The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez

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The Independent Culture

It's 2001, and New York academic Bruno Cadogan arrives in Buenos Aires to research his dissertation on the origins of the tango. Cadogan has been enticed to the Argentinian capital by stories of a crippled, haemophiliac singer called Julio Martel whose wrecked body conceals a voice which makes people weep. Those are the facts and be grateful for them, because for most of its length The Tango Singer is gloriously mysterious and opaque.

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.

At the book's heart is the image of the "aleph", the title of a Borges short story which describes a glittering sphere, the point in space which contains the essence of the entire universe. In Borges' story the aleph is found in a basement. In The Tango Singer, that same basement is occupied by a municipal librarian called Bonorino; don't forget that Borges himself was a librarian and wrote some of his best work in his library's basement. Bruno Cadogan becomes so fixated by the idea of finding the aleph that he does the unthinkable. In a city still traumatised by memories of its military dictators, Cadogan turns informer and reports Bonorino for not paying his rent. Cadogan discovers too late that the librarian could have shown him everything there is to know.

Tomás Eloy Martínez, who was shortlisted for last year's inaugural International Man Booker Prize, was born in Argentina in 1934. His writing is satisfyingly sharp and eccentric. He casts Eva Perón as one of those women "whose lives were so excessive that, like the inconvenient facts of history, they were left without a real place of their own. Only in novels could they find the place they belonged, as always happens in Argentina to people who have the arrogance to exist too much."

But 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. No one does it more eloquently than the tango singer himself. Martel's haunting performances, sung in seemingly unconnected locations all over Buenos Aires, follow the contours of a map. Read the map and the city's shameful past is revealed.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that a man fills the space around him with images of mountains, stars, kingdoms and people, only to discover shortly before his death that "the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face". Borges would have adored the tango singer's audacious map. And, given that Borges often reviewed books which were never written and profiled writers who never existed, I suspect he would have loved the fact that not only is this glittering homage to him a work of fiction, but it concludes with the words: "all the characters in this novel are imaginary, even those who seem real."