Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review of Tango for a Torturer

Daniel Chavarria’s latest novel, Tango for a Torturer, (Akashic, 2007) is more fairy-tale for aging communists than mystery. The novel tells the story of Aldo Bianchi, a successful Argentine businessman, and former victim of the military police in that country, who finds his old nemesis, Orlando Ortega Oritz, the notorious CIA trained torturer who made his life a living hell. With the help of a prostitute named Bini, who has a relationship with both men Aldo sets in motion an elaborate plan to destroy his enemy.

The story itself is straightforward, but Chavarria approaches it elliptically, and the constant diversions, detours and asides may try the patience of readers who are used to the more straightforward style of English language fiction. Chavarria’s story jumps around in time, and point-of-view, something that is apparently common in Spanish language fiction. Still, the novel is never too confusing, and if one is patient all will be revealed.

The main weakness of Tango for a Torturer is Chavarria’s naïve worldview. Communism was very 20th Century, and Chavarria, a Uruguayan living in Cuba, is in the awkward position of having outlived his own ideology. The book rightly condemns state sponsored violence, and Aldo’s revenge is certainly just, but the irony of writing a novel condemning such a thing while living in Cuba seems entirely lost on the author. It’s not like Castro has a history of caring deeply about the human rights of his opponents, or homosexuals or Jehovah’s witnesses. In the book, Aldo frames Triple-O for a hit-and-run. Triple-O is sent to a Cuban prison, which sounds more like a social club than a place of punishment. It’s a place, not fraught with violence and fear, but full of culture. One of Triple-O’s fellow inmates is memorizing the Iliad in five different languages. Everyone seems to think this is a laudable goal, and wants to hear him recite ancient poetry. In sunny Cuba, under Castro’s benevolent rule, even jail is a center of culture.

Bini, the prostitute, is a communist daydream as well. It is made very clear that she whores, not because of economic deprivation, but because she enjoys it. She’s a noble savage, poor, but committed to justice. When Aldo asks for her help in framing Triple-O, she does it for nothing, even though it means she must spend time behind bars. If this has the distinct ring of bullshit, that’s because it’s bullshit. Let’s not forget, however, that Castro has been known to jail people for publishing works abroad without official consent. Of course, if jail is so great in Cuba, one wonders what Mr. Chavarria has to worry about.


Gonzalo B said...


I wouldn't say Spanish language fiction fits into such a restricted mold (jumping around in time and often switching points of view). There's too many countries that speak Spanish and too many writers and literary trends in the Spanish-speaking world for a sweeping statement like that to do justice to such a vast corpse of literature. However, I do agree with your criticism of Chavarria in that he portrays Castro's dictatorship as paradise on Earth. Unfortunately, that's the problem with many nostalgic academics and artists throughout Latin America who, having fought or at least opposed in some way the dictatorships of the '60s and '70s, still feel some sort of debt of gratitude with Cuba. Since on many occassions Castro provided them shelter (and sometimes weapons to armed groups), there are some who still have a weak spot for his regime and turn a blind eye on all its crimes. It's high time they acknowledged they are defending the same thing they opposed and that Castro is in fact a two-bit tyrant.

I read Chavarria's Adios Muchachos in Spanish and enjoyed it a lot. His spare prose and fast-paced storytelling are some of his strengths and I don't know how well they translate to English. The story had a similar background to the one you describe, involving prostitutes (jineteras) and all kinds of con artists in a wild caper set in Cuba. I don't seem to recall whether Chavarria tried to portray Castro's regime in a favorable light or not or if he was trying to score propaganda points throughout the story. My impression is that at least in that particular novel he wasn't. I don't know about Tango for a Torturer.

Having said that, I don't think holding the fact that Chavarria lives in Cuba against him is valid criticism. One thing is proselytize throughout a novel and thus making its intrinsic value as literature secondary to a political agenda. I can understand how you disagree with that. I believe you are wrong, however, in that I don't think the author's lifestyle, the country he lives in or the ideology he professes is relevant when assessing the value of his work. Knut Hamsun was an unrepentant Nazi and I don't see how that affects -negatively or positively- the quality of a novel like Hunger. Critizicing Chavarria because he lives in Cuba is like criticizing an American author because he lives in Bush's USA, unfairly holding him responsible for things such as the invasion of Iraq or any other controversial action you see fit. Please note that I'm not making any moral equivalencies between the USA and Cuba but simply illustrating my point.

Gonzalo B said...

I forgot to mention another author who's written mysteries set in or around Cuba, the Chilean Roberto Ampuero. I know some of his novels have been translated to English. I don't think he's as good a writer as Chavarria, but his stories are more politically-balanced if you will and, most important, very enjoyable.

Nathan Cain said...

You're point about not painting Spanish language literature with too broad a brush is well taken. I'll refrain from sweeping generalizations in the future.
And, I wasn't criticizing Chavarria for living in Cuba, I was pointing out that he lives in a country that has been known to jail people for exercising their right to free expression, so it's not surprising that this book reads like propaganda in some places.
To be fair, I didn't have the same issue with Havana Blue by Leonardo Padura. Padura's a Cuban leftist, but his ideology didn't color the book to the extent where I could no longer identify with the characters. With Chavarria that wasn't the case. His ideology colored the entire work to the extent that it distorted the characters and the setting to a point where I no longer identified with them.

Nathan Cain said...

I meant, of course, to start of by saying "your point" not "you're point." Cut me some slack, it's five in the morning.