Do boys from Texas get the keys of the pick-up truck the minute they turn 16? Are they soon after, ceremoniously kicked out of the paternal home to the frat house where binge drinking and pot smoking begins to destroy a great deal of brain cells before graduation time? When it comes to well understood arrogance, has anybody ever heard of any 21 year old Argentine ever wanting to go to Texas in search of exotic adventures to then write a book about it? Argentines have learned all there is to know about Texans from Alan Ladd, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper, by the time they enter high school. At 21, they’re still learning about family bonds while living at home with mom and dad. What a bunch of judgmental malarkey, you may say.
A similar silly joke about how Argentines jump from their egos to commit suicide, before the beginning of the first chapter, should be an early warning that Long after Midnight at the Niño Bien by Brian Winter might be about another arrogant, immature American, a Texan in this case, turned travel writer shortly after graduation at age 21 from the University of Texas at Austin. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Winter writes very well, and the book is a very entertaining fictional essay framed inside the political and financial crisis that brought Argentina to its knees at the end of 2001. Some of the best pages are found towards the end of the book, where his eyewitness account of the protests, repression and eventually end of the De la Rua presidency takes the reader by the hand into Plaza de Mayo. Along the way, “old ladies, men with canes, teenagers dressed all in black, and young fathers with children perched on their shoulders, banging their pots and pans, seemed to be on their way to a midnight picnic.” In reality, Winter realized that he was witnessing the formation of a lynch mob.
Upon graduation Winter decided “to go somewhere that I could have an adventure, where things still happened. Argentina appealed to me because of where it was on the map, at the very bottom.” So with a suitcase full of tango cliches, comic book stereotypical narrative about sociopolitical events, and a made in America conceptualization of the exotic, the passionate, and the mysterious, he arrives in Buenos Aires in 2000. He is genuinely surprised by the modern metropolis he discovers, the really cool people he meets, and the elegance and beauty of the women he sees. The idea of writing a book comes much later.
After being turned down by a number of publishers, the author following some expert advice turned the original self portrait of a gringo in foreign land travelogue, into a fictional “non-fiction narrative of the best of delusional tango cliches.” The formula seems to have some traction because several authors have ventured into the “forbidden” dimension of the tango with a variety of narratives that share a similar outcome. First world gringo pierces the veil of the mysterious and exotic tango, where he or she becomes somebody else until it’s time to go home and proceed to live a preordained American life. While in Buenos Aires he or she successfully receives profuse praises from the natives for the way they act and talk like a porteño, for the way they fit in, and for the way they contribute to the faltering economy of the country.
The book is listed as Tango (Dance) – History, and Tango (Dance) – Social aspects. Here the word history is loosely used in the same context as in the great majority of tango books currently available. The contents allegedly presented as historical facts all fail to follow a time line, lumping entire dissertations without specifically defining when they happened and in which order.
The formula used by Winter is the holy trinity of improbable chronicles of gauchos, African slaves and bordellos repeated by “historian” after “historian” quoting each other, repeating and perpetuating improbable happenings, unverified events, and lacking any shred of evidence. All that with an obsession for mixing their own fantasias with a clairvoyant gift for “discovering” confusing aspects and periods prior to the nineteen twenties.
The temptation to promote this book as a tango history book, or a Cliff Notes on Argentine sociopolitical history is obvious. Tango has become an intangible patrimony of humanity and the need for creating an aura of mystery around a difficult dance to learn provides a good market for those with a story to tell. After more than 15 years working so hard demystifying the tall tales, myths and misconceptions about the tango, is easy to separate fantasy from reality.
All throughout the book the author uses the word “cabaceo” to add an aura of mischievous mystery to the simple act of discreetely nodding from a distance to ask a lady if she is interested in dancing. This has become an obsession for American males as if repeating the word enough times will transform wood into silk. Winter uses and abuses the word misspelling it every time. The word is “cabeceo,” from the Spanish word for head “cabeza.” Not Cabaceo.
But I can be flogged for focusing on the insignificant detail of a misspelled word. Except for the fact that it’s not just the lack of proper fact and spell checking on a book of this kind, it’s the utter self serving delusion of pretending to know without learning, and hoping that those who know, won’t read. Towards the end, after being given the much expected right of passage by his imaginary “milonguero” mentors (“We’ve been trying to corrupt you,” one says in English. “And from the looks of it, we’ve done a fine job.”), Winter declares to have no problem affecting a “cabaceo” towards the opposite side of the room. “She immediately rose to her feet, smiled, and made her way over to me,” he proudly proclaims.
Really Brian? She got up and walked across the floor over to you? Really? Not in your dreams, at least not in Buenos Aires. That alone would be enough to indict the book for impersonating a book about the social aspects of tango, if it wasn’t for perhaps the most glaring and unforgivable error jumping out of page 232.
“Just a year after the last dictatorship collapsed and democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, a group of old milongueros unveiled the production that many still credit with sparking the tango’s renaissance: a Broadway show named Forever Tango.” Ouch!
Brian Winter was barely four when Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli created the show Tango Argentino for a four day performance at a World Fair outside Paris. Segovia and Orezzoli not even in their dreams imagined that the four day run in France would turn into years of touring Europe and eventually land a US engagement under the management of Mel Howard. The show finally opened in Broadway on October 9, 1985. By then the original cast had been recycled, augmented and refined. One can’t help questioning the depth of real knowledge that went into writing “Long After…” or the number of qualified friends who could have proof read the book. Allowing for the literary license that all writers are entitled to, we need to remind ourselves that the moment in time in which the novel takes place was a critical period for many Argentines, coming in the wake of the Trade Center terrorist attacks on 9/11. We can overlook then the attempts to rewrite history or to even invent it, and enjoy a nice novel that could actually have better luck with Sandra Bullock than Marina Palmer and her “Kiss and Tango” book had.
Overall the book keeps a brisk pace, sometimes is even funny, then nostalgic as the reader is privy to the most intimate thoughts that go through the mind of an immature man in the tough, cruel, adult world of the tango. It’s uncanny when he repeats almost verbatim what many American males in tango have been writing in their blogs and Internet tango list servers for years. As if some magic wand had been waved over his prematurely balding head, he is hustled by a young cutie of a dancer who, like many of her generation believe that feeding the fantasy and delusions of foreigners is a compensated humanitarian act, a very profitable one.
There’s pick-up truck driver Brian Winter suddenly given the keys of a rigged Ferrari name Mariela, who drives herself in auto pilot mode making him believe that “at the slightest shift of my shoulders, she would turn. A bit of pressure on her back, and she’d answer with a giro. Indeed, a few times she seemed to anticipate my lead before I even know where I was going. Our bodies lined up with total symmetry; her waist at the same level as mine, her chest resting comfortably on my sternum. All of my usual nervousness vanished. I started taking confident, sweeping steps, practically flying around the dance floor. Was I suddenly this good?”
Lest the fun be spoiled, we recommend that you buy and read the book to find out the answer.