Twelve Minutes of Love, by Kapka Kassabova (Portobello Books 2011), 323pp. $39.99
Journeying to the centre of the universe is necessarily fraught with danger. As physical and emotional perils take their toll, the distance travelled ultimately depends on a single variable: that of the depth of desire.
While multiple block-busting movies have entertained generations with adventures to the future, the past and the final frontiers of sea and space, they have promulgated a notion of journeys to the centre, based on an exciting intrepid fiction. Perhaps it is this popularised definition that has associated the notion of personal journeys with a boring, obsessive preoccupation with the self. As an art form this version of the journey is fraught with dangers of repetition, cliché, and appeal to a limited audience.
Kapka Kassabova’s tango memoir, Twelve Minutes of Love, enters the difficult terrain of the journey genre the moment she sets foot on the tango dance floor, but her background as an accomplished poet and novelist, travel writer, essayist and memoirist, assures us that this is a book worthy of at least an initial exploration. If credentials aren’t enough, the visual and tactile appeal of the cover is an alluring invitation.
To appreciate the intensity of Kassabova’s journey desire, it is helpful to know a little of her background. After living amidst the ongoing political tensions of Eastern Europe, the Kassabovas emigrated from their home country of Bulgaria to England, and then, to New Zealand. For any family, global relocations involve huge upheaval, but for a sensitive adolescent girl battling the usual developmental issues of personal identity and intimacy, relocation from the known to the unknown becomes dislocation. This territory has been explored in her first memoir volume.
It is not surprising that Kassabova should become a tango convert. After all, tango is the dance of the dispossessed, originating from the cultural mix of penniless immigrants to Buenos Aires in the late 1800s onwards. Single men with little entertainment danced in halls and bars, and on the streets, developing an Argentinean fusion blues with a unique expression of passion and longing.
Tango survived decades of waxing and waning, bursting into a far reaching renaissance with the fall of Peron’s regime. Now, Kassabova’s tango travels echo from Buenos Aires to Berlin and Edinburgh to Auckland, where she walked into an empty tapas bar and watched a couple ‘dancing an entire lifetime into a few minutes.’ Caught in the grip of tango addiction Kassabova danced from country to country for nearly a decade, living the tango story of ‘exile and longing, dance-hall heaven and its ugly Siamese twin dance-hall hell.’
This may sound potentially trite, but Twelve Minutes of Love is far from that. While the consistent beat that drives each chapter is a particular tango lesson, surrounding each lesson is a literary blend of travel, history, culture and personal relationships. It is her balance of content and style that captures the reading audience. Kassabova is an astute technician who ensures that changes of direction are well timed. Turns through humour, intimacy and vivid detail ensure her compulsion to search for the perfect tango is shared and maintained.
On the way, we learn the necessities of tango’s practice and protocol. A set of three or four songs is a tanda. The average duration of a tanda is twelve minutes, hence the book’s title. The tango itself consists of a series of essential steps danced as an improvised response to the music. To make matters more complicated there are various tango styles and superstitions.
After six months of initial lessons in Auckland studios which are as competitive as duellists, a taste of genuine tango magic from a visiting Argentine tango star is enough to compell Kassabova to attend to an international tango congress in Buenos Aires.
The international tango movement, being responsive to market demands, offers expensive master classes, and spectacular milongas (social tango events), for the well-heeled converted. Similar events occur for locals and in-the-know longer-stay addicts at a fraction of the cost, and this is the world Kassabova will choose to inhabit.
By the end of the congress she has experienced tango bliss: a twelve minute harmony where sense of self and the external world disappears, replaced by an intense awareness and responsiveness to the other. Partner dancing, as Kassabova explains, is like making love. But tango is a series of balancing acts; the ultimate yin and yang scenario. To exist, it relies on discipline and freedom. Once the balance shifts, as it does with pilgrims seeking the ‘real’ self, fragile personal boundaries dissolve. Tango longing on the dance floor becomes lust in the bedroom. While the centre of the universe might shake in these moments, it is a transitory experience. Searching for the ultimate destination quickly resumes.
Tango becomes a metaphor for life, delivered with Kassabova’s literary panache. There is a constant movement from the sublime, to a colourful craziness. The impact of Astor Piazolla, innovative master musician of twentieth century tango, is succinctly captured: ‘He put in the melancholy of tango, the syncopation of jazz, the polyphony of the classical orchestra and the velvety voice of the bandoneon, and he put in his soul.’ Then there is tango shoe shopping: ‘defeated, the assistant in chief concludes “Darling, you’ll have to have surgery on your big toe. There’s no other way.” Operacion! Operacion! the shoe chorus trills.’
Throughout Twelve Minutes of Love we observe the phenomenon of a transient global society climbing into the centre of an historically significant artistic culture. As a participant observer and memoirist, Kassabova offers us this exceptional view and therefore invites contemplation of its consequences.
At the core of tango are centuries of musical evolution accompanied by irresistible physical response. This pace of evolution enables establishment of traditions and values. Around the core is a stratum of jet-setting tango worshippers who are unable to see beyond the loosest circle of sporadic tango tasters. Events in the external world have little personal consequence, although traditionally such events have been the lifeblood of tango evolution. In the new tango society, dancers are caught in a cycle of racing for the next tango fix, and short term self- satisfaction. What are the consequences of such an unsettled social group? When the older keepers of tango tradition die out, will the inner circle be replaced with a consistent membership, or will global gypsies form the whole tango society, with music and steps evolving so fast that there’s no time for them to become embedded in tango culture? Will the whole tango trend become so frenetic and economy driven that it explodes?
By permitting consideration of deeper issues, Kassabova’s memoir moves well beyond a narrative of personal survival and self- absorption. We are offered the privilege of journeying to the centre of a fascinating universe that for most of us would otherwise remain unexplored. And yes, there is a centre. As to its permanence, who knows? Kassabova remains true to journey format, leaving the door ajar for a possible sequel.
JENNY POWELL is a Dunedin writer and teacher. Her most recent collections of poems are Viet Nam: A poem journey (HeadworX) and Ticket Home (Cold Hub Press).