I recently read Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien, a novel by Brian Winter about his Argentina experience when he unknowingly thrusts himself into the deep culture of tango. I was initially attracted to the book because Brian introduces himself as a recent college graduate, looking for an adventure in Argentina. Brian describes a feeling I related to- “seeking something simple but elusive—experience—and I felt, as if propelled by some kind of magnetic force, that I had to go as far away as possible to get it. I wanted to go someplace where the stars in the sky were different. Though I would have never phrased it this way at the time, I suppose I wanted to measure myself as a man by putting myself in an extraordinary situation, just for the hell of it” (27). I think this passage encompasses a sensation felt by many Americans who choose to travel down to the South-most area of South America. This need to go to a place where the stars in the sky look different, or in other words, a total change in scenery on every level, was particularly relatable.
Winter also frequently mentions how the world views Argentina. He includes a quote by James Bryce, “Buenos Aires is something between Paris and New York,” which I took a moment to consider. It’s true, Buenos Aires certainly has a european flair while maintaining a business akin to New York, but I’ve found the only way to describe this city is that it is Buenos Aires. It’s not quite like any other city. One line I particularly liked in one of Winter’s discussions about people’s interpretations of Buenos Aires is referring to the place “as if Argentina was some kind of intimate secret” (39). He doesn’t know what to expect in the context of preconceptions about South America in general, but he is still surprised at the sophistication of the city.
The novel switches off between the plot, Brian’s tango fascination, and a history of the dance and the concurrent political occurrences. A pattern of deaths and revivals of the dance form seemed to follow the political turmoil in transitioning governments and dictatorship.
“The parallels between the fortunes of the tango and Argentine politics throughout history are truly striking. The coinciding arcs bear repeating: the tango was formed during a time of great turmoil, when Argentina was in its embryonic years; it rose to prominence amid a time of prosperity almost unprecedented in the world; and then it nearly disappeared during the country’s darkest hour ” (296).
This was a provocative way of measuring history in Argentina, which made the novel informative and entertaining. Another element I was glad was included was the machismo culture present in Argentina, and apparently, especially in tango. There’s a kind of accepted tolerance for males wielding control here, which is illustrated in the rules of tango. According to Winter, the man initiates the dance, leads the dance, and if it lasts more than four songs, gets to sleep with the woman. As a liberal American female, I read the very brazen sections about controlling women and sex with some disdain. Sometimes it’s difficult to measure the balance between respecting culture and moving on from antiquated practices.
I’m not sure how accurate Brian’s accounts of his time in Buenos Aires were, falling in love with his tango instructor, meeting someone named El Tigre (which is a region here), —all of it seemed a bit cliché. Nonetheless, the mystery and unknown source of fascination of local life was relatable, as was the ever-present feeling of political unwellness and unrest.
Winter, Brian. Long after Midnight at the NinÌo Bien: a Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina. William Heinemann, 2008.