Thursday, 12 September 2013

More from another world

I've been writing some notes for a friend who's visiting Buenos Aires soon. I've done this a few times and I always want to add, email and ask to be included in a tour of ESMA. It seems a cruel suggestion to someone going to enjoy a few weeks in tango paradise. & yet...

The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, the naval engineering school, or rather the large mansion that was the officers' quarters, was one of the most notorious of the places where detainees were taken during the 1970s into the 80s. Not that there's anything at all frightening to see there: parts of it were even rebuilt so that it wouldn't agree with any accounts of the few survivors. The ESMA campus has now been taken over as a 'Space of Remembering' and they arrange tours which recount what is known about what happened there.

I remember clearly the morning I visited. It was cold and overcast, and I was tired: I'd been late at a milonga the previous night. It was a cold morning, but I came away feeling colder than I've ever felt in my life. It's my impression that we can accept the coldness of the weather but it's nothing compared to a cold human heart, which chills you mind and body, the numbing cold-heartedness of people who can decide that other people are not worthy of being treated as humans and can be played with, tortured, almost as a game. It seems that there was hardly even the excuse that they were trying to get information. The prisoners were kept in the loft in the roof of the officer's quarters, and dragged down into the basement every now and again. Then a van would come by, on Tuesday mornings if I remember right, to take the living remains of humans for a flight out over the ocean. To be close to this, close geographically but mercifully not close in time, can only make you feel colder than you've ever felt.

All of which suddenly helps to make real sense of the embrace of tango in Buenos Aires. Maybe the embrace is as it was in the golden age, but we shouldn't ignore what has happened since. Sure there's nostalgia for the golden age, and quite right too, but I don't think one can ignore a decade or more when it was risky for young people, young men in particular, men who are now in their 50s and 60s to be out in the streets, and when everyone lived through a time when it was known that people were 'disappearing', when the authorities weren't protecting but often persecuting the people, when the 5am knock on the door was always possible, and when the country was very isolated. There's one sure way of feeling warm again and that's holding someone else very, very close. It makes sense that tango became popular once democracy of some kind was restored.

So don't take the embrace lightly, it really matters. Sure, tango is fun, but if you dance there and are taken aback by the immediacy and warmth of the embrace, it's serious too; think of the background. Visit ESMA if you're there, support the Space of Remembering: if we ignore history we don't like it can creep back and take hold of us again.

It's taken me a while to make this connection, and I hope it's not fanciful, but I can't help thinking that what happened then is part of tango there now.


Anonymous said...

"Tango is a reverence for tradition. Everything we do at a milonga is a sombre dignified remembrance. The dance is not a selfish coupling, it is sympathy shared, but journeyed through the memories a people through their history. It is sensitive to their pain. You dance with their ghosts amongst you."


Tangocommuter said...

Thanks for that, Anon. I like the last sentence, but I must say that the rest of it, especially the bit about a milonga being a sombre dignified experience just doesn't sound right. No milonga I've ever been to has been like that! Milongas are joyful, life-affirming events. Those in Buenos Aires amaze me by the evident affection with which people embrace each other, even if they are strangers. '..sombre dignified remembrance' sounds more like Remembrance Day. How can anyone be sombre with that music blasting out?

Personally I'm not worried about what people wear, what they feel (or don't feel) seems more important. Wearing jackets tends to be seasonal in Buenos Aires these days, but it has to be said that the milongas all have industrial air conditioners, so you can dance all night comfortably. This past summer has had me wishing we had some of those air conditioners in London!

Francesca. said...

"Sympathy shared" I like that, but perhaps it's more empathy shared.
I visited ESMA on an incredibly hot day, so hot it broke my camera. I found the attic particularly haunting where people were hooded & shut in coffin-like boxes. We were researching a book on The Disappeared (due out shortly) & also visited Cordoba to go to the D2 centre. I panicked on the way home in the sleeping compartment of the train when we were locked in.

Tangocommuter said...

Hi Francesca. I'm glad (though that's not right word) to share thoughts about this, and to know that others have felt it necessary to take in this bit of history. I'm not sure my visit would have been that different if the weather had been very hot. I think I would still have felt an icy fear.

Good news about the book: please let me know when it's available. I can't forget those posters I used to see in Buenos Aires of hundreds of thumbnails of faces of the disappeared.

Anonymous said...

Milongabob says, if you are strong enough read MALENA by Edgardo David. Holzman

Tangocommuter said...

Hi Milongabob, and welcome.

I think you are recommending this book to me, and it does look interesting. Thanks for that. But it seems odd that you seem to be challenging me to read it. 'If you are strong enough...' So I wonder if I can say in return: if you are strong enough, read this, NuncaMás This is the English version of the report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, 1984. It's massive, but the pages online don't seem to be numbered. Pages and pages and pages of the most dreadful stories. Nunca Más, never again.

I mention it because I've already read one novel that mines it for detail, and you may find that Edgardo David Holzman used it in writing Malena. Nunca Más, however, isn't fiction.