Sometimes you don’t give a book a fair reading — that is to say, the conditions under which you read it interfere with your absorption of the tale. When you think about it, reading is one of the few forms of cultural consumption that we assume will be interrupted. You never expect to get through a book in one sitting — and indeed many of the landmarks of 19th century fiction were constructed with that in mind. Hence the chapter-ending cliff-hanger. But some books you abuse more than others, and reading Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance interleaved with the first 80 pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was a lousy idea. (It had to do with the relative weight of each book and my need to tote it around for a couple of days with a laptop). Part of the problem was they were just a little bit too similar: fragmented time frames, exotic settings, youthful male narrators. Transitions were especially bad when I had to switch between Barcelona in the 1920s and Buenos Aires ditto.
So Lloyd Jones won. Though I really enjoyed Zafón’s Captain Alatriste, The Shadow… struck me as one of those slightly ponderous near-allegories that just drive me nuts. Everything means something else, secrets are brandished in front of you, and I lose patience.
That being said, once I put down the Spanish book, I had to give the Southern Hemisphere book a little bit of time to grab me again and this is where I was possibly unfair. Jones’ Mister Pip hangs together. Here at the End of the World…. might, too, but I was untrue to the narrative thread so I can’t be sure.Certainly the challenge of stitching together story lines from multiple time frames and settings is pretty taxing. You have our bildungsroman protagonist/narrator, Lionel Howden, and his passion for exotic Argentinian Rosa, 19 years older than he. Setting: unnamed Australian city, maybe 1970s? You have Australian Louise Pohl and her passion for Paul Schmidt, the itinerant piano tuner. They meet in a tiny Australian town in 1919, but their connection continues to Buenos Aires, and into the present day.
What connects these tales is Argentinian tango. “In tango,” says Jones, “there are no wrong turns. But every dance begins with a backward step. “It sounds as if maybe Jones takes that fact as a structural cue — oh, gosh, possibly the whole novel is built like tango steps, backward, forward, sideways, entwined? I really hope not. That would be just too elaborate. Jones writes eloquently about tango as a kind of connection, a way of forging intimacy, of communication beyond words. The talent for it is arbitrary, unconnected to likability or moral worth. Jones‘ writing is informal and evocative, his ideas are quirky and generous. Here’s one to mull over: “he was in charge of music, which gave him a distinct advantage.” True when you’re trying to dance in a cave. True in other situations, too?