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"What we become"- Dallas News

Fiction: ‘What We Become,’ by Arturo Pérez-Reverte


Published: 17 June 2016 06:39 PM

Historical fiction and romance aren’t my favorite genres. But when a critically acclaimed Spanish author and winner of the International Dagger Award pens an epic love story between a “beautiful high-society woman and elegant thief,” I’m intrigued enough to open the book.

The story begins in 1928 on a trans-Atlantic cruise between Lisbon, Portugal, and Buenos Aires, Argentina; aboard are famous composer Armando de Troeye, who is traveling to Buenos Aires to compose a tango, and his wife, Mercedes “Mecha” Inzunza. (“Mecha” also being a word for “wick” or “match” in Spanish; I saw sparks every time Mecha was mentioned.) Also on board is Max Costa, a ballroom dancer whose job is “to entertain the unaccompanied ladies in first class or those whose companions did not dance.”

Though not born into high society himself, Max moves easily within it because of his good looks, his impeccable manners, his skill on the dance floor and his way with the opposite sex: “He always kept flawless rhythm on a dance floor, and off it his hands were steady and agile, his lips posed with the appropriate remark, the perfect, witty one-liner. … In addition to the ballroom dances (tangos, foxtrots, Bostons) that helped him earn a living, he had mastered the art of verbal pyrotechnics and sketching melancholy landscapes with his silences.”

The tango is one of Max’s specialties, and although Armando is about to write one, he seems to not be much of a dancer. One evening, Max approaches the couple after dinner and invites Mecha onto the dance floor. Armando “carefully straightened the crease in his trousers, and peered at his wife through a cloud of cigarette smoke. ‘I’m tired,” he said in a lighthearted manner. ‘I think I ate too much at dinner. I’d like to watch you dance. … Enjoy yourself. … This young man is a magnificent dancer.’”

Throughout the rest of the cruise, Armando pumps Max for information about the history of the tango — not the watered-down version in vogue now, but that which Max says was born of “Andalusian tango, Cuban habanera, Argentine milonga and black slave dances. … Those early tangos were openly lewd, with couples bringing their bodies together, entwining their legs and thrusting with their hips …”

When Armando asks if it’s still danced that way in some places, Max says, “On the fringes, though it’s increasingly rare. Depending on where it’s played, almost no one dances to it. It’s more difficult. Cruder.”

Instead of being repulsed, the high-society couple immediately begs Max to take them to the slums of Buenos Aires to see old-school tango. Despite his misgivings, Max agrees to escort them into a dangerous area for an evening that they (and readers) won’t soon forget. He has his own agenda, of course. Yes, he relishes the softness of Mecha’s skin when he dances with her, but he’s also entranced by her pearls, whose “exceptional quality glowed faintly in the light of the electric chandeliers.”

He enjoys her scent, “a perfume he couldn’t quite identify … possibly Arpège,” but he also knows there’s information and opportunity to be found in “tiepins, fobs, cigarette cases and rings … the quality and cut of a jacket, the pleat of a trouser leg or the shine on a pair of shoes.” A con and thief he may be, but he’s not alone. Users come from all walks of life, and by the end of the book, readers will wonder just who has conned whom.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte was a journalist and war correspondent for two decades before turning to fiction. He wrote The Club Dumas, The Queen of the South and The Siege, the novel that won the International Dagger Award. His attention to history and detail is immaculate, his observation of people and the human psyche keen. His characters have depth and nuance. You’ll get to know them well, but it’s going to take awhile. The story spans several decades and is told over 464 pages, the story of Max and Mecha in the 1960s woven against the backdrop of their past.

Sure, there are a few missteps; the story opens from Armando’s point of view, and then immediately shifts to Max’s for the rest of the book, making the beginning feel disjointed. There’s the occasional cliché — “legs that seemed to go on forever beneath her dark taffeta dress” — and the occasional annoyance of a repeated adjective — “astonishing” comes to mind.

But the tango — both the genteel, modern one and the older, lewder one — is such a great device around which to build a story, and such an apt metaphor for the intrigue and romance at the heart of this book that readers will forgive any missteps and instead delight in the journey.

Beatriz Terrazas is a Dallas-area writer and photographer.

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