Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams: The Man Who Danced With Dolls, Madras Press 2012

Photo by Paula A. White

Photo by Paula A. White

Argentine Tango is a silent conversation in a partnership that takes on a style and energy changing with every setting, mood, song and partner. It is a dance of improvisation of which there is no basic set pattern – only a set of guidelines or rules that set it apart from other dances. – from TangoModerna.com

This wonderful novella in eight sections is in itself a tango, as points of view, characters, and settings of time and place trade off, swap the lead, and communicate back and forth. Even the subtheme of language feeds into the tango motif: “Words have big, big stories” said Opa long ago, and later Berg, working as a translator, echoes this: “There is something comic and brave about the way language evolves, each people submitting their truth.” This little book dances its own big story.

Berg was a teen in 1984 when he and his parents visited his father’s parents in a small town outside Paris. He overhears a private conversation, and it changes the color of the air around him somehow. Still, he never discusses it. No one in his family discusses anything tricky, it seems; it’s a family trait. Years later, at his father’s funeral, he’s forced to remember the second conversation he overheard. And to confront, and regret, his own avoidance.

Interwoven is the story of a subway busker from Argentina who dances the tango with dolls he’s carefully hand-made. Berg first sees him performing in the Paris Metro on that 1984 trip, and again, years later. The dancer, too, has his regrets. Their stories tango throughout the book and finally come together in sad resolution.

It’s a wonderful read, though at times I got a bit lost in the shifting time line. In fact, I had to go through the story a second time carefully noting the time frame each section to get the events firmly fixed in my mind. But that’s a minor point (and quite possibly a lapse of attention on my part); I was still captivated throughout.

As I was reading, I kept thinking how similar in tone the prose was to Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, an earlier Madras Press release I also enjoyed tremendously. So I wasn’t that surprised to find, in Hanna Dela Cruz Abrams’ online interview, that she’s studied with Lee. I was surprised to find she grew up on a boat, sailing the world. That makes sense, given the international nature of the story.

Another element I greatly appreciated (I have a copy of the 1988 book The Have A Word For It): Berg is an international translator, and throughout the story, words from other languages are dropped in to illustrate points and intensify certain scenes. For example, at one point his mother is upset, and he feels impatient with her:

I wanted to think of something funny to say. My father was good at that. Slight of emotion; watch this solemnity turn into levity. His prestige was elegance and tact, and maybe we’re all magicians in some way, but I still haven’t found my trick yet. Indians in Boro say gagrom. To search for a thing below water by trampling. I’ve never really learned to step softly.

Later, when he attends for the first time a traditional family Christmas party, he wanders through somewhat unnoticed for a while: “Sometimes feeling you’re on the outside is powerful. To be the observer, the witness. Verfremdungseffekt. The distance the audience keeps from the play. The action belongs to others.” This blends well with his habit of eavesdropping, and with the powerful word introduced at the end, when we find out the bombshell he overhears the second time he listens unnoticed:

In Arabic there is a word for the sound a stone makes when it’s thrown at a boy. Who’s doing the throwing I’ve always wanted to know, and what’s the word for them?

All of these words are, by the way, accurate, at least the ones I googled. There really is a phrase in Malay for how long it takes to eat a banana (pisan zapra) and Russians do say “That’s where the dog is buried” rather than “That is the heart of the matter.” And I would assume that, among all the Inuit words for snow, “Nowhere in their lexicon is there a word for the snow that reveals a woman.”

But I’m particularly taken with gwarlingo: Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes prior to striking the hour. New England writer/photographer/blogger-of-the-arts Michelle Aldredge has reinterpreted this as “the movement before the moment.” It occurs to me this word, though presented in the story as just another example of the words Berg has come across in his career, was not selected at random.

I’m enchanted by the way the form of this story, as well as the content, matches with the essence of the tango:

In Tango, the partners take turns expressing the dance. The uniqueness of Tango lies in the intimate exchange between a man and a woman.
The variation lies in the nuance similar to the difference between language and conversation. Language is the transmission of ideas, events and emotions through the use of symbols. Conversation is more than the exchange of ideas; it is the give and take of social interaction. It creates a tangible connection between two people….Tango is a language that dissolves boundaries. In the realm of music and movement social barriers melt away and disparate individuals find an intimacy almost unexpected. A satisfactory partnering requires a trust that, if one listens, one will also be heard.

As well-learned as Berg is in language, he never learned conversation. He was dancing with dolls, all along.