Friday, 23 September 2011

A golden-age milonga

We may have our own images of milongas of the golden age. There are a few scraps of film versions on YouTube which may or may not be true to life, and the popular view is of some elegance and plenty of champagne, of well-dressed men in suits, and fashionable ladies. But to judge by the accounts of those who danced at the time there was quite a bit of variation, and recently I came across a short story, The Gates of Heaven, by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar describing a milonga from the 1940s. I can't find a date, but Cortázar left Buenos Aires for Paris in 1951, where he died in 1984.

The wife of a friend has died, and he takes his friend out to a dancehall for the evening. He describes it as '...just plain chaos, confusion dissolving itself into a false order; hell and its circles.' There are three covered patios; in the first is a regular tango 'orquesta', in the second a group playing country music and in the third a folk group from the north; as you enter you hear all three. It's hot. The women are mainly taxi-dancers, 50 centavos a tanda. He describes the smell: barely-washed bodies plastered with lotions, hairspray, powder, brilliantine. He describes one partner, '...the sweat oozing from the roots of her hair and running down the back of her neck where a roll of fat made a tiny whiter rivulet'. Added to all this, there's an asado (charcoal grill) outside, and everyone's smoking. 'The smoke was so thick that the faces on the other half of the floor were blurred...' They drink spirits. Suddenly, in this confusion, both men see a woman who looks exactly like the dead woman, dancing '...her face enraptured and stupid in her paradise finally gained'. At the end of the tanda the husband drunkenly goes looking for her; but the author knows he'll come back '...not having found the gates of heaven among all that smoke and all those people'. Cortázar mentions Dante's inferno, but the story of Orpheus and Euridyce seems to be in there too.

Not that all golden age milongas were like that: I can't imagine milongas at La Ideal or La Molina being quite as chaotic.

The story is from a book of Cortázar's short stories, called Blow Up after the title of Antonioni's film which was adapted from one of the stories. According to Wikipedia, the story is called Las Babas del Diablo in Spanish, literally, 'The Droolings of the Devil', ' Argentine expression for the long threads some spiders and insects leave hanging between the trees'. There's no real or imagined murder in Cortázar's story; just an observed encounter between an adolescent and a rather older woman which the author interrupts with his camera, to the annoyance of the woman and her accomplice, a man sitting watching in a car, as the youth is startled into leaving. The author enlarges and enlarges his image and looks and looks at it. As always, the story is in the telling.

(Blow-up and other stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn, publ. Pantheon Books, New York, 1985.)

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