Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El tango de la guardia vieja

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Max Costa has had a complicated life. Starting from humble beginning in Buenos Aires, he becomes a charmer and swindler, and makes his money taking advantage of rich women and stealing jewelry. While he has mostly managed to stay out of trouble, he has done some time in prison. At the beginning of the book we find him living in the Naples area and working as a chauffeur for a well-to-do doctor. Now in his early sixties, he finds himself living humbly again.

One of the most significant encounters in his life occurred much earlier, about 30 years before. While working as a professional dancer on a transatlantic ship, he meets a Spanish couple, a composer and his wife. The composer is interested in the tango. His wife Mecha is a superb tango dancer and she often dances with Max. When they arrive in Buenos Aires, Max takes them to places where the “original” tango is being danced so they can experience its raw sensual power. The composer ends up composing a tango that becomes a famous piece of music, done on a dare from Ravel after he wrote his Bolero. Max is entranced with Mecha but leaves abruptly apparently stealing a very valuable pearl necklace.

They do not meet again for several years but cross paths in Nice shortly before World War II. Max is doing well enough. Unexpectedly, he is contacted by two men who claim to work for the Italian secret service. They require his services to recover some letters from the safe of a rich Spanish man currently in exile in Nice. The letters have some political value. Max gets himself invited to a high society dinner held at the house occupied by the said rich Spaniard, where he runs into Mecha. She is somewhat suspicious of him but they renew their acquaintance. Mecha is living alone in Nice and her husband’s whereabouts in Franco’s Spain are unknown.

Max manages to crack the safe and steal the letters sometime later. However, giving the letters to the Italian guys proves to get complicated as a third party gets involved and two or three guys are killed. Max gets stabbed in the process and calls on Mecha for help. She is rather angry with him but helps him leave so he can take himself somewhere he might be safe for further pursuit from whoever is after the letters or interested in the deaths he is associated with. This very much looks like unfinished business between them. As passionate as some of their encounters have been, both are reluctant to give it any meaning.

The next time they meet, they are in their sixties. Mecha has been widowed, remarried and divorced and her adult son is a chess grand master. Max sees her fortuitously in Sorrento where her son is playing a chess tournament against a Russian grand master. As Max’s boss has just left for several days, Max borrows some clothes and accessories as well as one of the cars he has in his car in his job as chauffeur and manages to install himself in the same high-end hotel. It is unsure to what end he does all this at the beginning and his motivations shift as time goes by. He does reconnect with Mecha, and through some fairly convoluted events, ends up stealing the Russian grand master notebooks to give Mecha’s son the upper hand. The Russians do find him out though and try to get him to say where the books are. In spite of a severe beating bordering on torture, Max keeps his mouth shut.

The book ends with Max again on the run and no resolution to his and Mecha’s relationship.

Convoluted, you say? Maybe so, but the details of the plot are skillfully revealed quite parsimoniously, the settings are quite interesting, and many of the characters intriguing. There is a good pace to this book, and the writing is quite fluid.

It was quite a good story to read. I had never read any book by Pérez-Reverte; I had only seen the movie adaptation of El maestro de esgrimas. As he has written at least 2 dozen books, there might be a few more interesting ones.

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