Heart to heart, Jane Westaway

Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story
Kapka Kassabova
Portobello Books, $39.99,
ISBN 9781846272844


Tango is just a dance in the sense that rugby is just a ball game. You live and breathe it. Or you don’t. Fans – and remember the derivation of that term, fanatics – saturate themselves in technicalities and lore, wed themselves to fiercely competing views on minutiae, and build and feed off sub-culture mythology.

There are differences, though. Most rugby fans don’t actually chase the ball around the field: they cheer, groan and bawl orders from real or virtual sidelines. Tango, on the other hand, is no spectator sport. Flashy, throw-your-legs-around-his-waist-while-you-smoulder, stage tango aside, its fans don’t watch it, they do it.

In the milonguero style still danced in the dancehalls of Buenos Aires, dancers circle the floor anti-clockwise, the gentility of their movements hypnotically at odds with the intimacy of each couple’s embrace. They rarely smile, let alone speak. Followers – usually, but not always, women – close their eyes. The men’s stay open because they must navigate, but they look inward as much as outward. Each couple is locked into their own world, so that the more sensitive spectator might even feel inclined to avert her eyes.

I have no idea what turns innocent men and women into rugby enthusiasts, apart, that is, from cradle to grave indoctrination. To take up tango, though, is to go against the social grain. Pakeha Kiwis generally reserve interpersonal touch for emergencies. But when you stand up to dance a set of three or four tunes – a tanda: Kapka Kassabova’s Twelve Minutes of Love – with someone you’ve never met before, you embrace them as readily as you would your nearest and dearest. Heart to heart, cheek to cheek. You feel each other breathe. You move when he moves. You are – as more than one tango writer has put it – one creature with four legs.

If the tanda goes well, you don’t dance, you fly.

On the basis of a little unscientific research, I can say that surfies experience the same sensation when they catch the right wave. They and the wave are one. It’s a sublime moment of escape from self-consciousness, that curse of humanity we have always sought ways of escaping – through religion, drugs, dance, sex and, for all I know, rugby. The first time it happened to me on the dance-floor I came to with a jolt, bearings and balance lost. And hooked. It’s this experience – intense, private and yet shared – that transforms the casual hobbyist into the addicted tanguera, fervently seeking another such moment and another.

Kassabova became hooked in Auckland in her mid-20s, and this is the story of her decade-long international hunt for the nirvana she, rather goofily, dubs a tangogasm. The book isn’t, as she points out in her introduction, a guide or a manual; and she says she has simplified the mechanics “in order not to bore normal people to death”. Catch a rugby writer worrying about “normal people”!

But then few rugby writers are concerned with producing literature. Kassabova is; she is first and foremost a writer. Who, though, is her ideal reader? The fellow addict, who will scrutinise her content for authenticity, or the general reader, possibly someone familiar with her backlist of poetry, travel and fiction, looking to have their imagination gripped, to be told a story?

Kassabova isn’t the first New Zealand writer to be captivated by tango. Lloyd Jones got there first, with the novel Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (2002), and, in 2010, M J Maguire published The Tango Game. But good memoir has so much in common with fiction – not just sentence-by-sentence technique, but the shaping, shedding and selecting needed to construct a story – that it can sometimes be hard to draw a line between them.

Kassabova’s story is a readable mélange of reportage, travelogue, tango anthropology and history, and tango-prompted musings on the meaning of love, loss and life. Hooked when she is a lost and lonely migrant, she – like so many tangueros – soon makes the pilgrimage to Buenos Aires. This is where it all began more than a century ago, a dance developed by migrant males with too few women to go around.  She identifies with these early dancers, and with the lyrics of the songs we still dance to – florid tales of love and suffering, that, personally, I prefer not to translate from the Spanish. (Never, though, did a review call so compellingly for a sound-track as this one.)

Kassabova writes well – sometimes beautifully – about the dance, its codes of behaviour, the people she meets, the places she meets them. But her focus is herself, so that must be the reader’s, too. We meet a lot of people, but they remain names only – they’re not characters. Her conversations with them are rendered at length in direct speech, and I soon tired of them. Not because I questioned how she could have such perfect recall: memoir is after all designed; it’s not “real life”. It’s because they were too many and too portentous. Clearly I lack Kassabova’s soul, but in my experience people sit around the dance floor discussing not the meaning of life but staring at the dancers’ feet, and discussing the relative merits of their new shoes and their latest lover.

Another problem with these recurring conversations is that they are peppered with the author’s name. Says one Argentine, referring to the generals’ reign of terror, “ ‘Yes, Kapkita, this, too, is Argentina’s story.” The speaker flourishes this diminutive at least once per page. Within another page or so, the author has moved on to another character: “ ‘Ah, Kap-ka’, ” he
greets her. And further down the page, “ ‘Kapka. I feel something bad … . ’ ”

I’ve never before encountered such frequent use of an author’s name in the pages of a memoir. If what characters say matters – for the book’s purpose, and therefore the reader – we don’t want the writer repeatedly thrusting herself between it and us. The cumulative effect is to render the narrator distastefully conceited. And it’s as if all these others exist only to act as mirrors, reflecting her. The effect is intensified by the glamorous black-and-white image of the author on the cover. These are the outward signs of a self-mythologisation that undermines the book’s literary value.

Is memoir inescapably self-obssessed? No, perhaps surprisingly, it is not. Look at Eric Newby’s Something Wholesale: My Life and Times in the Rag Trade (1962), Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost (2003), J G Ballard’s Miracles of Life (2008), to take a random trio. Nor is the wider perspective these memoirists offer simply a function of chronological age. Look at Neil Cross’s brilliantly handled Heartland, published when he was only 36.

What saves these memoirs from the it’s-all-about-me trap is a distancing, a self-irony that derives from an underlying awareness of being a small stitch in a vastly complex tapestry.

Mantel said in the Guardian a couple of years ago that “Everyone who has ever written a memoir … must have put themselves through a fierce interrogation of their more operatic emotions. When we try to grasp the slippery realities of our … lives, we cannot help but think that highly charged emotion is validating in itself.”

Quite. Overall I found Twelve Minutes too operatic for my taste.

As to what tangueros might make of Kassabova’s take on their art and practice, some might pick her up on a couple of details, such as the name of the Buenos Aires shoe shop, which is Flabella not Flavella. But on the whole her grasp of the physical and social technicalities is sound, and to those unfamiliar with the sub-culture, probably fascinating. Just take the melodrama with a pinch of salt.

Kassabova nails the way tango changes your wardrobe, the way you must work to maintain friendships with non-tango friends, the way your disposable income is sucked up by tango-related travel, private classes and the aforementioned wardrobe. And all because the dance can produce what she terms “an altered state”.

Tango has proven beneficial for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer sufferers, because it helps balance, coordination and memory. But its “healing embrace” also ameliorates the isolation of depression and schizophrenia. “Only connect”, as E M Forster put it. Who knew he was speaking of tango? And of course, like Kassabova, you can find love – and lose it – on the dance floor. This is where the pinch of salt comes in handy. As one Wellington tanguero puts it, “Sometimes you have to walk away from a tanda and tell yourself ‘it’s only a dance’. ”


Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books and addicted to Argentine tango. 

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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