Crafty footwork

The tango is woven skilfully throughout Adriana Bergero’s cultural snapshot of Buenos Aires, even if the choreography sometimes trips you up


Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires,

Adriana J. Bergero,
translated by Richard Young
2008, University of Pittsburgh Press
476 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

CAN YOU understand a city? Can a city, in all its many dimensions, be understood? And what is it, exactly, about a city that might, in fact, be understood – its identity or those of its millions of inhabitants, its cultural development, its class sub-cultures?

These complex questions hover above this ambitious and voluminous effort to explain the cultural mechanisms that drove sweeping changes in the Argentine capital during a key period of its modern development in the early part of the 20th century.

It was in this period that Buenos Aires could rightfully claim to have been the capital of Latin America, shedding its colonial skin and donning a genuinely cosmopolitan, outward-looking personality that identified it squarely with transatlantic culture.

Intersecting Tango is a bold and original effort to trace patterns from among the diverse identities thrown together in the city that provide readers with a sense of direction through this cultural evolution. It is likely that this book could only have been published by a US press, for the nuanced understanding of diversity in it reveals a perspective that one does not, instinctively, associate with Latin American scholarship.

Each chapter traces, mainly through literature, the cultural parameters of an individual theme and, if nothing else, this book will be of great value to students of Argentine narrative. As an urban cultural history, there are also shades of Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2001) and Lawrence Phillips’ The Swarming Streets (2004).

Window into daily life

Bergero has employed the tango as a theme to weave together a large body of empirical material culled from literature, architecture, newspaper discourse, photographs, textbooks, correspondence, popular music and even fashion. She writes:

“The tango may well provide the best window into daily life during Argentina’s first stage of industrialization. Like the monumental symbolic ground plan of the city, tango became a complex cultural space composed of intersections, impurity, clashes, and most of all displacement…” [p. 418]

The author refers frequently to the writer Manuel Gálvez, and, in particular, his examinations of the city’s criminal underworld; Roberto Arlt, the brilliant Buenos Aires novelist whose work lends itself so well to a study of the city; and, in her theoretical references, to the geographer Paul Rodaway, the author of Sensuous Geographies and a clear influence on Bergero’s outlook.

Women are prominent in Bergero’s research agenda – from fashionistas to maids and single mothers, from prostitutes to suicidal women tired of life or love – and this book loses few opportunities to move a theme to a gendered perspective. This becomes particularly clear in Chapter 11 with the author’s enlightening study of misogyny and the male construction of the femme fatale, lamia and vamp “in order to convey a sociosexual uncontrollability whose danger must be unmasked to prevent an outbreak”. The tango, and the erotic wisdom of sexually charged dancers who used it to awaken male desire, is ever present in this seething cornucopia of fear and lust. Section 3, “Gender and Politics”, provides a detailed examination of the prominent role women played in many organisations and the impact of their militancy on debates. Chapters 17 and 18 probe peripheral identities by considering the politics of infidelity, concepts about deviant women and homosexuality and male impotence. A significant amount of writing about male impotence, the author suggests, represented a response to the fear of an “awakening” female sexuality and the assault on male essentialism.

Bergero is also strong when examining class contrast and industrial life, from the misery of the conventillos, the central tenements that were “hellholes of marginality”, to the cordon bleu of the Jockey Club, and the efforts of elites to redeem those paupers and delinquents deemed a threat to the family and nation by providing models of social conduct. The author’s frequent references to anarchism and nationalism provide valuable background on these important topics, and her examination of efforts to improve workplace conditions and of the hazards of industry offers many insights.

There are some fascinating observations here, not least when Bergero considers the colloquial of the popular classes and the cants Lunfardo and Cocoliche. Any examination of such linguistic hybridity rightly emphasises the denationalising quality of cosmopolitanism, in stark contrast to, but perhaps helping to explain, later Argentine nationalism.

Sexual food chain

The section on prostitution in Chapter 7 is illuminating, not least for the tip sheet of categories into which prostitutes were divided by Andrés Carretero in Prostitución en Buenos Aires (1995). At the top of the sexual food chain imperiously sat cocottes (refined mistresses with expensive tastes); then came mantenidas (kept women), cabareteras or milonguitas (cabaret dancers), prostibularias (bordello prostitutes), yirantas (streetwalkers), prostitutas libres (unattached prostitutes), and alcahuetas (procurers).

Intersecting Tango is a rewarding work of dedicated scholarship constructed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the topic and an unrivalled passion for it.

However, this book is not an introductory text and assumes some familiarity with the city and its manners; contains no map, which, one would have thought, was essential in this case; and is often inaccessible for those of us not schooled in the esoteric language of cultural studies. Indeed, at times, the author gets carried away with her impressive vocabulary and, like much cultural studies writing, hers is as inventive as it is florid. The publisher has, inexplicably, permitted commentary in the first person and flights of fancy that, while revealing a skilful turn of phrase, sometimes lack precise meaning. This is also an overly long book, with several chapters teased from one idea that would more comfortably have been fused and trimmed without the text losing any momentum. Bergero sometimes strays from the period under study and employs secondary sources loosely to illustrate or corroborate an argument: it is not clear, for example, why “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli is reproduced, although that is not to say it is not striking, and the artist was not unaware of feminist thought.

Nonetheless, the University of Pittsburgh Press should be praised for supporting such an interdisciplinary, discursive approach to identity, and for accepting that a challenging originality often weighs heavier among readers than the consensus of academic peer reviewers. US university presses have a strong tendency towards conformism when making decisions on titles, preventing much pioneering – and controversial – work from ever being published.

The very publication of Intersecting Tango reflects the maturity of one of Latin America’s greatest cities, and perhaps corrects a failure until now to take it seriously enough.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books