In his memoir/critique Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina, Brian Winter uses the tango and the gaucho figure, in equal measures, as lenses through which to view Argentine culture. The book offers a compelling and mordantly funny take on Argentina—full of rich characters and vivid, concise clarification about the country’s politics—during the country’s worst economic crisis of the last hundred years.
Brian—an old friend—was gracious enough to grant me an interview by email about the book, travel literature in general, and the current state of Argentina. Enjoy.
The book is at once a memoir, a breezy historical overview, and a work of cultural criticism about the nature of the tango. Which aspect provided the biggest challenge to you, in terms of writing, research, and recollection?
Most of the book takes place in dark, smoke-filled rooms between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., with most of the characters, myself included, immersed in various states of inebriation. There was dancing and flirting; threats and rivalries. Some of the time I had a notebook with me; other times I found myself drunkenly scribbling notes into my journal when I got home at dawn. So, to answer your question: Doing justice to the conversations I had in the tango halls, to the dialogue and characters that form the core of the book, was very difficult. Most of the writing was done in Washington rather than Buenos Aires, so I was often describing places and people with imperfect memory and a certain degree of nostalgia… which, given the themes of the tango, actually had some advantages.
The four-part structure works very well, moving essentially from being initially overwhelmed to becoming a near-native to being disillusioned, and back again. The deeper we get into the book, the more confident and more extensive the forays into Argentine history and politics. Was the structure something that you had in mind before you began writing, or did it come to you as the book rolled along?
It’s worth noting that I originally set out to write a book about Argentina’s epic economic crisis that touched briefly on the tango, rather than the other way around. Twenty-five publisher rejections later I realized that, hmm, maybe the book needed to evolve into something more funny and less… soul-numbingly depressing (though, given what’s happening on Wall Street, the financial meltdown theme might have proven prescient… oh well). I am glad in retrospect that the book turned out the way it did, because the subject is more accessible and a great deal more fun, frankly. As for the structure itself, maybe it was an accident, but thinking about it now I’m reminded of these silly Power Point presentations that my college professors showed us when we arrived somewhere for a “study abroad.” The purpose was to prepare us for the phases of mood that you inevitably go through—euphoria, boredom, disappointment, constipation, equilibrium, I don’t remember exactly what else—when you move to a new country. Each time, I remember marveling over how stupid it all seemed, yet each time the presentation turned out to be absolutely spot-on. People are predictable, like it or not. The book is ultimately about moving to a strange and bizarre place, so I guess in some ways it’s a reflection of that cycle.
Tango provides an efficient, if complicated, lens through which you can view Argentina? Is there a similar sort of cultural trope that you could apply to America, and why? If not, why not?
Maybe country music, which is so optimistic and yet so weirdly depressing that I think it could only be forged in Middle America. That’s a case I briefly make in the book. I do think, though, that tango could be unique among world music in just how comprehensive a guide it provides to the soul of its country of origin. Tango lyrics basically say that yesterday was paradise, today is hell, and tomorrow will be even worse—and that is about as close to the Argentine credo as you can get. I would add, though, that it’s not perfect. A great many of my Argentine friends who are under 40 believe the tango to be utterly old-fashioned as a dance, a music, and a window into their country’s soul. Something I regret not providing at least a glimpse of in the book is the Argentina I knew outside of the milongas; I spent just as much time playing ping-pong and pounding beers with my twenty-something Argentine friends at houses in the suburbs as I did at the tango halls.
The epilogue tells briefly and hilariously how you imported Argentine customs into Mexico City, much to the annoyance of your peers. In the long run, how have your four years in Argentina affected the ways in which you look at America and the rest of the world?
I love this question. I still find myself subject to weird fits of melancholy and irrational distrust of financial and government institutions, traits that could certainly be credited to my experience in Argentina or… aging, I guess. I consume unhealthy amounts of steak and often resist the urge to grow a mullet. My sense of humor is probably darker and more caustic than it was before. I would also like to think that I absorbed some of the Argentines’ more virtuous traits; that living there made me a better conversationalist, allowed me to really see how a society works from top to bottom, and gave me a higher appreciation of the “good life.” My formative years were in Buenos Aires; when I left in 2004, I had actually spent more time in Argentina since graduating from high school than I had in the USA. That’s pretty incredible. It sure didn’t make me popular in Mexico though!
Though the book takes long looks into the past, giving overviews of the career of tango composer Enrique Santos Discépolo and gauchos and Argentina’s economic yo-yoing, the memoir section is very much in-the-moment. How important was balancing the history with the memoir?
This may be a cliché, but the truth is that the book is ultimately a reflection of thoughts and experiences that I had to express. To me, the only reason to subject yourself to the absolute hell of writing a book is if the topic obsesses you so deeply and completely that you must put it to paper. That topic for me was Argentina. So I sat down and wrote, and what came out is mostly what you read. I desperately wanted to write about the more troubled aspects of Argentina’s history, and particularly (as I referenced above) the unique moment in time that I lived through from 2000 to 2004, when Argentina had an economic meltdown similar to the Great Depression. That story to me is still the heart of the book, and it also best explains what drew me to the tango.
What shape is Argentina in these days? Do you still keep up with it or with any of the people you befriended while there?
To my utter surprise, Argentina is in the middle of a transcendent economic boom. It fixed a lot of its problems and these days the streets are packed with people at 3 a.m., the steakhouses are bustling, and the protests and political unrest is—mostly—absent now. It has also become, quite deservedly I think, a mecca for Americans and Europeans who want to live the good life on the cheap, drawing comparisons to Paris in the 1920s and Prague in the 1990s. I wonder if the flood of foreigners has ruined the fun a bit, since one of the things I enjoyed most about Argentina was that it was a secret nobody else knew about; but maybe that is just a classic, bitchy complaint among expats who move on. On the other hand, the skeptic in me (let’s call him my inner Argentine) also notes that this is in every sense a manic-depressive country prone to soaring highs and abysmal lows. They’ll need another two decades of growth like this to start reaching the European living standards that Argentina enjoyed just two generations ago. That seems unlikely. It’s also bizarre to see how, even now, the groundwork is being laid for the next crisis (though I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as bad as the last one). For example, the government is openly, baldly lying about the inflation rate, which is actually double the official number. Everybody in Argentina knows it’s a lie. The government knows it. The people know it. How can you have a stable economy when nobody knows what prices are like? Can you imagine this happening anywhere else? (As you can tell, yes, I still keep up rather obsessively with events and people there)
How did you decide on the tone of the book? It’s very, very funny, even as the material gets bleaker and darker; was this an attempt to recreate the ying-yang idea of tango—cynical lyrics vs. bright music—in your prose?
In one sense, the situation—Argentina’s situation—was so inherently absurd that it had to be funny. I mean, how does a country with some of the world’s best farmland a vibrant, educated populace become such a basketcase that it has five different presidents in a period of two weeks? Tell me how that’s not hilarious. Also, Argentines themselves are possessed of infinite, vibrant, sophisticated humor—and it’s Argentine characters, far more than myself, who take center stage in the book. I’d also note that the economic recovery in the years after I left permitted me to address the crisis itself with far more irony and humor than I otherwise would have. If people had continued dying of malnutrition and leaving the country in droves… well, there’s nothing funny about that. But the fact that things bounced back so quickly just served to further highlight how illogical and unnecessary the whole crisis was in the first place, and it allowed me to write the book in a different way.
You clearly read a lot on Argentina’s economic and cultural history, and the depth of your research is reflected in the book’s many quotes from primary sources. What models did you use in terms of writing the book? Were they contemporary books or articles, or instead literature from the earlier part of the 20th century? What travel writers would you consider as influences?
I am a collector of old travelogues, particularly those on Argentina and South America, and I’ve used many of them as sources in the book. The gold standard in the industry is obviously Bill Bryson. I like Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul, and Burton Holmes, all of whom wrote about Argentina. Jan Morris is wonderful. I’m not sure how much of a future there is for books like the one I’ve written; it seems the expansion of video and TV franchises like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic might be enough on their own to satisfy people who actively want to learn about other places. Fifty or even thirty years ago, a book was usually the best way to experience a foreign country; now it’s hard to get people to read someone else’s rendering of what a place looks, feels, and smells like… unless you as an author can somehow mix that with your personal account of divorce, redemption, alcoholism, spiritual discovery, whatever. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert or Frances Mayes, obviously. I guess I could have gone that route in my book, but it wasn’t me; I wanted to make Argentina the main character, rather than myself. Probably sold fewer books as a result. Oh well.
The book mixes history, memoir, journalism, and cultural criticism. How would you classify the book—as travel literature, or something else?
All of the above, I guess.
Finally, do you still tango?
You know, I lead a very different life now. It’s shocking, actually, just how different it is. I’m a senior editor at a national newspaper and I live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I am married and I have a young daughter and most of my social life takes place on my screened-in front porch, where I like to drink beer and eat steak and play cards with friends. That is a somewhat convoluted way of saying, no, I don’t tango anymore—but I often wish I did.