The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis

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A novel about journeys to new lands and to new selves, The Gods of Tango follows Leda, born a woman in Italy, as she travels across the world early in the twentieth century and becomes a man named Dante, first for safety and later for more nuanced reasons.

After the death of her cousin, Cora, Leda knows she has to leave the small Italian village dominated by their family. Seeking escape, she becomes engaged to Dante, Cora’s brother, who is leaving for Argentina. Before she leaves, Leda’s father gives her a precious family violin that once belonged to the King of Naples, telling her it’s for Dante, her new husband. Does her father mean for her to have it? Can he be unaware of her love for the instrument? But women don’t play violin. It’s been locked away for six years. Leda was never allowed to play it, but she used to stand outside the window during her brother’s lessons and pretend to play along.

The outdated belief that women don’t play the violin is the novel’s first of many explorations into what women don’t or can’t do: pass as a man, attract a range of women, love or make love to a woman as well as or better than a man, visit whores, build meaningful friendships with men, even come to identify as a man. Not all of these prohibitions are as ridiculous to the modern reader as the one about the violin, but the instrument leads the way for the reader as it does for the character.

When Leda arrives in Buenos Ares, she discovers that her new husband has been killed in a worker’s strike, leaving her a widow. Her parents write, telling her to come home and sending her money for the return voyage, but Leda is not eager to go back. The question is, how will she survive, support herself and remain safe, alone in a foreign city where she knows no one?

Leda takes on the identity of Dante, her dead husband. She cuts her hair, puts on his suit and leaves the only familiar pocket of Buenos Aires she’s come to know. This radical decision gives her the power to earn money and move safely through the streets. More importantly, it allows her to play her beloved violin. And this brings her to the tango.

The Gods of Tango is a richly plotted book. Each chapter brings the points of view of other characters into the story, including a woman Leda rooms with on the boat from Italy, a prostitute Leda encounters, and the blind musician who first gives her permission to play. These multiple viewpoints also allow us to see Leda/ Dante from the outside, as other people perceive first her, then him.

In a key scene, Dante watches Rosa strut her stuff as a woman costumed as a man:

Rosa opened her mouth, and her voice made the world fall away. It was full-bodied and potent, large enough to fill the stage, the cabaret, the entire city. She seemed to grow twice as tall as she sang, and your ears were made to hear her, your eyes were made to watch her strut and flash, hands hooked loosely in her pockets, chest puffed out because she was, she told us, a man who knew what he liked, a man who went where he pleased, a lover of women, all women, criolla women, the best dancer and best knife man at any party, lover of guitars and food and may the noble audience listening now forgive him he must be frank, he must be true, he must tell them who he really was, El Terrible. Rosa caressed every word on its way out. She was pure vitality. She was the compadrito from the brothels, from the cafes, rebellious, good-natured in his obscenity, unabashed. She swaggered like a man and sounded like a woman and the combination caused a clash inside that could wake the depths of a person, monstrous depths.

This voice, sometimes rising to the incantatory, as it does here, unfolds a tale, a story in the sit-around-the-fire sense, but it also takes us deep into the psychology of its main character through a profound transformation, and deep into the music of the tango.

The shared themes of desire and survival, so basic to our human need for stories, are what Dante absorbs from these encounters. But ultimately Dante wants more than to survive. How does a person—female, without funds, far from home with no family and extremely limited options for non-damning, legitimate self-support not only survive but thrive—create art, have passionate affairs, and find true love?

The Gods of Tango is a Cinderella story. (Is everything?) At some point, the magic of self-reinvention offers a better future. Like Leda’s, Cinderella’s transformation is physical, magical/impossible, and dependent on secrecy. Like Cinderella, Leda must be discovered in order to find true love. De Robertis knows you have to understand who you were and where you came from before you can be loved for who you are. The novel does an amazing job of building and uncovering Dante’s sexuality.

The driving metaphor of The Gods of Tango is the tango—a passionate, layered, evolving music full of story and history and life—and the tango becomes the dance of gender in these pages. The images and rhythms of Buenos Aires, of the tango halls, of Leda’s journey to become Dante stir up much more than a gorgeous existence on the surface. The world of a story has to feel absolutely literal, has to cohere with our knowledge of human nature and the world, before it can rise up toward the symbolic or reach down for deep meaning. As readers we ask that a book reach all of these layers. The Gods of Tango definitely does.

Elizabeth Stark is the author of a novel, Shy Girl (FSG/ Seal Press), writer/ director of two short films distributed by Frameline, and cohost of a podcast, More from this author →