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The Tango Singer, by Tomas Eloy Martinez trans Anne McLean

Dancing to the rhythms of a violent history

Madonna performed it in Evita. Sally Potter directed it in The Tango Lesson. Hundreds, mainly women of uncertain age, dance it across British cities. And the Argentines, who claim to have choreographed it - although the roots lie in the male partnerships of Cuban sailors improvising on the rhythms of the habañera - have written about it. Even Borges's brief "History of the Tango" opens by paying homage to the many histories that precede his. And British visitors to La Boca (the port where tango emerged) write glamorous accounts of their encounters.

Tomas Eloy Martinez takes a less glamorous approach. The novelist is interested in tango's myth and mystique, related through the lyrics rather than the movements of this lament that balances on a knife-edge between consummate control and intense passion. As with The Peron Novel and Santa Evita, The Tango Singer is about the Buenos Aires of his youth, before a right-wing bomb ousted Martinez from his newspaper and brought exile in the US.

The eponymous singer is Julio Martel, discovered by a North American PhD student during a chance conversation with the cultural historian Jean Franco. Again, this mingling of actual and fictitious protagonists belongs to a Latin American genre of "meta-historical fiction".

Bruno Cadogan's quest for Martel leads him to Buenos Aires, where he is led to the house that was the original site of Borges' kabbalistic tale, "The Aleph". From there he pursues Martel across the city, attempting to divine the connections between the odd occasions when the crippled singer makes erratic appearances and sings in a strange voice between a tenor and a falsetto. Martel refused to record: the only way to hear him is to see him, although an early fairground recording precipitates a national furore.

Martel's repertoire includes laments from the earliest and lewdest period of immigration to the city, in the late 19th century. But the year now is 2001, when the Argentine economy collapsed. 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. This is the city in which ghostly legends - Peron, Evita, Borges, Gardel - haunt everyday reality. It is also where the secrets of a recent past cannot be contained. The legend of the charismatic singer "with sunshine in his throat", vocalising the "long roll of thunder" unleashed under Peronism and military dictatorship, gives a sharper, more urgent voice to the tango. From being merely a sexy and exportable dance craze, it translates as the popular history of a nation in violent change.

Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA

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