As Argentina continues to flounder in its economic and political malaise, there is a recurrent tendency to look back to happier times, and especially to the years before and after World War I, when la gran nación had achieved a position of leadership in Latin America and a modest, but solid position in the world. The present slender volume is a musician’s reminiscences of those decades, and of the European vogue of Argentina’s contribution to world popular culture, the tango.
The central figure in this casual memoir is Manuel Pizarro, who first visited Paris in 1914, taught the young Italian Rudolph Valentino to dance the tango in New York in 1915, and opened a tango cabaret in Paris in 1920. The author, a tango composer himself, and a friend of Pizarro’s, evokes the atmosphere of Parisian night life in the following years: the great names of Picasso, Chaplin, Stravinsky, Chevalier, Mistinguette, tango enthusiasts all; the Argentines Marcelo T. de Alvear, then Ambassador to France, later President of the Republic, Luis Angel Firpo, the prize-fighter, and Carlos Gardel, the greatest singer of tangos; and a swarm of tourists, gamblers, jockeys, racetrack touts, prostitutes, and pimps of all nations. For political reasons, even Benito Mussolini (in 1935). and Adolf Hitler (in 1941), attended tango concerts and did favors for the Argentine musicians.
As the citizen of a neutral country, Pizarro escaped to Buenos Aires in 1942. His return to the European scene of his old triumphs in 1950 was an anticlimax; the tango’s vogue had passed. The author leaves him playing for a provincial audience in 1955 in Ajaccio, Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace: “how well the tangos sounded just before dawn, one after another, like the night, like the life which passes, which flies away.”