"A veces me pregunto si no será mi sombra
que siempre me persigue, o un ser sin voluntad.
Pero es que ya ha nacido así, pa' la milonga,
Y ,como yo, se muere, se muere por bailar."
("I ask myself sometimes if it's really my shadow
that's always chasing me, or some being with no will of its own.
But it was born this way, for the milonga,
and, like me, it dies, it dies to dance.")
Elizardo Martinez Vilas (Marvil)
In his wonderful Oda al aceite (Ode to Olive Oil), Pablo Neruda says of it, in a moment of gruff emotional release, "You are the Spanish language!" I don't doubt that, having enhanced many meals with the dark flavors of Spanish olive oils. There is no comparison to them. Nothing the Italians have done with olives has ever come up to the Spanish.
So, given Neruda's enthusiasm, I have thought about olive oil, and I have thought about the Spanish language. It is very rich, filled with Arabic, Castilian, Catalan and Basque elements, and of course Latin and Greek. It is harsh, dirty with earth and gritty delicacies. It laughs at itself. There is darkness and comedy at its heart, filled with Gypsy sadness and the notion that love is notable most especially for betrayal. (I'm speaking here of the language, although the same could be said of the oil.)
I would not truly know Spanish, though, if it were not for tango and for Max.
It is impossible to have a conversation with a new acquaintance that is familiar with Argentina without tango being mentioned. Although it too is often gritty and dirty, tango is a simple, basic Argentine fact. Many of my Spanish-language mentors have been Argentines.
As the inevitable conversation has occurred, some of them have dismissed tango as being not worthy of notice, and have announced that they will have nothing to do with it. Tango is, after all, "the reptile from the brothel," as the Argentine writer Leopoldo Lugones once called it. It is difficult for people who maintain a certain glum decorum — and there are plenty of those in Argentina — to accept what tango represents. The way those tangueros dance, for example. The sneer of the dance and the sex of it. The lack of moral restriction.
The better-born Argentine simply doesn't want to contend with tango, really. They prefer thinking of themselves as cultivated Europeans, with Argentina situated somewhere in a vernal paradise between France and Italy, maybe with a bit of fashionable Castilian Spain thrown in. This tango business requires the street, a rough life, clothes that are shot through with old cigarette smoke and gruff laughter. It does not fit into the class-conscious Argentine view. It is from the lower depths. It is disgraceful.