Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 28: “Hotel Tango” by Cora Siré

From Fear the Mirror

Place can be an advantageous tool for a writer, not just to situate characters in geography but to advance thematic aspects of a story without resorting to broad or stultifying explanation. The flip side of this is that a poor or undeveloped sense of place is easily detectable and can end up doing more harm than good. Montreal poet and essayist Cora Siré has a keen sense of place; her work feels authentic to the areas she is describing rather than reading as though it was written with a Baedeker’s close at hand.

“Hotel Tango” is set, appropriately, in Buenos Aires. The story focuses on Gabriel, who has travelled to the city from his home in Luscano (the fictional South American country that served as the setting for Siré’s 2016 novel Behold Things Beautiful) to conduct a week-long clandestine assignation with Aude, a married woman from Ottawa. It is not a setting Gabriel relishes. In fact, he begged Aude to choose a different city to meet – “Montevideo, Rio, Santiago, anywhere but Argentina” – but the woman is adamant that “[i]t must be Buenos Aires.”

The reason – or, at least, one reason – for Gabriel’s resistance is clear from the opening scene, which finds him stuck in a traffic jam during a street protest. The city into which he touches down is “a cauldron of chaos,” its main street “immobilized into a sixteen-lane parking lot.” The picture Siré paints of the activity outside the taxi windows is vivid: “A crowd swarms the intersection. Women bang on pots with wooden spoons. There are students with banners and impoverished retirees trudging behind them. The type of scene Gabriel witnessed at home on CNN Argentina. An eruption of outrage, porteños venting on the streets of their city.” Obscenities are shouted and the cab driver gets into a scuffle with a man who assaults his vehicle with a crowbar. All of this unfolds to the strains of Carlos Gardel singing “Mi Buenos Aires querido” on the cab’s stereo.

The invocation of Gardel is notable. The French-born singer was well known as a premier interpreter of the tango, one of Argentina’s greatest cultural exports. It is also a dance with which Aude proves obsessed. On their first night together, Aude drags Gabriel to a tango bar, and she insists he accompany her to tango lessons at the eponymous dance school.

Gabriel’s status as a cultural elitist is evident in his reaction to the tanguería, “a vintage restaurant with high walls and panels of red velvet curtains.” He examines the photos on the wall, which include images of Argentinian heroes like Jorge Luis Borges alongside Madonna and Antonio Banderas from Evita and portraits of “both Bushes, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Augusto Pinochet.” (The grouping should elicit a bark of laughter from the politically astute reader.) He bemoans the fact that Luscano is not represented among the figures on the walls “even though so many of its heads of state went into exile here.” He follows this up with a barbed metafictional complaint: “Luscano’s conveniently ignored as if we don’t exist. Like we’re some imaginary country.”

Not just the restaurant’s decorations or the plans to attend tango classes bedevil Gabriel. Aude suggests a trip to an antique market, something Gabriel “isn’t really interested in,” though he does propose a trip to a local bookstore. “It’s a former theatre, all red and gold, several levels, and packed with books, lots of poetry, no doubt, and a café where the stage used to be.” When Aude mentions her job in an Ottawa gallery, working functions for “living, contemporary artists, mostly Canadian,” Gabriel responds derisively that he cannot think of a single Canadian painter.

Gabriel’s nationalist fervour and artistic snobbery are paired with a kind of know-it-all attitude: he bemoans (reasonably enough) the photos of Madonna and Banderas based on the objection that their respective characters – Eva Peron and Che Guevara – “had absolutely nothing to do with each other” and regales Aude with the details of Gardel’s death in a plane crash and the subsequent mourning by fans – mostly women – around the world. He does get caught out by misremembering the phrase ”all’s fair in love and war” – “A sentiment originating in a sixteenth-century novel, apparently.” He recalls the phrase, which he doesn’t verbalize, as “nothing’s fair in love and war,” a reworking that comprises the title of a song by the Canadian band Three Days Grace. (Siré is adept at cutting her characters down to size with moments of ironic humour.)

And the irony is thick, given the reader’s recognition that Gabriel and Aude are not, to say the least, perfectly matched. The sex is fine, though after an argument their coupling is “not rough but angry” and he presumes that his paramour “probably felt hurt.” He is remarkably jealous of Aude’s husband, despite the fact that he has been well aware of her marital status since the two first met and agrees to their annual rendezvous nonetheless. In this sense, the book he picks up at the local bookstore, Ernesto Sabato’s brief psychological novel El Túnel, is noteworthy. The book tells the “delusional narrative” of a painter who kills his married lover.

When the couple attend the first of a series of tango lessons, the teacher informs the class that the dance was originally performed by duellists and the sexually charged embrace “originat[ed] in the brothels.” The conjunction of sex and violence is redolent with meaning in a story about a jealous man who cannot fathom the reality of the relationship he has entered into. “Every time he sees Aude, he realizes how little he really knows her,” Siré writes. Though his primary objection to the dance lessons involves his idea that it is “sinful … to participate in the commercialization of an art form best left to those who live and breathe the music,” he fails to connect the tango’s history to his own present dilemma.

“Nobody owns me,” Aude tells Gabriel, a blunt truth he has trouble accepting. When she suggests that they might meet in Panama the following year, in part because she wants to own a Panama hat, the only response Gabriel can think to muster is to inform her that Panama hats are made in Ecuador.

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