Book Review: Malena, by Edgardo David Holzman

(NOTE: This is not a book about tango - though there is tango woven through the story.)

I keep delaying writing this review because I think my words can't do Malena justice. It's been sitting in my drafts folder for weeks. So this is a bit rambly and disjointed, for that I apologize, but I didn't want to delay any longer. Frankly, this book is too important to keep delaying.

Let me hit the important points first - it is well written, very well researched and the stories of the characters display such craftsmanship and care that once you're pulled in, you can't let go of the story.

That said - it is also a very difficult book to read. The longer you read, the more gut-wrenching it is. I cried through pretty much the entire last third of the novel.

Malena is the story, through a small handful of characters, of Argentina's war against its own people - known now as The Dirty War. The novel is based on many real events and it reads as such. The recurring theme of "beware the fool with good intentions" plays to the heart of tragedy in the novel, and in the actual events of that period. There is a palpable, and growing, sense of dread from the first few pages as characters struggle with the question - did I just trust the wrong person?

What do you do when you can't truth the organizations that are supposed to protect you - the police, the governments of other countries, even the Catholic Church? Where do you go? You go to the people you think you know - like anyone would. The characters in Malena take ever riskier chances, trusting people they never thought they would, as they realize they can't save the people they love without help.

Captain Diego Fioravanti is a man trying to survive, protect the woman he loves, Inez Maldonado, and to escape the Argentine army. Kevin "Solo" Solórzano, a former suitor of Inez, is an American interpreter, traveling with the OAS (Organization of American States) Human Rights Commission to investigate the treatment of prisoners in Argentine jails. They must all trust unlikely allies and uncover the truth about events in Argentina to save the people they care about.

In Scot Butki's interview with the author, Edgardo David Holzman, Scot asks why Holzman chose to write a fiction novel instead of a non-fiction work. Holzman says:

"Governments, international organizations, NGO's and scholars continually churn out books and reports on human rights. Few people other than experts, advocates and officials of various kinds ever read these publications, invaluable as many of them are. They are to be found mostly in specialized libraries, not bookstores for the general public. 

"Fiction, paradoxically, is the closest thing we have to real life. It's where readers can put themselves in the characters' shoes, occupy their heads and hearts, feel their emotions. On a subject as fraught with drama as human rights, a novel is particularly well suited to involve the reader. Over time I realized that I wanted to write a gripping, entertaining story, a thriller about a serious, sobering subject."

He's right. Reading page after page of documents detailing the atrocities of the Dirty War is horrible, but in many ways lets us keep our distance as facts are related coldly, one after another. In a novel, we develop emotional relationships with the characters while we read and their stories become personal - not just statistics and facts on paper. Malena is worth the work to read - these are stories we need to hear.

Names of the disappeared at Parque de la Memoria, Buenos Aires, Argentina

If you read Malena, it will change things for you when you visit Buenos Aires. Although I didn't take part in a "Torture Tour" when I visited Buenos Aires this past Autumn, I did hire a very knowledgeable and compassionate tour guide (Maria Lelia Ivancovich) to take my travel companions to some of the sites of Argentina's Dirty War. I encourage tango visitors to Buenos Aires to at least see some of the sites. Once you do, once you know even a little bit of the story, you see the scars of the Dirty War all over the city, in the contemporary art and music.

"Carteles de la Memoria (Posters of Memory) - 53 signs that relate the timeline of the Dirty War

ESMA - Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada - Navy School of Mechanics

Another thing becoming familiar with Argentina's past did for me was make me even more painfully aware of recurring themes in our own news headlines in the US. Every time I hear the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques", it makes me feel sick in the pit of my stomach. Every time we give up more freedom in the name of safety against "terrorists", every time we meddle in the affairs of other countries (as we did in Argentina and with our support of Operation Condor), I wonder if it's possible for us to learn from the past. That's why reading books like Malena, no matter how uncomfortable we have to get to relate to the stories, is so important.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Another post in my "Four Agreements" series - though I am taking them out of order. (Because, if I try to write in order of the Four Agreements book, instead of the order in my brain, it will never get done.)

Agreement Number 3 - Don’t Make Assumptions
"Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life."   Don Miguel Angel Ruiz

Assumptions about Professional/Competitive/Performing Dancers
(fill in the descriptor of your choice - I've heard these assumptions applied to all three.)

Note: I didn't say these assumptions publicly before the event detailed below, and for that I am greatly relieved. The crow that I find myself eating now is uncomfortable enough.

Somewhere along the journey of my dancing life, I picked up the assumption that professional dancers, once they choose to devote energy to performing, touring or in particular competing in Argentine tango, somehow lose some of the soul of social dancing. As if to do one was to sacrifice the other. Experience bore out some of that assumption as I watched many visiting teachers come to the milongas and teach on the social dance floor, exhibit an incredible lack of floorcraft and social graces, and then proceed to sit on the sidelines and criticize local dancers. Their classes were often filled with patterns and steps that would be impossible, or at least very unwise, to use in the milonga.

Oops, there I go again, looking for reinforcement of my assumption . . .  The problem with an assumption is that very soon we start to see only the evidence that reaffirms our belief. The belief then becomes a fact and a lens through which we see situations.

There were plenty of exceptions coming through Austin of course - Javier Rochwarger, Murat and Michelle Erdemsel, Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz among others, who do emphasize technique for the social dance floor.

Back to the story . . .

When organizers and teachers Juan Carlos and Alicia Suarez brought professional dancers (Diego Benavidez and Natasha Agudelo, Ramada Salieri and Yumiko Krupenina, Roxana and Fabian Belmonte), all of whom were world class tango competitors, to Austin for their Second Annual Day of Tango event, I had very mixed feelings. I love this event so much but, I hate to admit it now, I was disappointed that they weren't bringing people who were more widely known for their social dancing instead of for competition. (Which in itself is problematic - if one only engages in social dancing, how would anyone know about them? And well known by whom? Me?) I had already formed an opinion of their teaching and personalities based on that one fact - that they had been champion tango competitors.

I should have trusted their judgment more.

Saturday night at Esquina tango, during the first milonga of the Day of Tango festival, I saw two of the couples in action. Esquina is an increasingly tight space to dance as our community grows, and the floorcraft can be iffy. It was even a bit of a challenge for some of our dancers who dance there all the time.

I think I was just sitting and waiting for one of the visiting followers to execute some high boleos or for a couple to stop the line of dance to do some fancy stationary move. That would have validated my assumption, after all. Instead I saw them dance respectfully, gracefully - even quite conservatively in respect for the space. Frankly, they were gorgeous - incredible examples of compact efficiency and elegance of movement. I was mesmerized by their ability to be so responsive to the dancers around them, and still express the music so beautifully.

At one point I just watched Yumiko Krupenina's feet while she and Ramada Salieri circled around the room. Yumiko had the most precise, controlled, beautiful footwork I remember seeing in a very long time. Nothing overdone, nothing flashy - everything completely appropriate to the space and the music. Next I watched Diego Benavidez and Natasha Agudelo as they moved calmly and smoothly around the pista. No flash, no kicking - just natural, effortless (appearing) movements in  harmony with the music.

I had been very wrong.

I was lucky that my partner and I had enough time to take a lesson with Diego and Natasha before they left and our first impression had been correct - they were consummate social dancers. Our lesson had no figures, no patterns, no steps - posture and technique only. We weren't the only ones to make that observation. They focused on the fundamentals and we had a fantastic lesson.

So there you have it - the lesson I seem to have to learn again and again. Don't make assumptions.

(And one last note to Juan Carlos and Alicia - thank you for an amazing event.)

Impeccable with my word.

Be impeccable with your word - Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

"To really master being impeccable will require that you heighten your awareness not just to the words you say, but also to the emotions you express, your attitude, your actions, and where you express the power of your belief. You will need to develop a discipline of mindfulness to be impeccable in these expressions through out the day." Gary van Warmerdam,

I have been lazy lately. Lazy in my thoughts and lazy in my words. Lazy in the things I expressed, and in the things I chose not to say. I did not speak up when I should have, and lashed out carelessly when I should have been more thoughtful. The worst part is that kind of thoughtlessness can spread and ripples can pass from person to person creating a feeling of criticism and judgment where none is warranted. When that happens, thoughts about creating solutions are stifled, and criticism gets more and more personal.

The Problem

It started out of frustration, as it usually does. I wanted to address a disturbing problem I saw but I didn't do it constructively. I complained, as did others, to the people who weren't the problem instead of addressing it at the time to the people actually involved.

During what was an exceptionally beautiful event called YoLaTango here in Austin, I observed behavior that well and truly pissed me off.  Here is what I posted on Facebook (which is a different problem to be addressed in a separate post.)

"I did not get kicked or bumped at all while I was *dancing* at the milonga tonight. However, I did get stepped on (three times) and kicked (twice) while I was sitting in my damned seat!! A girl a few chairs away from me almost got kicked in the head(!!!) as she reached under her chair to get something from her purse! WTF??? One guy got a stiletto heel stabbed into the top of his foot while he was sitting down.

"I know teachers teach dancers to do their fancy moves in the corners, but if there are people sitting in the corners keep your effing feet on the floor. Worst of all, the offenders were people who've been dancing well long enough know better. Another thing - if you do something like that, don't laugh and shrug - damned well apologize.

"This was a very, very nice venue, with fantastic music and I had so many beautiful tandas, but the times I did sit and watch the floor, it was so disheartening. There was no reason at all for that. To the leaders who worked so hard to keep their partners safe (including me) - thank you so very much. You guys rock my socks off. To the followers who kept their feet low even when their leaders led them huge moves - thank you for having the presence of mind to look out for others."

Two dancers told me that the cut short their visit to our festival because they could not relax and feel safe on our dance floor. I was heartbroken to hear that. How did things get so bad? Murat Erdemsel, during one of the milongas, even spoke about etiquette on the pista. It seemed to last about an hour. People commented that they were afraid to sit in the chairs along the dance floor because they were getting stepped on or kicked.

Austin, and Austin's tango community has, for many years, enjoyed a reputation for being friendly and welcoming. We cannot be friendly and welcoming if dancers are afraid of getting hurt in our milongas. One visitor who complained to me said it just validates what he's always heard about Austin Tango - "The people are wonderful and friendly, but the floorcraft is crap." Is this what we want people to think about dancing here?  (I should note that several of the 'hazardous' dancers were not from Austin, but the overall feeling many dancers got was that the milongas ware a kind of free-for-all even though many dancers were working very hard to keep things calm and sane on the pista.)

People came to me to complain who knew about my blog, and my posts on Facebook, so I let loose in person and online my opinions on the matter.  My criticism was not constructive - it was bitter. It was also, as I noted above, not directed at the people actually causing the issue. Normally I am against giving criticism on the dance floor, however when safety is at stake, I think it's warranted.

There are constructive ways to address the behavior without getting personal, without putting people on the defensive, without being disruptive or ugly - but those ways require good timing, tact and forethought.  I was lacking in all three. I just bitched rather generally and than sat and stewed about it some more. Neither of those actions helped the situation, helped other dancers, or helped the organizers of what was truly a wonderfully put together event.

So I am reacquainting myself with Don Miguel Ruiz's First Agreement - Be impeccable with your word.

When I speak, particularly when I am criticizing something, am I speaking from a place of truly wanting to help or am I just bitching?  Am I addressing the behavior or getting personal and making character judgments? Am I just looking for validation of my opinion? Is my attitude projecting kindness and helpfulness - or close-mindedness?

A Different Solution

What I would have done differently if given the chance?

 - Talk to the organizers at the time that it was happening. I didn't because I felt they were busy enough already and I didn't want to bother them. I justified it further by thinking they probably wouldn't want to say anything that would cause hard feelings. But if I had been organizing the event, I would have wanted to be bothered with it.

 - Talk to the people in question when I saw the behavior. This is trickier. It's so tempting to get in someone's face and say, "Hey, you shouldn't do that - you could (or just) hurt someone!"  If you approach someone in a very obvious and accusatory manner, it immediately puts then in a position of defending themselves. I truly don't believe that any dancer wants to be a danger to other dancers - bumps and missteps happen in crowded milongas. The best way I have seen it done is a dancer waits until the person in question is off of the dance floor and then says (quietly) that the floor is a little rough and would they mind helping out by being a little more cautious. Basically, they tasked that dancer with the safety of the people around them. It's human nature to want to be invited to fix things - not be accused of breaking things.

 - Look at the floor and see if there are changes that could help the dance flow. If something seems helpful, suggest it to the organizers. In the case of one of the milongas, having a more marked pista would have helped even if all that meant was creating a more regular dance space with chairs and tables.

 - I would have left it off of Facebook and kept it in person. Negativity breeds negativity and that's what happened with my post.

Maybe those things would have helped - maybe not. There is a significant chance that I could have screwed it up worse - who knows? I know that I did do helped no one.

Dear readers, I would appreciate your feedback in this. What would you have done? What has worked in your community?