An expat Californian building a new life via the tango in Buenos Aires since 2003, including information on learning the tango and where to dance it in Buenos Aires.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien

Books and blogs by women about their tango experiences/epiphanies in Buenos Aires proliferate yearly. (OK, so I'm one of those women.)

It's refreshing to read a story about a foreigner in Buenos Aires written by a man. Sure, we've had the cheap and disgusting Kiss and Tango by Marina Palmer, and the interesting pre-crisis Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France, among many others, but now we have something entirely different: Brian Winter's Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien; a Yanqui's Missteps in Argentina.

Not a memoir, but rather a well-written attempt to make 21st century readers understand the why-and-wherefores of the Buenos Aires of today. It’s not an excuse for the author to delve into his emotional past, or to write about sexual encounters, nor does he do any reflection—the main aspect of a memoir. It’s an impressionistic travelogue with fantasy characters—think Wizard of Oz or Star Wars set in South America with lots of illuminating and witty historical citations.

Young Mr. Winter (a recent college grad who floats to Argentina hoping to find a job) also writes about his experience as a tango dancer wannabe. He relates preposterous scenes with fictitious milongueros, but I believe these scenes, while accurately conveying feelings and emotions if not truths, are not from his experience but from research and imagination. He is a fantastic researcher, as well as a hell of a writer. And he's funny, too!

He wanted to write an essay about Buenos Aires, and how then could he leave out tango, even if he knew nothing and cared less about it? His Mafia round table of wise old milongueros allow for exposition and stories about Argentina's history, the influence of the gauchos, the corruption of the politicians, the legacy of Peron and Evita. Miller quotes tangos and the gaucho poem, Martin Fierro. He quotes and relates and integrates, all with humor and a great turn of phrase, and it makes for enjoyable reading, and a history lesson too.

But I do know about the milongas, the milongueros, and certainly, about Nino Bien, the “decaying bar” of the title. His stories of cartoon characters like El Nene, El Dandi, El Chino 1 & 2, and El Tigre entertain and maybe enlighten. Certainly it's not the habit of real milongueros, or anyone else in a milonga, to drink frozen strawberry daiquiris at La Ideal or Nino Bien, let alone wear white terrycloth suits with orange shirts and pink scarves and lead ganchos and barridas. While he has the tango facts and details mostly all wrong, he nevertheless zeros in on the mood, effect and the result. The milonga is an easy target for satire.

Yes, there are countless factual errors in the tango telling, and lots of mistakes in Castellano and Buenos Aires geography, but from my fact checking on the internet, Miller's tales of political corruption, battles, presidents, and gauchos all seem to ring true. I especially enjoyed the story of the depressed tango lyricist Discepolo and his mis-alignment with the government, and his artistic crashes with the tango god himself, Carlos Gardel.

So let's not read this book as a personal memoir, or as history, but rather as a fable of life and times in Buenos Aires from 2000-2004 from a foreigner's perspective. Despite its flaws in accuracy, there's much to be learned here, as well as several laughs and a couple of hours of entertaining reading.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I got the book and read it in a few days. It was such a good book. The history was well worth the read. It mentions other authors as well as what they wrote if you wanted to look a bit farther into the history. I have passed it on to a fellow student so she can enjoy as well. I think it might make the summer reading rounds in our tango class. Thanks for the suggestion.