Donald Schneider reviews...
Carmen Ruggero’s “Last Tango on a Wintry Day”
With some stories, it’s fairly easy to discern that they are intended as thinly veiled memoirs. With Carmen Ruggero’s “Last Tango on a Wintry Day,” in issue 207; however, the author forgoes even the flimsy veneer in order to present here that which is labeled a memoir.
Carmen Ruggero offers us her personal version of Gone with the Wind, and thus presents to us an extraordinary glimpse into another’s soul; a soul that once hungered for food, and perhaps ever after for something far more ethereal, impossible to grasp. As all too many have discovered, “it” can all change in a moment:
She had her moments, she had some style
The best show in town was the crowd
Outside the Casa Rosada crying, ‘Eva Peron’
But that’s all gone now
As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears...1
To live with fear and to live with hunger are experiences that many have been fortunately spared. Had that been the case with anyone reading these words now, then read this exquisite piece to — understand. Indeed, the author effectively invokes alliteration to saliently summarize her family’s precarious existence after the fall of Argentinian strongman Juan Peron in 1955: “Secrecy, Seclusion, Shock, Starvation and...” punctuating the point by breaking the alliteration with the ultimate single syllable of fear, repressed within the deepest recesses of her mind: “Death.”
The author begins her memoir as a girl of sixteen in 1959, close to her family’s departure day for America, a relocation forced by political reasons. Her father had been denounced to the government as a Peronist and found himself blacklisted from working as a result. More than three years of fear and hunger followed, and the narrator walks from her grandmother’s house back to the family’s erstwhile home, now empty and beckoning with myriad bittersweet memories.
On her way home, she seems haunted (“Run, little girl...”) by warnings from Hector, a young neighborhood friend. But Hector it cannot be as he has “disappeared,” his fate unknown; perhaps swallowed by the military junta’s secret police as had been two of his classmates previously. Their crime? Soldiers had come to their high school to search out youthful “subversive” elements and had found in a student’s notebook a poem by José Hernandez; the same poem — a haunting, existential piece entitled “Martin Fierro” — with which the author chooses to preface her memoir. Presumably, the poem was adjudged to have had subversive overtones. The other hapless student’s crime was that he had been the best friend of the boy with the poem.
Arriving at her house, the youthful Ms. Ruggero is further haunted by memories: memories of happy times before their troubles had begun, and nightmares of the times that followed. She recalls being so famished with hunger that she had hid scarps of bread from her family in order to secretly eat them at night and the terrible memory of the fleeting thoughts of hatred she had felt towards her younger sister when she had discovered her sister’s hiding place. Guilt and shame is evident within the narrator’s mind, though she carried no more guilt than countless others who struggled for mere survival, as she notes.
Her profound and troubling observations are reminiscent of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. When stripped of all the trappings in which we humans have cloaked ourselves as a psychological subterfuge masking our essential bare existences, can any of us aspire to be more than “lord of the flies?”
She is a confused, soon-to-be teenage exile from her homeland, a fate she confesses ambivalence over as all she knows about America is that it is not home. The reader gets the impression that despite a flourishing newfound existence in North America, that Argentina will always remain home in Ms. Ruggero’s heart.
The troubled teenager waxes nostalgic for times not very long past in years, but seemingly ages ago now within her soul. She reminisces about Sergio, the boy she dances a waltz with; her first love. Their incipient romance is nipped in the bud by her parents’ increasing political fears. They will not have the boy in their house to meet them for fear of what he might be: a spy and an informer for hostile political elements. The girl is devastated. To her, he is just a boy; just another kid like herself. They part promising to pursue their budding relationship at a later time, but both knowing that it would never happen. Such is the cruelty of a world gone mad, a world without reason or compassion; a world where those who would be friends are cast off as potential adversaries in the blind grip of fear.
The narrator relates the origins of the dance that so saliently defines her homeland: the tango. It was created by lonely European immigrants to Argentina, relatively late in the 1880’s. It quickly took hold of the Argentinian heart and soul — and those of the author’s — and it is fittingly and profoundly moving that the word Tango is thought to have been derived from the Latin word for “touch.” The reader rather suspects that one day the girl hopes to dance the Tango with her newfound love; to touch his soul as her beloved Buenos Aires has so touched hers.
But it was not to be. The political situation deteriorates and culminates in another attempted revolution and a bombing of the Plaza de Mayo. “Sangre corre por las calles de Buenos Aires — Blood runs through the streets of Buenos Aires.”
It is time to depart the only land, the only life the youthful Ms. Ruggero had known. Space is so limited as to what the family can carry, she is told by her mother that she cannot even bring with her her writings, her stories and poems. Her love for the written word had been established as a very young child, with an imaginary friend, and her equally imaginary seahorse, having been her first protagonists. She writes of the city, the land; its people and its heartbeat. She writes of its Tango, its touch upon her heart.
But it is June in Argentina: winter. The family will soon travel to a world new to them; a world in which the freedom and prosperity of the summer currently reigns. Think of that little girl and remember, always.
The historical significance of this piece is intriguing, as it is recounted from the standpoint of an innocent pawn caught up in a wider struggle she poorly understands. Although because of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical, most of us have at least heard of Juan and Evita Peron, it might be useful to research the Perons and their regime in order to be able to read “Last Tango...” with a greater appreciation and within a more complete historical context.
With this exquisitely poignant personal memoir, Carmen Ruggero establishes herself as the “First Lady of Bewildering Stories.” The writing, as is the case with all of Ms. Ruggero’s works, is impeccable. It is rich with ambient imagery and emotive power. Life is indeed precious and, always, precarious.
1 Tim Rice, “Oh What a Circus,” in Evita.
Copyright © 2007 by Donald Schneider