An Immigrant Story
This is the story of Leda, a girl from a small Italian village outside of Naples, who when she learns that her cousin Dante is taking the ship to Buenos Aires to seek his fortune and future, attaches herself to him in the months before he leaves, making him make her a promise, to wait for her.
To follow him means becoming betrothed to him and the story opens with their proxy marriage, Leda marries Dante in the village, with her father-in-law standing in the place of the groom. Thus she sets off two years after the promise is made to join her husband, her father’s parting gift, the violin that belonged to her grandfather, the instrument she was never taught to play, but longed to know its secrets.
She was restless, she didn’t want to wait; if migration was the only way to push open the confines of her world, then she wanted it to happen now, she wanted to embark right along with Dante, cross the ocean and begin scraping her destiny out of foreign rock.
An Unforgiving city, Buenos Aires
On arrival in Buenos Aires, she is met by Arturo, who informs her of the dreadful accident. She discovers she in this bustling, unforgiving city, alone, without friends or family, a melange of voices and languages, familiar and unfamiliar. And as a young woman, the work she can do won’t be enough to keep on the room Dante had kept for them.
All the buildings were tall old mansions that the rich had abandoned to the foreign hordes decades ago, during a legendary bout of yellow fever. Stately houses now crowded with the families of the poor. Bakers and grocers with their wares in wood crates on the sidewalk, and cafés shut down to sleep for the day.
Music and Dance, The Tango
The novel is about Leda’s desire and determination, to make a life for herself, to play the violin, to live without being observed, to be the observer, to walk a fine line between freedom and safety, as she finds a way to enter the world of music, a world forbidden to women, as a man.
And isn’t that strange she thought, the way one city can swirl inside another; the way you can be in one country yet carry another country in your skin; the way a place is changed by whoever comes to it, the way silt silt invades the body of the river.
She arrived in Buenos Aires in 1913, just as the music of the tango was transforming. After weeks of watching, an opportunity arises to join a group when an altercation leads to the stabbing of a violinist. From there she, who has become he, is spotted by Santiago, a bandoneón (a type of concertina found in Argentina and Uruguay) player, who puts together a quartet and is aiming for a higher class of establishment, the cabaret and dance halls. Because the tango has crossed the ocean and sparked a fire in the night establishments of Paris.
The Old World, Europe, ignited by songs from the grim conventillos of New Babel. To think she’d crossed the ocean to find this Argentinian music, only to find it sailing back to Europe, closing a vast loop around the world.
Transformation and Transgression
The transformation in her life and work, follows that of the transformation of the tango, the addition of the bass, the piano and finally the addition of a voice, some instruments were rising into prominence while others began to disappear.
The tango without the bandoneón was no longer considered the tango. That strange German instrument had been absorbed into the music,, altering its essential texture and slowing its pace.
Leda finds a way to be one of the guys, unveiling her own passion as she navigates a dangerous situation that must remain secret if it is to be sustained.
Haunts of the Past
Throughout the novel, her thoughts return often to her childhood friend Cora, Dante’s sister. Something happened to Cora that haunts Leda, that she keeps suppressed, but the unwilling memories rise up and have their own effect on the decisions she makes, as she navigates the tricky path chosen.
It’s an enjoyable read and an insight into what must have awaited those who left Europe for Buenos Aires at the beginning of the twentieth century, what a tough environment it was for women to survive in and the development of this music and dance that came with its own set of rules and transgressions.
Carolina de Robertis, Author
Carolina de Robertis, a writer of Uruguayan origins is the author of two earlier novels, Perla (2012) and The Invisible Mountain (2009), translated into 17 languages.
Her most recent novel Cantoras (2019), a novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.
“I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, and for a woman immigrant, the only way for her to fully access the underworld of the tango on her own terms without becoming a prostitute was to dress as a man.”
NPR Interview: An Outsider In Buenos Aires Goes Incognito, For Love Of Tango