Other music exists to heal wounds; but the tango when sung and played is for the purpose of opening them, for the purpose of sticking you finger in the wound and to tear them until they bleed – Unknown
If you're like me probably all you know about the tango is what you've seen on Strictly Come Dancing. Oh, I knew the dance existed before then in the same way I knew Uruguay existed. I certainly never connected the two. The same goes for York. Isn't that where some grand old duke used to hang out?
The point I'm making is that when I sat down to read John Baker's new novel, Winged with Death, I didn't have an awful lot of preconceptions to ditch. I did bring a little baggage with me however: I've been reading John's blog for a couple of years and we've got to know each other in the way that people on the Internet think they know someone better than they really do. I've not read any of his other books (kept meaning to) but I did enjoy the odd story he would post every now and then most of which were set in cafés for some reason. The other thing was that I knew he made his living as a crime fiction writer.
Now you know too. Damn, didn't mean for that to happen. Still, it's not the worst thing to know. Crime novelists can usually string together a story that keeps one’s interest going whilst offering up a few surprises on the way. And John does that. But Winged with Death is not a crime novel. That said there're crimes aplenty. But solving these isn't what the book is about. Indeed most of the crimes we never get an answer to, people go missing and that's that, they either never turn up or wind up floating naked and dead in the river.
Before Strictly the only time we ever saw the tango on TV was in some sketch show, The Two Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise hamming it up to 'La Cumparsita' which is the one piece of tango music we all know even though I never knew its proper name until two minutes ago – thank you Google. A far cry away from the quote I chose to open this review with. The fact is that once tango gets a grip of you it appears that it really gets a grip of you.
Which brings us to Frederick Boyle the protagonist of John Baker's novel only he doesn't stay Frederick Boyle for long. Within a matter of hours of jumping ship in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1972, the nineteen year-old Frederick has allowed himself to be renamed:
Around the back of the Hotel Plaza Fuerte on Bartolomé Mitre I met Julio Ferrari. He must have been thirty years old at the time, a small man with black hair and a day’s growth of beard. He was framed in the doorway to the hotel’s kitchen, the butt of a cigarette deepening the nicotine stains on the fingers of his right hand. He wore a long apron which obscured his feet.
‘Hola. ¿qué desea?’
I dug the Spanish phrase book out of my pocket.
‘Americano?’ he asked.
‘English.’ He took a step towards me and stood very close.
He laughed. ‘Long way from home.’ He took a drag on his cigarette, pulling the smoke into his lungs and flicked the butt away from him, watching as it arced across the street. ‘You’re running away?’
It must have been written on my forehead. I stepped back, feeling cramped by his proximity.
‘Don’t move away,’ he said. ‘In England you can keep your distance, here we get closer together.’
‘You can wash dishes,’ he said. ‘You get free food, a few pesos a day. We’re not going to make you rich. What’s your name?’
‘Frederick,’ I told him. ‘Frederick Boyle.’
‘No one’ll get it,’ he said. ‘We’ll call you Ramon.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Ramon Bolio. You have somewhere to stay, Ramon?’
Without any real effort on his part the newly named Ramon lands a room to stay in, furnishings, friends – the aphorism-toting Julio and his girlfriend – and a job washing dishes. And somewhere in between he discovers tango and his life changes forever.
And then suddenly we're thirty years in the future in York. He's become a dance teacher, specifically a tango teacher. He's living on his own but is keen to get back with his partner (a ballet teacher). And then his brother's step daughter vanishes.
And then we're back in Uruguay in 1972. And this is how the book proceeds towards its respective conclusions. But it's not as simple as that. As well as chronicling what happens to him in both time periods, Ramon also spends a lot of time remembering his childhood particularly his relationship with his sick brother, Stephen. And when he's not doing that he's trying to find meaning to his life. And this is where the tango comes into play.
Existentialism is one of those things that keep coming back at me. I don’t live it. But it won’t leave me alone.
There is another part of me which stands back from my emotions and judgements, which seeks to find a comprehensible framework to put them in. And that is the way I live my life. I am allowed to live that way because I have dance, I have the tango and the ability to surrender to my emotions in an attempt to live by the spirit. I can tramp between the two.
My existentialism has become a place to go. It is a dance hall. It is not enough, I know that. But it is what I have.
I spent a bit of time looking through tango sites while preparing this review and people who are into tango like to talk about the tango. BOY do they like to talk about the tango. The tango becomes a metaphor for just about everything. Several times in John's novel he begins sentences with, "The tango is…":
The tango is about sorcery, seduction, domination, rebellion, solitude, indifference and torment. It sets up an echo that plays through muscle and sinew and through emotion and thought and feeling and consciousness. That echo is never entirely absent.
Tango is about pain, regret, fighting, disappointment and drunkenness. It is about the heart, restlessness, crazy, dreams, loss, and eternity. More than once in my life it has seemed to me to be the only thing left.
The tango is about oblivion, tragedy, loneliness, grief, illusion, despair, fascination, lust, sensuality, cruelty, rage, faith and absence. It is not an easy dance.
The tango is awesome, too. It is about rhythm, intuition, anger, jealousy, mystery, consolation, dignity, betrayal, bitterness and premonition.
My own feeling is that something that can seemingly be defined in so many ways is really indefinable. I asked John for his thoughts on this:
First I feel that, with these passages in particular, you are quoting out of context, and, in the process, losing the context and making it more rather than less difficult to understand what is going on. It is important to remember that it is not I, the author, but a character in the book who is making these statements. They are quite separate statements, made by a character who is not a wordsmith in any way, but by someone who is a dancer, someone who needs to be on his feet and moving in order to think.
If he were a poet he might make similar statements, lists of words that do not necessarily make scientific sense, but are a form of reaching out for something indefinable, something that is always, on one level, bound to fail but which in itself is absolutely necessary to attempt over and over again.
I see Ramon as someone who is caught in a dance between two separate aspects of his life, the young Ramon in Montevideo and his elder self in York. He knows that the two are linked by this dance, and he understands rhythm and timing and in each of these lists he begins to approach, or feels that he begins to approach a definition, not necessarily of tango, but of his own complexity. Each list ends with a full stop and is complete in itself. It is the best he can do at the time, perhaps, and sees him through until the next time he feels he has to reach out for it again.
We are dealing with a man who is disoriented; he is looking at his life through a double-ended telescope. He is young and he is old, he had a family and has none, for the period in which he is writing down his story he hardly sleeps, verbal language is not his forte. If he could, and he probably could, he would dance this narrative much better than he can describe it in words. But between us, his readers, and the verbal disguise he is currently wearing, there is also a dance taking place. He is leading us a dance, but that does not relieve us of the possibilities of response, of interpretation. His text is completed by our involvement, his lists attempting to define something indefinable are what we are all left with when we try to say what it is our life has been or has meant.
"The tango is about regret, shadows, friendship, caresses, disillusion, remorse, silence, melodrama, promises and murder. The tango is a stalker, it walks by night."
This is a poem, perhaps it is not the best poem ever written, but it is a poem nevertheless. In it Ramon attempts to reach beyond the possible like a French peasant dancing a gavotte.
The man cannot make sense out of his life – or his actions therein – so he tries to define it in terms of something he feels he does understand, the tango, but as others have proven before him, the tango doesn't translate into words any better than life does. I knew full well that I was quoting these parts of the text out of context. You don't need to know the context at this stage, suffice to say this is how Ramon tries to understand and explain things.
Before I started to read this book I knew very little about Latin American politics. I knew names like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Eva Perón but frankly the bulk of my knowledge came from Woody Allen's Bananas and old episodes of Mission Impossible. Frederick Boyle a.k.a. Ramon Bolio finds himself in a dangerous country. He arrives in Uruguay at a time when the country's dictator – and the dictators of a number of neighbouring countries – were hell bent on eliminating leftist political opponents in the region with the full support of the American government. This culminated in Operation Condor and during this time thousands of Latin Americans secretly kidnapped, tortured and killed by the security services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.
I suppose it would have helped if I'd known some of that before I started the book but John is a decent enough story-teller that I got the gist of it.
After half a year things change for the young Ramon and his friend Julio asks him if he could teach English to the son of one of the Hotel Plaza Fuerte’s customers and introduces him to the boy’s father, Capitán Miguel García Ramírez of the Uruguayan army. Through his connection with Ramírez, Ramon comes in contact with Bill Steel an American policeman, trained in torture techniques by the CIA, whose aim it is to stamp out the local rebels, the Tupamaros. The thing is, Ramon's friend, Julio is one of these Tupamaros, an urban guerilla movement, many of whose compatriots had been selectively ‘disappeared’ by the military. So you can see that Ramon is in a key position to be of help to the rebels.
The question is though, what has all of this to do with Ramon's missing niece back in York thirty years in the future? Nothing. And everything. It is impossible for our protagonist to go through what he does in Uruguay, to experience the things he does and to witness the things he does without being affected, changed, and the man who comes home to England is certainly not the idealistic teenager who left it; more than his name has changed though. I thought about calling him "our hero" in the last sentence but I don't see Ramon as a hero. Like all of us he is simply the lead character in his own life and how many of us would regard ourselves as heroic? He is a survivor though, that much is true, although his survival is more a matter of chance than anything else. As Ramon himself puts it:
I possess only a story or a series of stories which have used me as a hero or a villain or a narrator or a prop.
As Ramon tells his tale of his years living in Montevideo he cannot not talk about his missing niece and the effect it has on his family. The two tales become bound up together. Despite their best effort the police turn up nothing. Ramon writes:
The police are not detectives, not in the real sense of the word, they rely on a network of informers and snitches, someone who comes forward and tells them who-dun-it. But this is one of the times when nobody comes forward because nobody knows. Only one man.
In Uruguay this feeling of loss was multiplied over and over again. There was no one in Montevideo who wasn’t scarred by it. Those groups of black-clad women outside the barracks and the police stations were permanent reminders of all our privations. Bereavement and disappearance were everyday occurrences. There was a more or less constant expectation that we would not even receive the bones of our parents or our brothers or sisters.
Time is circular. This is the book's other theme.
Time echoes with circularity. It manifests itself as sound. It is always there in large stone circles or huge Victorian railway stations. It dwells, omnipresent, in Cathedrals. Wherever people come together to celebrate life or ponder death or contemplate a journey, there is time.
Life leads us a merry dance. We end up chasing our tails. It ties us up in knots.
What goes around comes around. There are karmic consequences, echoes, ripples. I got stuck here so I asked John to help me out:
I'm not sure that time's circularity is a theme, so much as the idea of time itself.
Winged with Death began for me out of a continuing obsession with the nature of time. I don’t know where that interest came from, it stretches back, I think, into adolescence – anyway, a long, long time.
I was aware that time is seen differently in different ages and cultures. That it means one thing to one group of people, while it means something entirely different to others.
Today we measure time in millionths of a second. All of us have some way of measuring hours, minutes and seconds. But our remote ancestors, those hunter/gatherers we have heard so much about, knew nothing of hours, minutes and seconds. They knew sunrise, high-noon and sunset. And that was quite enough to get by on.
A little later, when they came together in bigger groups and gave up the nomadic life to plant crops and keep domestic animals, our forebears began to feel the need of telling the time. People with fields to till and to harvest and animals to feed could not afford to be so negligent about time as the old hunters.
The Great Pyramid and Stonehenge were designed partially to measure the movement of time. And the sun dial, and the hour-glass, eventually, came into existence. Followed some thousand years later by a mechanical clock.
Many of our ancestors found it important to differentiate between passing time and the Great Time, the eternal dream time.
"The pitiless stars know in the midst of our laughter how that laughter will end." I don't know where that quote comes from, but for me the idea of the eternal dream time is embedded somewhere within it
By exchanging myth and symbol for history and fact, by making time real in terms of expectation (the future), attention (the present), and memory (the past), we condemned ourselves to become onward rather than inward.
We allowed the concept of longing into our lives. And longing is a cancer. It draws you in and once enmeshed you lose all sight of the present.
Time is often, throughout history, referred to as a cage.
Others have spent energy on time and its meaning. I think of J B Priestley, H G Wells, Orwell, all of whom tried to deal with time in their work. Joyce and Virginia Woolf both extended time and one of the reasons their work represented the modern age was that it was a revolt against the tyranny of passing Time. Others that spring to mind are Baudelaire, Henry James, Yeats, Eliot, Thomas Mann, Faulkner and Thornton Wilder, and the biggie, Proust.
I got the nod to Proust myself at the beginning of chapter 4 and there are others if you're keen to play hunt-the-literary-reference.
This is a complex wee novel. Okay 92,000 words is not so wee that it didn't take me a week to read. I have to say this is not a book I would have chosen myself. The title didn't appeal – it reminds me of something Agatha Christie would have used – and, once the review copy plopped through my letterbox – I can't say the artwork excited me; my wife, however, loved the cover.
I cannot pretend that I don't feel the touch of a crime fiction writer in this book. This new book is however a work of literary fiction without a doubt. It's clearly a labour of love too. My main problem with the book is the way John wraps up everything neatly and cleverly in his last chapter. He doesn't exactly assemble everyone in the drawing room but if the book had ended with chapter 26 I would have been happier. It's not that the last chapter feels tagged on because it doesn't. I would have been happier personally with an open-ended ending but then I prefer the director's cut of Blade Runner although it's hard to get the original out of my mind.
That aside the book kept my attention which considering the fact I'm not interested in the tango, politics or South America was something of an achievement. In a recent interview John has said: "What the reader is waiting for from a text is the stillness, the silence within it." This is very similar to a line in his book: "The tango, dance altogether, is a yearning for stillness, an itch for stillness." Both of these comments are thought-provoking. This is what kept me going though this book. There were several moments where I simply had to give pause for thought. And, having finished the thing a good week ago, I find myself still thinking about it.
You can read the entire first chapter on John's website here and the book can be purchased here. And if you're interested in tracking the evolution of the novel check out his blog archives for 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 beginning at 20th September 2002 and ending at 12th January 2006.
John Baker was born in Hull in 1942 and educated at the university there. He has worked as a social worker, shipbroker, truck driver, milkman, and most recently in the computer industry. He has twice received a Yorkshire Arts Association Writers’ Bursary. Married with five children, he lives in York now but has also lived in Oslo and a barn in France on the way there – long way for a short cut. In addition to Winged with Death he has published eight why-dunnits based in Hull and York.