Written by Wolfram Fleischhauer — Fatal Tango is an unusual kind of thriller: a mix of love story, family drama, travelogue, political thriller and suspense. It opens innocently enough with the story of Giulietta Battin, a 19-year-old German ballet dancer who is curious to find out more about ‘real’ tango. She stumbles across charismatic tango dancer Damián Alsina in rehearsal and it’s love – and lust – at first sight.
The romance soon takes on a darker twist. First, Damián’s dance partner and ex-lover appears on the scene, then it becomes clear that he is inexplicably sabotaging his own show. After a dramatic on-stage flare-up and a physical assault on Giulietta’s overprotective father, Damián disappears, presumably on his way back to Argentina. Giulietta risks her career and alienating her parents by following him to Buenos Aires.
The search for her lover in a city she cannot fathom turns into an epic and dangerous journey. All is shadow and deceit, until she no longer knows who to believe or trust. Giulietta ends up becoming a detective, both in Argentina and back in Germany, trying to piece together bits of the puzzle and deciphering a secret dance code. Ultimately, she too becomes an iconoclast, like her beloved Damián. Broad hints are being dropped throughout the book about the connection between all the characters and recent Argentine (and German) history, but there are surprising twists and turns all the way to the end. The conclusion itself is hauntingly sad and ambiguous.
Fatal Tango is much more than a conventional thriller. It is also a meditation about dancing, about creativity in general, and trying to express the unsayable. There is a clear contrast between Germany and Argentina, East and West Germany, discipline and anti-authoritarianism, ballet versus tango, rules versus freedom. Ballet appears to be something rational, extroverted, born of the air, conveying the illusion of perfection, but it can also seem too mechanical and robotic. Meanwhile, the author cleverly analyses the initial appeal of tango to Western audiences – its overt sensuality, its freedom from the constraints of society, even its sense of brooding menace. However, the characters in the book who are most familiar with the dance keep pointing out to Giulietta that first impressions are misleading, that tango too has rigid rules, that everything about it is masquerade and simulation. I loved the following quote from Damián: “There is nothing genuine about it, not a single emotion, not a single gesture. We only find freedom in rituals. But you have to respect the rules. If you take things too seriously, you will be bitterly disappointed.”
Don’t get the impression this book is too serious or philosophical, though. There are refreshing flashes of humour. The Latin Americans being horrified at German nakedness and lack of shame, the coffee-with-everything ritual in Buenos Aires, the elderly tangueros trying to be seductive, and the petty rivalries within the ballet community are accurately and amusingly observed.
The two central characters are strong and attractive, although not always tremendously likeable and sometimes downright pigheaded. Giulietta’s confused ramblings of a somewhat naive teenager are spot-on. At first I thought it barely believable that she would be so ignorant about Argentina, but in the context of a ballet-obsessed teenager it is very plausible. The secondary characters are not as well rounded and only two stand out: Giulietta’s control-freak but affectionate father, and the friend she makes in Buenos Aires, Canadian sociologist Lindsey.
Fatal Tango may not appeal to action fans, or crime fiction lovers of every stripe. There is simply too much information about tango and Argentine history twisted into its narrative fabric. There is not enough murder happening, despite the constant sense of menace. However, it’s an ideal read for those who love dance of any kind, or those who enjoy cross-cultural comparisons, or those who simply like their thrillers without too much blood and gore, but with high emotions and a sexy twist instead.
Just one quick note about the translation: the original German title would literally translate as Three Minutes with Reality, which is also the title of the first part of the Tango Suite that Giulietta performs and is the typical length of a tango. I have the feeling that, in an effort to appeal to an English-speaking audience, it’s not just the title but also the structure of the book which has been Americanised. Occasionally the language plods along and seems a little too didactic and it’s not clear if this is down to the original or the translation.
All in all, an engaging read that made me see tango and Argentina in a different light.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars