Friday, December 23, 2011

Heart of Tango by Elia Barcelo 

I have to admit I’m out of my comfort zone reviewing "Heart of Tango" by Elia Barcelo. I don’t normally read love stories I generally avoid them like the plague, read the blurb and pass on. That’s all the more reason why I was pleasantly surprised with "Heart of Tango".

The novel begins with a tango aficionado named Rodrigo attending a late night dance in Innsbruck. He has low expectations about meeting someone, his only desire is to dance. He gets much more than he bargained for when he encounters a mysterious woman whom he dances. At the end of the night she leaves without saying a word to him. Rodrigo returns to his hotel room distraught resigned to the fact that he will in all probability never see this woman again.

To his amazement he discovers that the woman slipped a calling card in his pocket. The address on the card is in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires. Rodrigo feels compelled to travel to Argentina and track down this mysterious dancer.

Here the novel’s direction changes and leaves the world of Mills and Bloom behind. We are brought mysteriously back to Argentina of the 1920’s where tango was all the rage. Buenos Aires is displayed warts and all. It is a city of immigrants, of poverty and ignorance. It is a place tango bands battle for fans and everyone seems to carry a knife.

The novel is told from numerous points of view. Rodrigo, the woman he meets, and her husband amongst others. Its structure is easy to follow and really shouldn’t present any problem to the attentive reader. The novel or rather novella, there are only 180 pages, races along with all the rhythm of a well danced tango.

As the story moves once more into the present where a woman meets a mysterious stranger at a Tango dance. He vanishes without saying a word but leaving her a calling card with an address in the La Boca area of Buenos Aires. Again she feels compelled to go the city and search for this mysterious lover.

Here the story could degenerate into romantic predictability and it is to the credit of the writer that it doesn’t. In fact there’s a nice supernatural twist at the end which to be honest I didn’t see coming.

In the Heart of Tango there’s no manifesto about the liberation of South America. Neither is it a primer for the abolition of poverty. "Heart of Tango" is a book full of tragedy, longing and love, told by a master storyteller.


Thursday, December 08, 2011

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal 

When he starts his working life in the Golden Prague Hotel Ditie is told by his boss not to see anything and not to hear anything. A moment later his boss tells him to see everything and to hear everything.

And this is exactly what he does. The first half of the novel is related in an easy going style that is almost reminiscent of sitting in a bar listening to someone relate story after story. Hrabal in this sense in a born raconteur.

Throughout his early life Ditie rises up the ladder as he moves from hotel to hotel. While working in the Hotel Paris in Prague he serves the King of Ethiopia for which he is rewarded a blue sash and a medal.

The end of his tenure in the Hotel Paris coincides with the crises in Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. He fell in love with a German girl and because of this Czech nationalists conspire to isolate him then get him the sack.

Here the tone of the novel changes somewhat as Ditie recalls his dealings with the invaders. Looking back he realises that he is little better than a conspirator for example while he is marrying his German lover, his fellow countrymen are facing execution.

The humour returns as Ditie negotiates his way through the Soviet regime before finally reconciling himself to his fate. Ditie is somewhat of an idiot savant reminiscent of Good Soldier Svejk, so beloved of Czech literature.

Before starting this novel a reader should invest some time into researching the history of Czechoslovakia otherwise they risk becoming confused as Hrabal pushes the novel and its characters from one national crises to the next.

Darkly humorous and satirical the novel can be seen as a metaphor for Czechoslovakia from the mid 1930’s, through the German invasion and the end of WW2 to 1948 and the coming to power of the Communists.


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