Long after Mignight at the Nin~o Bien
Author: Brian Winter
Public Affairs, New York, 2007; 247 pp.
Brian Winter lived in Buenos Aires from 2000 to 2004, a period of economic crisis. He became a financial reporter for Reuters. 'Long after Mignight at the Nin~o Bien' is an account of Winter's experiences in Buenos Aires, ranging from an introduction to the Argentine character and culture, the tango and the people he met associated with the milongas, set and interpreted within the history, politics, and economics of Argentina. The narrative has the drama of a novel, with the author acknowleding an alteration of the chronology of events for story-telling purposes.
Winters has an engaging, often humorous writing style that keeps the reader involved in the characters, experiences, and background information. His accounting of the social, political, and economic history of Argentina, as it relates to the tango or not, is particularly interesting and well-placed within the narrative or recent events. Even though Winters did not move to Argentina because of the tango, the tango is presented as a gateway through which he gains his understanding of the country and its culture. The central focus to which the narrative returns are the men Winters associates with in the late night milonga called 'Nin~o Bien'. The stage on which they interact is flooded with liberal consumption of hard liquor, liberal use of profanity, a pessimistic distrust of government, and frequent reduction of the women at the milongas to subjects of sexual interest only.
Tango is a magnet attracting many foreigners to Argentina. Yet the perception of tango outside Argentina typically does not match the environment of tango within the milongas of Buenos Aires. Winters is fluent in Spanish, socializes regularly with the milongueros who make tango and the milongas a central part of their lives, and learns tango to dance in the milongas. Thus, expectations are high that the character of the tango of the milongas and the people who dance in the milongas would be accurately represented.
To some degree, this is true. Argentines are well known for opening expressing their opinions on a variety of subjects, frequently with distrust of government and pessimism about the future. The machismo of Argentine men, characterized by a condescending attitude towards women, is all too frequently evident. However, perhaps in an attempt to use drama to create interest, Winters has transformed the milongueros in his circle of friends into caricatures more comfortable in a Charles Dickens novel than in a milonga. Whereas each extreme characteristic of milongueros may accurately represents someone somewhere at sometime, this one dimensional view of men who absorb their lives in tango fails to do justice to the diversity of people who populate the milongas of Buenos Aires. One inaccurate representation is the portrayal of the milonga as a watering hole for excessive alcohol consumption. Most people go to milongas to dance tango and socialize. Some people at milongas drink some, very few drink to intoxication (and those who do are not the objects of admiration); many drink only non-alcoholic beverages. Given insufficient attention in Winter's storytelling are the milongeuro's love of tango music, the romantic connection of man and woman in tango, and the joy (rather than the pessimism) that this brings to the milonga.
Winters describes himself as a semi-competent tango dancer, yet only superficial knowledge of the dance is portrayed in his writing. He recognizes that tango is danced in a close embrace and that it is highly improvisational. However, his tango lessons are focused on building on the 8-count basic which, anyone experienced in the milongas knows, is virtually non-existent in the milongas of Buenos Aires. His tango discussions and fantasies also wander into tango moves for the stage such as barridas and ganchos. Lacking is any in depth discussion on the diversity of tango orchestras and musical interpretation in tango. Winters recognizes that the cabeceo is used to invite a partner to dance, yet in practically every description he has the women rising immediately to stand after receiving the visual invitation to dance, rather than waiting until the man has approached to be near her table. The only milongas Winters mentions visiting in his 4 year stay in Buenos Aires were Nin~o Bien, La Viruta, Confiteria Ideal, and Sunderland Club, even though there are dozens of locations and over a hundred milongas to visit. In 2008 these are milongas popular with tourists, and their character is different from the more frequent milongas where tourists are less common. All this leads one to question how deeply Winters came to understand the tango.
Tango sells; stories of political unreast in an economic crisis less so. Even a biased, superficial narrative of life in the milongas will attract readers more than the quagmire of political reality, and the complexity of valid anthropological investigation of a culture. The best that can be said of "Nin~o Bien" is that it is provides entertaining snapshots of the tango, Argentina, and its people. The worst that can be said is that it grossly misrepresents the milongueros who bring tango to life in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
Posted January 15, 2009.