Many aspects of writing my novel The Translator were hard, but one of the most difficult was depicting the ancient Japanese theater art of Noh. Most Western readers have never watched a Noh play, with the actors hidden behind wooden masks and moving in a refined, stylized way, speaking a stilted, almost unintelligible language.
I threw myself into that scene, trying to write the sensation of sitting through hours of Noh—some productions last all day. Because it’s a pivotal moment for my main character, Hanne, she had to watch the same plays twice. Not only did I grapple with depicting this foreign art form, but I also had to convey the experience differently, the second time round.
Ekphrasis, from the Greek ek “out of” and phrasis “speech” or “expression,” refers to the use of language to represent a work of art. One of the earliest and best-known examples is in Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, with its description of the shield made by Hephaistos and given to Achilles by his mother. There’s also John Keat’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and Fyodor Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot, in which Prince Myshkin is stunned by a painting of the dead Christ.
Ekphrasis, at least in prose, highlights the transformative power of art, because the work of art must, in some way, influence the main protagonist. Otherwise, it reads as brochure copy for prospective travelers: an art form that interests the writer, but has no bearing on the story.
In The Gods of Tango, Carolina De Robertis uses ekphrasis to great success, bringing to life the music of tango.
In 1913, seventeen-year-old Leda travels from her small Italian village to Buenos Aires, where she is to join her husband. Upon arrival she discovers that he has been killed. Rather than return home, Leda fashions a life for herself in Buenos Aires. But because of the restrictions on women and their limited opportunities, she cuts her hair, dresses in her dead husband’s clothes, so as to masquerade as a man and follow her passion: playing tango on the violin.
At the point in the story, in which this sentence appears (p. 206), Leda’s tango ensemble has had to add new musicians and instruments to remain chic and modern, keeping up with the changing sound of tango.
The bandoneón’s melodies traversed a richer weave than ever, growing bolder, holding dramatic pauses worth weeping into, swirling out sumptuous lines to pierce you and push you into motion at the same time, make you forget your unpaid bills or lonely heart or even your dying mama, make the whole world collapse into a single sphere composed entirely of La China’s dance hall, warm with music and all of life compressed into its walls.”
So many strong verbs: holding, swirling, pierce and push, collapse.
The length of the sentence wonderfully depicts how tango sweeps up La China’s dance hall, engulfing everyone, inspiring them to drink and dance and forget their sorrows. The length is at first accomplished by a string of participial phrases, the –ing words, “growing,” “holding,” and “swirling,” which all point back to and modify the bandoneon’s melodies. We are made to linger here, experiencing the new instrument’s rich weave of sound. The modifying phrases are mimetic of the music because they, too, are made musical with assonance (bandoneon, melodies, grow, bold, hold) and alliteration (worth/weeping, swirling/sumptuous).
De Robertis goes on to do something quite brilliant with the use of “pierce you and push you.” The sounds are in stark contrast to the earlier glides and liquids (r, l, y, w), so at some level, we sense a change and are alert for meaning. And meaning there is; the words are associated with sex. As Leda’s world revolves exclusively around tango, the music awakens her own sexual desire. In this one sentence, De Robertis not only vividly depicts tango, but also concisely captures Leda’s character arc.
“I’m not always conscious of my intention while I’m writing a sentence,” says De Robertis. “I follow the rhythm and syntax where it most needs to go, then come back and revise until the thing feels right. I like the way this sentence makes you feel suspended in mid-air, clause after clause, flying from one thought to the next without touching the ground. It’s a kind of swirling, whirling syntax that is very much at home in Spanish-language writing.”
I ask her, “As a bilingual Latin American writer working in English, how does your Spanish influence the sentences that you write in English?”
“Spanish-language words are often longer, with Latinate polysyllables, and grammatical constructions that often require more words than they do in English. For example, it takes more syllables to say ‘el sombrero de la niña’ than ‘the girl’s hat.’ English, especially in the post-Hemingway style in fashion today, favors short, hard little Anglo-Saxon words over those with Latinate roots—for instance, the word ‘free’ over ‘emancipate.’ You can see this dynamic reflected in the style of Spanish-language writers from Cervantes to García Márquez. Edith Grossman, who brilliantly translated Don Quixote, said she captured the feel of it by selecting the most Latinate words she could, ‘as though Hemingway had never existed.’ As a bilingual Latin American writer working in English, the swirl of clauses in a long sentence comes naturally to me, and I’ve come to accept and embrace this.”
Tango music threads and weaves its way through The Gods of Tango, and yet De Robertis creates such variety in her sentences that each time the music plays on the page it feels fresh, new.
“As a reader, I’ve always loved and admired writers who capture ecstatic sensibilities in their syntax: Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and Virginia Woolf, to name a few. But part of the magic is their juxtaposition of vaulting sentences with short, sharp ones. Transcendence and grit, flight and earthiness. I strive for this in my own work. Certainly, in writing about tango music, this kind of juxtaposition is all the more necessary, to capture the varied textures of the sounds themselves.”
And, she adds, she listened to tango as she wrote the book: Old Guard pieces, scratchy recordings of Julio de Caro, Francisco Canaro; singers such as the immortal Carlos Gardel, the cross-dressing Azucena Maizani, and the Afro-Uruguayan Lágrima Ríos; and also the more experimental sounds of Astor Piazzola’s Tango Nuevo and the 21st century fusions of The Gotan Project.
I asked De Robertis to pick her favorite sentence.
If she could only freeze time, she would stop it here, right in this moment, standing with Rosa in the dusty light of dawn just before the telling, the smoke from their cigarettes twining and vanishing with the dark. (from p. 324)
“There are moments in our lives that feel infinitely expandable, that we recollect as being spacious and layered even though they pass by in an instant,” says De Robertis. “Sentences can capture that feeling, through the magic of syntax, and do so better, I believe, than the tools of other art forms such as film.”
This conditional sentence appears right before Leda reveals a stunning secret to Rosa and beautifully achieves what Leda wishes for. As the sentence adds modifiers—those swirling clauses and phrases—the moment stills, stops. The reader, too, feels the moment expand and stretch, as it fills with all of Leda’s wishes and hopes and dreams.
After the last page is read, after the book is closed, The Gods of Tango has an expansive feel, too, with its rich, long sentences, swirling and vaulting, full of melody, full of song.
– Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.