Book Review

Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarría

read a trash thriller i've owned for a decade. fun 'n' frothy - and so's the book I read lolol

Tango for a Torturer is a 2002 Uruguayan novel written by Daniel Chavarría and translated (in 2006) by Peter Bush.

Tango for a Torturer isn’t the kind of book I read very often any more, and the reason why I have a copy of it is because it has been in my possession for over a decade: I bought this right after reading Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy, though I cannot remember on whose advice. It may well be – I have had it for so long – that this novel came to me as a result of Amazon’s “You may also like…” feature, something which I don’t think I’ve even noticed for many, many years. Time changes everything, even time itself.

I used to love reading sleazy trashy novels, and in my youthful days – before I became a sad, but silly, poet – I repeatedly tried to write them. I’ve had scattered selections of my [unpublished] Catholic cocaine novel, White Lines, Black Truffles published online as well as a couple of excerpts from my [unpublished] sexed-up philosophical Biblical novel, The Body and the Baptist, in which I based the character of Jesus on myself. I got about halfway through writing a novella about a fictionalised version of myself seducing and murdering Richard and Judy in order to try and get a book onto their (then culturally-relevant) TV book club, I wrote 4000 words of notes towards a satirical noir-type novel about a werewolf private detective, but of everything I wrote before I started only trying to write things that were emotionally honest, the most popular piece I ever did was a piece of flash fiction imagining a john writing about his joyful experiences with Cuban sex workers, a topic that Gutierrez specialises in and – unsurprisingly – is something that also excites Daniel Chavarría.

My juvenile piece ‘Cuban Prostitutes’ could easily have been pulled from Tango for a Torturer, though with the perspective switched to third person, because this is a sleazy, trashy, pulp novel that regularly rhapsodises about the joyful experiences middle aged men have with twenty-something female Cuban sex workers, all of whom absolutely adore their jobs and love sex.

This attitude is, of course, problematic, especially when it is invested into real life opinions and legislation. Of course, it is equally false to hold the opposite opinion (that literally every single sex worker in the world is the victim of abduction, human trafficking and forced exploitation), but to presume that the majority of women working as prostitutes are, like Chavrría’s “Bini”, insatiable nymphomaniacs who’d be having copious amounts of sex for free anyway is an extreme and unrealistic idea..

When I was younger, I used to write about prostitution a lot: as a concept it was always something – due to its depiction in popular culture – that seemed… I dunno, kinda romantic. I mean Pretty Woman, Les Miserables, novels like this, the women who are paid to seduce then assassinate James Bond but eventually fall for him. I mean ‘Roxanne’ by The Police, I mean Breakfast At Tiffany’s, I mean dogmatic depictions of Mary Magdalene, I mean My Own Private Idaho. There are many examples. I wrote songs and stories about prostitution before I’d ever thought about or understood it as something more than just an intriguing idea in fiction and music. For me, this is an at-best-naive attitude to have: the trope of the voracious, kind-hearted sex worker is as tired as I am at the moment (I don’t sleep enough), but despite the presence of a trope rather than a character as one of this novel’s three central protagonists, Tango for a Torturer is a beyond-competent pulp thriller that plays with form just enough to make it engaging without using any of the crass, simple fun that one would expect from a sexed-up thriller.

Chavarría’s novel bounces between the third person perspective of two middle aged Argentines (or are they?) hanging out in Cuba. Both have been shagging the same sex worker and one of them – seemingly the more sinister – figures out who the other guy is and decides to revenge himself on him for something from their past. As Chavarría introduces more flashbacks from the men’s pasts we see that, actually, the one who seems nicer in middle age was actually a military torturer, so suddenly the moral thrust shifts to the man who commits revenge. BUT shortly after that, we discover that the victim of gross torture is the one thing worse than a torturer: a paedophile! But he is a repentant paedophile, whereas the other man isn’t a repentant torturer.

Anyway, it’s silly and frothy and treats pretty serious things with the classic nonchalance of pulp novels, but if one is switching off and in for a trashy ride, it’s a fun one. Sex and violence and pacy plotting: it’s not literature, and nor is it morally justifiable, but it’s entertaining trash, and sometimes that is exactly what a person needs.

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