Terence Clarke

Tango Negro

July 3, 2020

Few black people live in Buenos Aires. This has not always been so. As in other countries, black slaves were brought to Argentina from the 16th century well into the 19th, a total of about four million people. Some became gauchos in the pampas, the great, flat plains that take up so much of the center of Argentina. Most others were sent to cities, towns and farming regions in the hinterland provinces. In Buenos Aires itself through those centuries, there was an ongoing population of about eight thousand black Africans who worked as domestics or in various craft labors.

If you ask a porteño why there are so few blacks in Buenos Aires now, you’ll get a few different answers, all of which are evasive. My favorite came from a well-born Buenos Aires society matron whom I met who was visiting an Argentine friend in San Francisco, where I live. “Oh, they didn’t care for it and decided to go somewhere else,” she explained. I think she actually believed what she was saying, especially given the air of wealth-bound cluelessness that her entire conversation exhibited. (But that’s another, and comic, story.) It is true that, for porteños in general, most of the black experience in Buenos Aires has simply been forgotten, erased or denied.

But, indeed, the blacks who lived in Buenos Aires didn’t “decide” to go somewhere else. Thousands were forcibly recruited into the Argentine army, to fight in the terrible war between Argentina and Paraguay from 1865 through 1870. A very large number of black soldiers died in that endeavor. Also, and famously, yellow fever infested the shores of the Rio de La Plata, on the southern bank of which Buenos Aires is located. It is generally thought that the fever was introduced by Argentines returning from the war with Paraguay. The pandemic invaded all the poorer neighborhoods of the south of the city, and thousands of blacks died from it. The current north of the city of Buenos Aires includes a few still quite wealthy neighborhoods that were first built by more moneyed whites trying to escape that plague. They left the blacks behind, for the most part convinced that blacks were the carriers of the disease and should be abandoned.

Through inter-marriage with whites, those blacks left were subsumed into the larger population and, in effect, black people per.se. almost literally disappeared from Buenos Aires.

But not their influence.

Most of the slaves came from west Africa. As in the United States, they brought their forms of music with them, particularly in the rhythms that later became known in Argentina by such names as habanera, milonga, traspié, murga, candombe, chacarera and others. European immigrants by the many thousands also brought their forms of music to Buenos Aires, and tango is surely a melting together of all these traditions. But it goes without saying that tango’s rhythmic base is African in origin. (For a more detailed description of the African influence on South American music in general and, more specifically, tango, click here.)

In 2013, Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro made a documentary titled Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango. You can find it on PrimeVideo.

Basically it has two parts. The first is an ongoing conversation with the stellar Argentine pianist and vocalist Juan Carlos Cáceres (who was to die in 2015.) Cáceres lived in Paris for decades but devoted much of his spirited music and deep scholarship to studies of the influence of blacks on the history of tango. He explains here many of these different rhythms, where they came from, and where they can be found in tango. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his musicianship is terrific.

The second half of the film features many black musicians still living in Argentina and just across the river in Uruguay, who well understand the rhythmic basis of tango and are attempting to keep those rhythms alive. The music they play in this film provides a clear demonstration of where tango came from, and is wonderful.

For a look at the Tango Negro trailer, click here.

(Terence Clarke’s 2019 novel, The Splendid City, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be published later this year.)

Love in the Time of Cholera

June 30, 2020

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “digression” as, “in discourse or writing, a departure or deviation from the subject.”

Fair enough. Clear as day.

My favorite digression in all literature is the entirety, from first word to last, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel El amor en los tiempos del cóleraLove in The Time of Cholera. (If you don’t have Spanish, Edith Grossman’s translation to English of this book is one of the best from one language to another I’ve ever read. It is lyrical, kind-hearted, accurate, literate, humorous, and imbued with the many pleasureful oddities of García Márquez’s unique Spanish-language style.)

In this novel, Florentino Ariza is introduced as an enclosed, shy boy attempting manhood in a small late-nineteenth century city in Colombia. He is in love with a local beauty, Fermina Daza. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl story, progresses through the boy-loses-girl phase, and ends with the boy-wins-girl denouement.

The simplest story ever.

But this series of events takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to unfold and arrive at its successful end. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are by the last pages, of course, elderly. But their love is consummated…finally. During the half century of Florentino’s pursuit of Fermina (during which time he has six hundred and twenty-two affairs with other women) the reader learns about every kind of historical, political, social, and religious event in the Colombia through which the great Magdalena River flows. Cholera is always a factor in the background, and García Márquez uses the disease as a metaphor for love itself…the heat, the heart’s affliction, the very choleric intensity of love’s involvements.

Florentino bides his time for that half-century. After the failure of his youthful efforts at romancing her, Fermina marries a local doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is one of the most celebrated citizens of their city, an urbane, Europeanized sophisticate. Their marriage is a rich one, with many problems. In the meantime, Florentino begins work as a telegraph operator and is eventually employed by a local riverboat company (freight and passengers, up and down the Magdalena.) In time, he becomes its president, all the while pursuing the many very remarkable women he encounters during the half-century of his bachelorhood.

It is the period of time between the breakdown of Florentino and Fermina’s dalliance as youths and the death of Juvenal Urbino a half century later that the great majority of the digression I mention here takes place. The reader waits, and waits some more, only to wait even more, through hundreds of pages, as Florentino sometimes wanders, sometimes surges through his varied fascinating affairs personal and public. Fermina’s marriage is described in equally specific, breathtaking detail: her fervid happiness and unhappy disappointments, her mistaken rage-filled jealousies, the arrival of her children and their ascension to adulthood, her involvement in the church and her social standing as the important Doctor Urbino’s wife.

Here and there, infrequently, Florentino and Fermina encounter one another by chance. Little happens on those occasions. Little can happen. But Florentino’s fervor for Fermina only increases as the years pass.

The great Magdalena River, which runs south to north through the entirety of Colombia, figures importantly twice in this narrative. Although his entire professional life revolves around the riverboat company, Florentino Ariza makes only two trips up the Magdalena and back (one on his own as a younger man, the second with Fermina Daza, both now geriatrics.)

Both voyages are beyond memorable.

García Márquez uses the changing descriptions of the Magdalena during these two trips as rich backdrop to the emotions, triumphs, and disappointments through which Florentino Ariza passes during his entire life. In the first trip, the river is a life-filled treasure of forested, flood-filled flora and fauna in which a younger Florentino is overwhelmed time and again by lustful carnal pleasure. In the second voyage, decades later, the river has become a half-hearted sorry flow, de-forested and ruined. But it is on a riverboat going up this magnificently sad failure that Florentino receives, finally, the considerable deep love of which Fermina Daza is capable. The detailed sensuous transition in descriptions of the river is one of the novels many strengths. Novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote this: “There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter (on the Magdalena), symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too….”

Pynchon went on to write, “This novel is revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality—youthful idiocy, to some—may yet be honored much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable…. Love in the Time of Cholera [is a] shining and heartbreaking novel.”

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. García Márquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary…. The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”

Both these reviews, written when the book was published in 1985, are understatements. Love in the Time of Cholera may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The digression does go on for more than three hundred pages. You may be inclined to tell García Márquez to get on with it. But, while the pursuit of each other by the two characters is important and masterfully done, the digression itself is the novel, epitomized by its very last word, which is “forever.”

This is my favorite novel.

The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel,The Splendid City, by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer, will be published later this year.

Trump’s Jacksonville Welcome

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June 15, 2020

President Trump’s new plan, to accept in Jacksonville, Florida the Republican Party’s request that he run for a second term as president, has historical resonance.

Jacksonville was the site of Axe Handle Saturday, August 27, 1960. On that morning Arnett Girardeau, a black student home in Jacksonville for the summer from Howard University Dental School, went to Hemming Park in the downtown area with a few others, having gotten some news of potentially alarming activities there. “As we approached Hemming Park, we saw several white men wearing Confederate uniforms. Other Whites walked around Hemming Park carrying ax handles with Confederate battle flags taped to them. A sign taped to a delivery-type van parked nearby read ‘Free Ax Handles.’ Small fence rails bordered that section of Hemming Park. We could see bundles of handles in the shrubbery. No one attempted to conceal them.”

A group of young black students from the local NAACP Youth Council was planning on sitting in that day at the white lunch counter in Jacksonville’s W.T. Grant department store, which was walking distance from Hemming Park. (Blacks were required to dine at the blacks-only counter at the rear of the store.) A similar event had taken place two weeks earlier at Jacksonville’s Woolworth’s store, when eighty-four of the youths sat down at the white counter and waited to be served. The counter seated exactly eighty-four people, so there was no room in this instance for a white person looking for lunch. (This was part of the plan for all subsequent sit-ins in Jacksonville. The number of seats in whatever lunch counter would be assessed, and exactly that number of black youths would show up for the sit-in.) On that first day, the students remained seated at the whites-only lunch counter until the lunch counter was closed, without being served.

The hidden axe handles on August 27 were clearly intended for use by whites against these black students sitting in at W.T. Grant’s, and the resulting melee, which pretty much engulfed the entirety of Jacksonville, went far into the night.Radio stations warned white people to stay out of black neighborhoods, and vice versa. In one particularly memorable event, a truckload of armed white men (believed to have been Ku Klux Klansmen) arrived in a black neighborhood called Blodgett Homes, and began firing at various apartments. Perhaps to the surprise of these men, residents of the apartments returned fire. The truck retreated.

Named Axe Handle Saturday, the event was a signal occurrence in the civil rights movement in the United States. (A complete description of the occasion can be found in the book It Was Never About A Hot Dog and A Coke! by Rodney L. Hurst, who on that day was one of those black students.)

The University of North Florida was founded in Jacksonville in 1972. A new professor at the institution, Peter Kranz, with a doctorate in psychology, decided that this would be an appropriate location for a class he wished to institute, in which direct verbal confrontation between black and white students would be the key element. The one strict rule in the class was that physical attack would not be allowed. Otherwise, the verbal gloves were off, and the students were encouraged to speak openly and directly about how they felt about each other’s racial identity and actions.

It was the only such class ever offered in an American institution of higher learning, and it took place while Jim Crow legislation against blacks was still in full flower in Florida.

Each class lasted a single semester, and was held twice a year for six years, until 1978. (For a complete description of these classes and of their quite remarkable results, please see my book An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White. The book was featured on a recent presentation of National Public Radio.)

Now, in 2020, President Trump is planning to accept the Republican nomination for president in Jacksonville. It is not an irony that this will be so. He is, after all, a throw-back to the whites-only sentiments of the Deep South of previous decades. But times have changed, in Jacksonville and the rest of the United States. I expect the president and his Republican cadre will receive a boisterous, if not entirely agreeable, reception in that city.

Terence Clarke’s latest novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.

Kenneth Branagh’s All Is True

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June 12, 2020

Having learned that this film by Kenneth Branagh is a dramatic recounting of William Shakespeare’s late-in-life return to his home-town Stratford from his famed glory as an actor and playwright in London, I expected the movie to have the same level of high, conflicted drama and boisterous derring-do as exist in so many of his plays. For me, Shakespeare has always been a celebratory character himself. He must have been, I’ve thought, simply on the strength of his fame as an actor and especially on what he wrote.

So, this film surprised me.

Here, Will Shakespeare, played by Branagh, is presented as a world-weary, almost defeated man whose fame, great as it is, has been left behind in the ruins of his Globe Theater, recently destroyed by fire. He returns to his family (his wife Anne Hathaway, played with stoical, closed-in reserve by Judy Dench) and two daughters. We learn right away about Shakespeare’s having left the family in Stratford twenty years earlier, to make his career as an actor, and his continuous absence during that time. Now, his wife Anne is well into old age, one daughter, Suzanna, is married very unhappily to a disapproving Puritan bore, and the other, Judith, remains a resentful spinster. Will himself has lost his muse (indeed, he was not to write another play), and turns his attention to gardening, at which he is not very talented.

We learn eventually of the death years before of Will’s beloved only son Hamnet and the overall guilt-obsessed come-uppances from which all the members of the family have since suffered. Especially Will. He has the poems that Hamnet apparently wrote as child, which Will has always thought presaged Hamnet’s own future genius as a writer. Hamnet died of the plague (or at least everyone has been led to believe so) and Will still feels guilt for his not being present to save his son. Hamnet’s death is the constant reminder to Will of his own failures as a father.

Two elements in this film fascinated me. Night during the early 1600s was, of course, devoid of light. Candles and the fireplace were the only sources of interior lighting during that time, and darkness is central to all the conversations held at night in the film, which are many. The candlelight is beautiful and compellingly effective to the mood of the piece. But many of the conversations in this reduced light reveal the guilt and vituperation that exists between Will, his wife, and daughters. The surrounding darkness underscores the pain of their exchanges. Will, seized with longing for his lost Hamnet, yet defends himself against the anger of his daughter, Judith. Because she was not born a boy, she resents the life to which she feels she was consigned. Hamnet was the star of the family snuffed out by the plague. Anne, Judith, and Suzanna have all been secondary to Will’s hopes for his son, even as the boy has so long been in the grave.

The second element I find so interesting in this film is its reserve. This is a sad story notable for the self-examination among its characters. As such it may not be every viewer’s cup of tea. It is usually very quiet. The characters are all to some degree self-punishing. There is little action in the film, and many of the scenes are notable for long sequences of conversation, shot from a distance, with many fewer cuts than is usual in our current-day obsession with shallow, hurried, and nervous film-making. No car-chases here. No gruesome splatters of blood. Rather, character is explored. Guilt is revealed, as are self-criticism and, sometimes, self-acceptance — once one’s own responsibility for terrible events becomes clear.

All these things make All Is True a very thoughtful film . Shakespeare’s character, as marvelously played by Branagh, reveals hurt sadness that I would not have expected from the man who wrote those incredible plays. But so be it. The story works. The sadness is truth. The guilt is palpable. The very occasional celebrations are hard won.

Just incidentally, there is a scene in All Is True that I would advise every actor to watch. Ian McKellen appears as the Earl of Southampton. He was a friend and supporter of Shakespeare’s early career as a poet. He is often suggested by Shakespeare scholars as the subject of many of the poet’s early romantic sonnets. In the film, the earl, now an old man, arrives in Stratford for a visit with Will, and the conversation between them (at night, in low light) is not to be missed. Self-revelation, love, and humor are all part of this scene. Sadness for Will is the ultimate result as the Earl departs the conversation as though he already has dismissed it. In this, two superb actors briefly explore dalliance, exchange, maybe love, and final disappointment, in all of which the viewer is thoroughly involved.

Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book about racial confrontation in the United States, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, was published last year, and is available everywhere.

On Being Sequestered

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June 5, 2020

These days, the Covid19 virus has decided that we must all be given the chance to see whether we can stand ourselves. So, being sequestered at home is de rigueur for most citizens, especially those in cities.

The avoidance of personal introspection, the usual in high-rise office skyscrapers and other such places, is being foiled. Now, stuck at home, we must deal with ourselves instead of with the pursuit of the corporate summit, the elbowing aside of others in the way of that pursuit, the plot to do an end run past the schmuck senior managers, and other such.

I have witnessed all these and many more, during a business career that lasted twenty-five years. The printing industry (you remember printing, don’t you?), and the early high-tech software industry, in San Francisco and New York City. The most memorable for me was the most recent: a contract position as a senior marketing writer for a small, avidly ambitious, hotshot branding firm in San Francisco. I think I was hired by the CEO of that company, who was about thirty, because of my many published books. He introduced me on my first day in the firm as “a real writer.” This got a lot of laughter. I could not tell if the glee in the room was at my expense, since most of the staff were tech people and therefore uncommunicative. Perhaps they didn’t know what a writer is. Or maybe they were already, despite their being in their twenties, failures when it came to their childhood fantasies of adventure and derring-do. I would not be able to tell you.

In any case, my contract was for several months, and I spent the time in one of those frenetic, noisy group environments (long tables, multiple computers, countless programmers, and endless noise) that offer no escape, and drive crazy any employee who cares about his or her privacy.  I was handsomely paid for the work I did helping re-brand a San Francisco Bay Area power-grid development company, and was let go a month before the end of my contract, without explanation. I suspect it was that I was unable to summon enthusiasm for writing poorly about the power grid. Writing poorly is the standard for branding firms. These companies make up all those one- or two-sentence word-play slogans that you see everywhere on the sides of municipal buses, on billboards, TV ads, and the internet. They are attempts at sales humor that are generally not funny. The power grid itself, of course, is not funny, and I couldn’t summon up the appropriate cutesy-pie prose that the CEO expected me to provide.

In whatever case, I was gone.

So, I returned to my home office, sequestered myself there, and got back to the novel I had been writing, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the main character. I am happy to say it was published last year to high praise.

This had been the territory I had occupied almost exclusively, by myself, for the previous several years. I sit at a round table in the bay window of the studio apartment that is my office. The windows give me views of the long, often sunny Russian Hill garden that my landlords maintain. It is very quiet here. There is a hum from the passing traffic on nearby Bay Street, but it is not particularly bothersome. I have a kitchen, a daybed, and a closet. Bookshelves. Bathroom. Art. Quiet.

I am alone for about seven hours a day.

Nowadays, those with whom I worked in those business offices are being required to do the same thing as I’ve been doing, and I am sure they are not prepared for it. Contemplation derives from silence. So, while they have been working in those offices, there has been little silence; thus, very little contemplation. Also, I hear them complain about how lonely it is at home, and how they can’t get any work done. My sense of it is that, in the past at the office, they have gotten a lot of work done, but that it has all been shallow. What they are suffering from, being sequestered, is the arrival of the need to consider their souls.  That’s tough duty for most business people, while it is grist for the mill among “real” writers. So, these only recently sequestered people are encountering issues that they have so far successfully avoided.

Themselves, for example.

Terence Clarke’s most recent novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.

A film project: The Arena

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Stay out of my face.

For information about this film project, click here.

The Long Confinement of “When Clara Was Twelve”

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May 21, 2020

In 1985, an idea came to me. (I’ve had others. But this one turned out to be pretty important.) A twelve-year-old American girl named Clara Foy goes to France with her parents for a summer vacation in the mid-1950s.  While there, she discovers that her mother, Lauren, as a teenager in California, had an illegitimate child, a girl. The family are conservative Roman Catholics. So, this new addition was a great scandal for them, and the baby was given up for adoption, much to Lauren’s deep sorrow. But now, that baby shows up again, a pretty Parisian woman in her twenties named Emma Dusel. When Clara learns of Emma’s true identity, she takes it upon herself to introduce her new sister to their mother. The resultant difficulties break up the marriage of Clara’s parents, and reveal the deep emotional troubles that Emma has had throughout her life. Clara stays on in Paris with Lauren, to navigate the troubles between her sister and their mother….

And therein lies the tale of the novel I subsequently wrote, titled When Clara Was Twelve.

This was the last book I ever wrote without first making a preliminary outline of the thing. I just started writing it, beginning with the title, and it is for that reason that the first draft took me seven years to complete. (I had by that time written just one other book, a story collection titled The Day Nothing Happened that was ultimately published by Alev Lytle Croutier at Mercury House in 1988.) Without a preliminary plan, you can wander and wander up and down the darkness-beset hallways of your manuscript, running into closed doors, turning back, scratching your head, going in some different direction to some other closed door. I suspect this is one of the reasons that so many wishful fiction writers give up so quickly, get a job somewhere in the military-industrial complex, and never give writing another thought (except to wonder every few years about what might have been.)

I did complete that first draft in 1992. But the writing was so loose-limbed and conflicted, the plot so much a gathering of confused and unrelated themes that, together, they made up a story that was way too long, and very short on plot. I let it sit for three or four months, read the thing again, and put it in a drawer. Literally. The one element I liked best about it was the title, which even then was When Clara Was Twelve.

The manuscript came with me through various turns of life and travels during the next twenty-five years. I never looked at it. Luckily it was also the first manuscript that I had ever transcribed to a computer. So, it was there, through subsequent computers, beckoning to me silently as I wrote and published other books.

What brought me back to it in 2017 was the beloved title and the fact that I so love Paris. (I had lived there for two years in the 1970s.) I released the manuscript from its confinement. The typewritten version was on sheets of paper 8.5 x 11 inches. The paper itself was now mottled brown and yellow. The writing was quite often confusing because the last edit I had made was with a pencil. So…my as usual clumsy penmanship, smeared erasures, lost logic from one point to another. Arrows. Underlines. Scratch-outs.

Nonetheless, I read it and to my astonishment found that it had merit! Yes, it was still confusing. The author did not know what he had here, and so was flying blind. But there was something to it. Clara herself was interesting. Her relationship with her mother was complicated, sometimes badly conflicted, but negotiable. Emma herself was so upset with her long-lost mother that the task Clara was taking on appeared often unsolvable to her.

And there was Paris.

It is easy to write badly. Every writer should understand this, and should understand therefore why close, intense editing is so important. But Paris gives you an advantage right from the beginning because it so lends itself to description. I subscribe to the notion that you should write about the surroundings in a particular scene in such a way that the surroundings themselves comment on the actions of the characters. A teacup can be described in innumerable ways. So why not describe it so that it helps reveal the emotions of the characters themselves? A teacup so described can help the reader understand better what’s happening in the mind of the person holding it, or in the mind of the person watching how it is being held. Etc.

Visually, Paris allows for this in just about everything that happens there. So, I had made a point of describing Clara’s reactions to the city differently, depending on what she was learning about herself, her mother, and her sister. As Clara’s observations of Paris became more sophisticated in the manuscript, so did her observations about herself.

I started editing the novel again, twenty-five years after completing the first draft. The process was no easier than before. The mistakes and failings that had existed in 1992 still had to be dealt with. But basically, I thought, it isn’t bad! I cut and cut, wrote and re-wrote. Suffered the renewal of exhaustion. Cut and cut some more. Brought scatological words back to my vocabulary that I had not used for decades. Savaged the thing…. Put it back together….

And now it’s out!

(Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15 and is available everywhere.)

The Irish War

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A StoryRocket feature film project.

THE IRISH WAR: And not a shot was fired

https://www.storyrocket.com/the-irish-war

On Tango: ¡Dos chicos increibles! Two Incredible Kids

In 2006, my love Beatrice Bowles and I were in Buenos Aires to attend a week-long tango workshop with Gustavo Naveira and his wife Giselle Anne. It was mid-summer (i.e. Christmas-time in Buenos Aires, their seasons being precisely opposite to ours in the United States.) We had decided to participate in the workshop at the suggestion of Nora Olivera, who was also attending, with her husband Ed Neale.

The workshop was grueling and occasionally hilarious, depending on the moment and upon Bea and my abilities to keep up. I’ll write about it in a future column.

But there’s another story here.

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Ariadna Naveira x web(1)

 

Nora had told us about Gustavo’s two kids, Ariadna and Federico, who at the time were in school. Their mother, Olga Besio, was herself a noted tango maestra (and still is.) The two children were already masters of a kind, teaching tango together to children in a small studio in the San Juan y Boedo neighborhood, named for its most important intersection. This part of Buenos Aires has a rich tango history. (For an example, listen to the opening lines of Sur, written by Anibal Troilo and Homero Manzi [both of celestial importance to the history of tango], and sung here by Roberto Goyeneche.  “Old San Juan y Boedo…/The memory of your girlfriend’s unruly locks/and your own name floating from her goodbye.”)

Nora had put us in touch with Olga, who invited us to join her at one of her children’s class sessions. This neighborhood is filled with classic big-city noise…tremendous traffic on both boulevards, street vendors, cafes, small stores of every sort and bustling foot traffic on all sides. It was a very warm afternoon, and Bea and I were simply dragging along, hoping for some shade. After lemonades at The Esquina Homero Manzi, which is an elegant tango supper club on the corner where the two boulevards meet, we crossed the street and found the address Olga had given us. A simple street door opened to a stairway leading to the second floor. We had not yet met Olga face-to-face, and we ascended the stairs, following the sounds of a recorded tango from up above.

The second floor contained three or four poorly painted rooms, including a large kitchen, windows wide-open for the air. It appeared to have once been a café of some kind, and now was quite run down. But the music was insistent, one of those tangos that commands your attention with its slow sensuous flow and possibilities for embrace.

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Ariadna and Federico in performance, 2006.

We encountered such an embrace right away because Ariadna and Federico were dancing in the largest of the rooms. Bea and I stood watching in the doorway and, if it is possible to be transfixed, we were. They were just kids themselves, dressed in Levis, an over-sized T shirt for him, a flower-printed blouse for her and the de rigueur elegant dance shoes. But they both had all the authority that the finest tangueros have in the command of their dance. Federico, whose large dark eyes, like those of his mother, moved with slow, unquestioned intensity. His footwork, complicated and simple in the same moment, moved precisely with what the music wished to say. Ariadna is renowned for the spectacular grace with which she dances and her insistence on her own importance to the embrace and the movement of the couple together. That was evident even on that day, when she was in her teens. (You can see here a video of the two dancing together in 2006, the same year we met them. Apologies for the poor video quality. The dancing is another story altogether.)

We also met Olga in person that day. She arrived later, and clearly wished to know who these two Americans were and how had they heard of her two kids. We admired her careful shepherding of her children, and thanked her many times for allowing us to see them.

Ariadna and Federico Naveira have gone on separately to international fame. If you have the opportunity to study with either of them, please do. You won’t regret it.

(Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, was published on April 15.)

 

 

 

 

 

What To Write About

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April 15, 2020

I have never written anything that takes place where I grew up…that would be Oakland, California. If, like me, you were raised in the suburb hills of Oakland in the middle of the last century, there was little of interest in your surroundings and general conversation that would provide for great writing…or any writing. Gertrude Stein’s famous remark about Oakland…that there is no “there” there…is truth. It is the one line of hers that I care for because the sentence defines my childhood, which was spent in the vernal hills above Montclair. A middle-class suburb neighborhood of Oakland, in the 1950s it was notable most for its self-satisfied silence and its very white population. Nothing ever happened in Monclair, except for when I and my mother would go into the village to shop for food. There was also a very nice grass playing field at one end of the village, where I played touch football with my school friends. That was my cultural life, although there was the occasional movie at the Paramount Theater downtown as well as the Catholic church (Corpus Christi parish), for which I was an altar boy.

Oakland has not engendered fine writing among those with whom I grew up because there is so little in the middle-class neighborhoods of that city worth observing. I got up, went to school, and came home, like all the other kids. It was not until I got to high school and began reading actual novels, short stories, and poetry that I found so many worlds that were different from the one in which I was living. That experience blossomed for me big-time, instantaneously, when I arrived at the University of California in Berkeley. I did dawdle through my first two years, somehow thinking that the sciences were my chosen subjects for study. The trouble was that I always included one of those pesky, riveting history or, especially, English literature classes, every semester. In the end, I realized that Chemistry bored me and that Engineering was not to be endured. Trigonometry? No. There was no Computer Science at the time, other than whatever you needed a slide rule for. (If you were born after the founding of Apple Computer or so, you may need information about what a slide rule was.)

But when I read Geoffrey Chaucer, in an undergraduate class taught by the great Charles Muscatine, I discovered the path that I had to follow. I remember the actual moment. We were reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida, the wonderful and occasionally comic poem by Chaucer about the love of Troilus, a fine Trojan warrior, and Cressida, who, in a modern translation of one of Chaucer’s lines, “in beauty first, so stood matchless.” There are many machinations, twists and turns in this romance, but it comes to a bad end when Troilus becomes convinced that his love has been betrayed by Cressida. He is only partially wrong about this.

“And in this woe Troilus began to dwell,/that what through sorrow and love and unrest,/he often every day bid his heart burst.”

It was a requirement of the class that the students read the Chaucer in his original Middle English. The very last day of Mr. Muscatine’s class, he read a long passage from the final book of Troilus and Cressida.  Those of us who had stuck it out and understood the finesse and wondrousness of what the poet had written were able to sit back, put our notebooks into our briefcases or book bags, and simply listen. The difficulties Troilus’s love faces in this moment, his pining loss of Cressida’s love, and his eventual death in battle form one of the saddest passages in literature, and Mr. Muscatine’s reading of it was worth the entire course. His teaching was always stellar for its clarity and its love of Chaucer’s poetry. This particular day’s listening proved it.

Mr. Muscatine, with whom I spoke personally just once, was a major influence on my education. He still is, posthumously. After that day, I abandoned all hope for my career as an engineer. Let somebody else estimate the weight-bearing difficulties of that freeway overpass. I wanted to read Walt Whitman…and the others.

But…to get back to the subject of Oakland, I still had only the life experience of growing up in those hills, among all those white people and their worries about how to get their lawns to grow. No one up there knew anything about Geoffrey Chaucer, and I knew little of life beyond those lawns except for what I had read in Berkeley. I realized even then that writing a novel about my experiences in Montclair would result in a very short book. I had to go somewhere.  I had to get out.

I chose Borneo, living in which, far upriver, formed the kind of consciousness that would allow me to write. I did not realize it at the time, thinking that the Peace Corps simply provided an alternative to the Marine Corps and Vietnam that would still satisfy my wish to do something for my country. But when I came back to the United States, I knew what I wanted, even though it took me almost twenty years to begin writing specifically about my experiences on the island of Borneo.

Since my return, I have traveled very widely, and placed much of my fiction in those places in which I’ve lived that are not named “Oakland.” The theme for me has been that of the American living in places not his or her own. A different culture. A strange language. Surroundings easy to misunderstand. The adventurous plight of that American trying to understand where he or she is, is the general theme of almost all my fiction.

He never knew it, but Charles Muscatine had a lot to do with my search for the right plight.

(Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, is being published today, April 15, 2020.)