cheap trinkets from China or even more suspiciously cheap super pancho hot dogs from God knows where. The terminal’s ornate façade, which had once been a convincing replica of the station in Milan, was now covered with soot and graffiti. The street merchants let the clock alarms go off all day to show they weren’t pirated fakes (you always had to be careful in Argentina), so that the whole market sounded like a nest of shrill, beeping baby birds. Amid the awful din, someone had thoughtfully turned on this old radio, and the unmistakable sound of tango crackled through the blown-out speakers.

The voice incongruously happy and bright, sang:

The world was and always will be a piece of shit,
This much I know.
In the year 506, and in 2000 also!
There have always been crooks, backstabbers, and suckers,
But that the twentieth century is a spectacle of insolent evil,
No one can deny.

A bespectacled middle-aged woman behind one of the booths watched me pause to listen, and she noticed the expression on my face.

“You like that?” she called out to me in a smoky baritone. “That’s our national anthem, you know.”

Entering into a jovial/sardonic conversation with the woman and a Marxist bookseller across the way, he discovers that this national anthem—“Cambalache,” by Enrique Santos Discépolo—is perhaps an unmatched blend of acidity, sophistication, weariness, and complicated love. Almost no nation’s anthem proclaims “We’re number two! We’re number two!”; this one suggests that Argentina’s not even in the top ten.

Of course, “Cambalache” is the unofficial anthem, just as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is the unofficial corrective to Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” As Winter listens, he discovers lines like “If you don’t steal, you’re a fool/ Nobody cares if you were born honest” and begins to wonder why something so dyspeptic—but so cheery-sounding!—is on pop radio, and why Argentines seem to feel that it’s representative of their country.

Because, after all, Argentines love their country. For all the bitter sighs, emitted by almost every person in the book, Argentines think theirs is the greatest, most sophisticated country in the world. They’ll tell anyone who listens to them, and Winter is a good listener. (His recording—and, I suspect, partial invention—of crisp dialogue is one of Niño Bien’s greatest strengths. More on this in a sec.) As Winter points out, Argentina was among the world’s five richest countries in the 1930s, and a pinnacle of high European civilization transplanted to South America. He also admits, however, that

[t]hose days were gone, and it appeared that they were never coming back… Argentina had been on a hopeless, seemingly irreversible seventy-year losing streak—it was like the Chicago Cubs of countries. It had begun the century with a higher per capita income than Sweden or Spain, and on par with Germany. Perhaps no other nation had fallen so far, so fast. Yet there had been no devastating wars, no epic plagues, floods, or droughts. There had been no one tyrant, no Idi Amin or Josef Stalin who had single-handedly run the place into the ground. A country blessed with some of the earth’s richest farmland was now having problems feeding its people. And while the world is full of countries with abundant natural resources that have failed to reach their potential, perhaps none of them also possess Argentina’s wealth of human capital: a vibrant and skilled population that is nearly 100 percent literate.

Nobody seems to know why things have gone so wrong, and why they continue to do so. Winter—who came to Argentina on a whim after graduating from the University of Texas in 1999—doesn’t quite solve the conundrum, either. In his four years in the country, though, he is an able witness to the general befuddlement—a confusion that’s made most manifest in tango.

Ah, the tango: that shopworn cliché, with its high kicks and exaggerated emotions, has become the de facto symbol of “exotic Latin culture”—much the way Americans loved mambo in the 1950s, and went through a flamenco craze in the 1980s—for clueless Americans. Winter knows, and lets the reader know, early on that he realizes that using the tango as a lens through which to view Argentina is a dicey proposition.

Tango, however, is music and dance suited for lovers, fools, madmen, and anyone who’s felt like any combination of the above—in other words, dicey. In a country that’s gone through more economic fluctuations and presidential changes—at one point in Niño Bien, Argentina goes through five presidents in about as many weeks—than could possibly be imagined, the mix of romantic gesture and engrained cynicism that forms tango must feel especially apt for Argentina.

As Winter discovers, tango songs and taxi drivers are Argentina’s best underground news sources. Both pointedly casting stones (and naming names) at politics and culture and, in an odd quirk, many of the cabdrivers are former government officials, and tango’s most prominent composer was practically a presidential advisor. Though its musical heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, which are ironically periods of tremendous wealth for the country, it continues to resonate with its controversial lyrics and sophisticated, tangled melodies and rhythms. It seems to operate during periods of both feast and famine. Tango is sleek on the surface, and tumultuous at its core.

To get beyond the surface or, rather, to appreciate both the artifice and the flesh underneath, Niño Bien argues implicitly that one has to look beyond the page. The people Winter meets don’t much trust what’s printed or what the TV anchors read onscreen. Instead, he uses tango as a lens through which he can make some sense of Argentina’s contradictions, charm, and characters.

Winter’s prose is conversational and quick-witted, moving easily from the dance floor to the street to the library stacks. Tracing the roots of tango’s music and choreographies, he dovetails into discussions of Argentina’s yo-yoing wealth, its class dynamics, its odd history of European and African immigration, its historical lack of women during the 19th century, and the evolution/dissolution of the gaucho in reality and myth. He excerpts judiciously from historical diaries, notes, and academic texts, selecting that which emboldens his wary comprehension of the Argentine present.

That present is Winter’s focus, and he seems to spend it mostly in milongas, where the tango is danced, whisky is drunk, and hookups are jelled. As the previous two excerpts revealed, Winter quickly draws compelling people and places. His elderly posse of milongueros—with names like El Tigre (“The Tiger”), El Nene (“The Kid”) Patterson, El Chino (“The Chinaman,” who’s not remotely Oriental), El Chino #2 (again, not Chinese), and Hector El Griego (“Hector the Greek,” who’s Italian)—ring true, with distinct personalities created in quick strokes. Relationships between Winter’s comely dance instructor Mariela and the other men she teaches are rendered with an awareness of how the author is being played for more money, but are nevertheless touching. The aforementioned cabdrivers, sharply opinionated to a man, spurt out memorable one-liners.

If nothing else, Niño Bien is very funny, if grimly so, even outside of the milonga. The dialogue zings, and so do Winter’s descriptions of fashion and gesture. Falling in love with Argentina is “like falling for an alcoholic at the very moment she hits rock bottom, sleeping in a gutter with puke in her hair.” His first tango with a woman would fit in well in an Argentine screwball comedy. Winter’s bitter humor extends to himself as well, but his sentences also mock that very bitterness (and Argentina’s as well).

Throughout the book, his dark wit carries the reader through what are initially considered digressions. Brief histories of slavery and prostitution in Buenos Aires—grim subjects both, with the potential to be portrayed dryly—are engrossing, in part, because Niño Bien brings mordant humor to the discussions. The book’s structure—roughly a chronological progression from 2000 to 2004, with historical side trips—keeps the material focused on how the digressions, in fact, led to modern-day Argentina.

It’s not a thorough view of Argentina, in that Winter mostly sticks to the cities and not to the Pampas. And Niño Bien offers no solutions to, or reasons for, Argentina’s crisis. But the book is Winter’s own, and works on its own terms as a window into a classy, high-strung, and perpetually troubled country.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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