Review Essay | Angora Matta: Fatal Acts of North-South Translation, by Marta Elena Savigliano

As an interactive, open artwork, Marta Elena Savigliano’s tango-opera Angora Matta resists definition. Written in the spirit of Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela(as even the opening “Author’s Note” seems to suggest, xi-xvii), this book disrupts and calls into question traditional narrative practices, inviting readers to engage actively in constituting their own story from the multiple layers of text, criticism, and commentary laid before them. In the manner of many open compositions of the early 1960s, including Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Savigliano destabilizes her audiences’ expectations of narrative progress by situating her main text, the tango-opera libretto Angora Matta, as Part II in the center of her book. It is preceded in Part I by a bilingual, self-reflective commentary on that text in the form of an imagined dialogue between Savigliano and one of her operatic characters, XYa, a medium who represents the feminine principle and Power of Memory. XYa has threatened to sue Savigliano for misrepresentation, but settles “out of court” by demanding she undertake an apprenticeship in esoteric knowledge and include in her book texts written by the operatic characters themselves, as a means of recapturing their historical reality. This clever scenario serves as a point of departure for Savigliano’s mediations on the authorial voice, representation, art, translation, and the viscous nature of subjectivity. Savigliano honors her contract with XYa by including in Part III, which follows the central libretto and comments on it, several academic texts on ethnography and representation of tango, written by three of the operatic characters XYa has accused her of misrepresenting: Elvira Díaz, Manuela Malva, and Angora Matta. Savigliano admits that she herself has written these texts, yet her ventriloquist manner of modulating her voice to speak through her fictional characters gives her academic project a defamiliarizing irony. Her book ends with poetic thoughts expressed through the voice of her opera’s main character (or is it Savigliano herself?), Angora Matta. Although all three parts of the book are intertwined in theme, they vary so widely in approach and content that I will consider them first independently, before doing exactly what Savigliano does not want me to do: draw a synthesized and coherent conclusion from the open strands of her postmodern story.

Author’s Note (On Tangophilia and Ethnographitis)

In light of the open work to follow, the emphatically clear statement of purpose that opens Savigliano’s book as an “Author’s Note” can almost be read as a mockery of academic intent. Nevertheless, it enables the reader to get a shockingly precise sense of Savigliano’s interests and objectives. Her libretto for Angora Matta, she tells us, will be about “the transmission of experiences of post-dictatorial mourning [in Argentina] to foreign audiences who are prone to spectacularize political violence in the so-called third world through mechanisms of exoticism” (xii). Savigliano accuses postcolonial theorists, ethnographers, and the film industry of having glossed over the inequality and political violence of contemporary Argentina by reducing their representations of the country to attractive symbols that merge easily into their overall project of universal culture. She urges them to abandon their spectatorial position and to engage in “the linguistic and corporeal traffic of difference (coded as culture),” overcoming their “otherness through translation and co-presence” (xii). Her book, she claims, will “attend to the moments and processes when one identity is inhabited by another, one language transforms into the other, and one corporeality is provoked by the temporal and spatial co-presence of the one it simultaneously alienates and intends to understand.” (xii). Such a thesis is thrilling, and caused me to flip rapidly to Part I, eager to know how Savigliano was going to solve the urgent existential problem of neocolonial representation in the postmodern, globalized world. 

Part I: An Uneasy Pact/ Parte I: Un Pacto Infeliz

In Part I, Savigliano beautifully fulfills the high expectations raised by the bold statement of purpose in her “Author’s Note.” Following in the tradition of her first book, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, she encourages her readers to feel and experience, rather than just rationally or cognitively understand the in-betweenness of identity she believes is characteristic of the globalized age. Using the viscosity of fluids as her metaphor and Walter Benjamin as her mentor, she argues that human subjectivity is constituted through a mixture of materials that displace and make room for each other, coalescing into a definable whole yet ever open to further transformation. Those materials are not ideas, cultures, or emotions, but rather words, which function in her texts as spatially situated, weighted, and dense bodies. She rejects the notion that individuals constitute their subjectivity through the acquisition of one primary language, upon which they layer others like icing on the cake, arguing instead for a model of postcolonial subjectivity constituted in several languages at once, and defined in its identity by the constant tug and pull such bilingualism or polylinguism creates. 

Marta Elena Savigliano

Savigliano puts her thesis into practice by having her readers actively translate as a means of physically and emotionally engaging us in the spatial and material process of moving between cultures. Paragraphs appear first in one language (English) and then the other (Spanish), taking us on a seesaw journey between linguistic continents. The order in which the two languages appear consistently changes, leaving open the question of which language is the more originary and thus authentic, and which is the possibly flawed translation. Sometimes, she leaves Spanish words in the English text, as academics are wont to do when they want to indicate that words have a primary meaning that cannot be translated, not even in the ensuing translation (8). Her fantastic exploration risks loosing its anchoring completely in her edition and translation of her character’s, XYa’s introduction, which she tells us was originally written in a piecemeal English and Spanish fashion (15-50). At this point I floundered between the two voices/languages with no sense of a primary source, thereby attaining the in-between, floating state of Savigliano’s postcolonial subject. 

Taking up Savigliano’s Satrean invitation to engage in her “shared madness” (5), I found myself stunned by the powerful effect of her linguistic experiment. It made me aware of the degree to which her chosen materials (Spanish and English) indeed did constitute my identity. As a native English speaker who is still learning Spanish, I rapidly read the English, but dwelled laboriously over the Spanish, checking Spanish words in the English translation to be sure. Sometimes, I felt I was missing some colloquial or idiomatic Argentine meaning. At other times, I made assumptions about where Savigliano felt most at home, even questioning her translations from one language to the other. Occasionally, I translated something into German in order to get a closer sense of it, because that is a language in which I feel more comfortable. The effect was just as Savigliano described: the boundaries of my identity felt permeable, “constantly crossed by substances that in different states, at different speeds, and with different properties transit between beings and beings, beings and things, the real and the imagined, the conscious and the unconscious” (24). As I moved between my familiar English and cautiously Spanish self (which included whatever I knew, remembered, or imagined of Argentina), I could not help but admire Savigliano for such a brilliant conceptual act. “We are all unevenly distributed postcolonial subjects, carrying within ourselves the material basis of multiple subjectivities and allegiances, amalgamations of the various languages we speak!” I wanted to shout out, and turned eagerly to Part II, the libretto itself, to see how she had realized all this theory in art.

Part II: The Contested Object/ El Objecto en Disputa
Angora Matta: Tangópera-Thriller in Two Acts and Fourteen Scenes

The libretto of Angora Matta came as a surprise. Having been so carefully prepared to participate, engage, translate, and even become Savigliano’s text, I was puzzled to find myself thrown back into the role of the traditional reader. Although the libretto was still bilingual, Savigliano’s remark that it had originally been in Spanish, caused me to read only that language, ignoring the English translation that ran alongside it as I would ignore any extra languages in an operatic libretto. Not only was the game of translation over; my sense of the postcolonial subject disappeared as well. 

Savigliano’s tango-opera tells the story of an Argentine guerillereturned assassin who lives in Los Angeles, and is traveling back to Buenos Aires to complete her latest assignment. There she experiences several significant tango encounters. When the news breaks that the Argentine President has been killed, Angora’s friends and acquaintances consult a medium, XYa, in order to find out whether she has committed the deed. XYa takes them through a history of Argentina while in a trance. The opera ends with a scene in Florida, where the President reveals through e-mail that he has staged his own assassination in order to escape Argentina. Angora finds him there and kills him.

Angora Matta
Angora Matta

Savigliano constructs her libretto, in the manner of Expressionist theatre, around highly symbolic situations in which objects, character types, images, and dances stand in for conceptual ideas. Rather than translate between languages, she seeks the referential and symbolic meanings of words now defined as entities with universal meaning. She represents Angora Matta’s relationship to Argentina through variations on the tango as a symbol with fixed significance, for example, and used a named yet not heard musical leitmotif, the “Memory of Power,” to evoke Argentina’s suppressed memory of its violent past. Her symbolic approach is most evident in these musical signifiers, and in the spontaneous visual sketches interspersed throughout the text, in which she depicts the opera’s characters and geographical locations in the most generic and neutral terms. She draws Angora Matta without a face, for example, as if to symbolize the contemporary Argentine émigré’s lack of clear identity. As signs, symbols, or types, Angora Matta and the other characters pass through each other’s lives like tango partners, engaging in a dance of meanings reduced to symbols, but rarely communicating with each other verbally.

I had some difficulty understanding the symbolic content of Savigliano’s libretto, especially in relationship to the first part of her book. Was she trying to move away from the materiality of language and translation, in order to explore postcolonial cultural exchange within the symbolic or ideal realm? Or was the libretto ironic? By now I was convinced that Savigliano was playfully teasing with me, inviting me to indulge in familiar, learned interpretive approaches, yet pulling the rug out from under my feet whenever I felt too comfortable or close to some kind of reading. As a postcolonial document this libretto was also deeply troubling. Its main character, Angora Matta, who I identified with Savigliano herself, thought of Argentina in romanticized, nostalgic ways, yet possessed no trace of her American or Angelino identity. Savigliano had admitted in Part I that bilingual postcolonial subjects retain something of both their identities/languages, yet here she had depicted the United States as a mere negation of Argentina, the void experienced outside the expressive, emotional, remembered center. Why, I wondered, had she reduced music to symbolic gestures, to a single verbal leitmotif and to the contested genre of the tango, which Argentine composers had used for almost a century to define their national identity, and which at so many times in its history had sparked intellectual debate because of its tendency to turn those very composers into self-colonizing victims of the modernist musical industry? Many composers and writers had fallen into this symbolic trap: Horacio Ferrar and Astor Piazzolla in their Maria de Buenos Aires, for one, and, earlier, Alejo Carpentier, who, in the 1930s, had represented national characters in his libretti through characteristic and symbolic dance rhythms. (Excerpt from Maria de Buenos Aires.) Is postmodern musical identity not much more complex than that, built on globalized trends, and hardly reducible anymore to national symbolic types?

Savigliano’s use of the tango, nocturnal encounters, one-night stands, and flirtation as metaphors for human relationships troubled me as well. “What about friendship and love?” I thought, perhaps naïvely. Aren’t there North-South conversations and developing relationships that go beyond the “gaze,” not only at night, but also in the light of day?

Detail from book cover

Clearly, I did not understand. Surely, this libretto was trying to tell me something meaningful about Argentina, especially given the dramatic historic photograph on the cover. But what? I felt left out, like a dysfunctional wallflower at one of Savigliano’s milongas (clubs or parties where tangos andmilongas are danced), seeking in vain to capture Argentina’s gaze, yet denied repeatedly the thrill of participating in the flirtation. Had Savigliano just reversed the North-South dynamic, deflecting my colonial gaze off her retina into the icy void of my decidedly unimperial Northern (as in “The Great White North,” in my case Canadian) soul? I wasn’t sure I was willing to accept that role. I paused, and turned to Part III for guidance.

Part III: The Controversial Evidence/Les Evidencias Controvertidas

Exhibits A, B, and C: Writings Attributed to Elvira Díaz, Manuela Malva, and Angora Matta.

The texts in Part III propelled me back into the land of academia, jarring me from my symbolic, magical fantasy back into the arduous reality of ethnographic study. Although “attributed” to Savigliano’s characters, these texts read like her. I found it impossible to read them “straight,” and realized with awe that Savigliano’s vision of how identities are constructed through the exchange of linguistic material had transformed my conceptual framework, even during the short time in which I had been reading her book. She had entered my system as an author, and so shifted my perceptions by her presence that I could no longer read academic texts in the same way. I had become a cynic, ready to doubt every colonial representation, and to question the author’s voice at every turn. Everything had become a symbol, a clue to the mystery of what Angora Matta might mean. Why, I asked, were these texts exclusively in English? Did that not reinforce a harmful stereotype, by which North Americans possess knowledge and critical abilities, whereas South Americas dance Tango and do other passionate things? I wished these texts were in Spanish. I was angry they were in English. 

I cannot review all the essays in this section, which are vast in their implications, so I will concentrate on the subject of this review essay: postcolonial identity. Savigliano’s character, Manuela Malva, addresses this topic beautifully in her critique of representations of Argentina in recent North American and European films (EvitaThe Tango Lesson, and Tango, no me dejes nunca). Here I thought I had found the key to Savigliano’s opera: she had tried there to invert stereotypical of Argentina in an almost surreal fashion. Her Argentine hero, Angora Matta, did not seduce Northerners like the protagonist of The Tango Lesson, but rather killed them, empowering herself through her knife, and even spurring the “authentic” Argentine tango dancer she meets and is supposed to love. Likewise, Matta’s tangos are conflicted and failed affairs, hardly moments of erotic encounter in which a Northern partner can mistake the fulfillment of his imperial desire for a union of equal partners. Savigliano had turned such crude representations on their head in her libretto. “That’ll show’em,” I thought. 

But troubling inconsistencies remained. These seemed to crystallize in “Elvira Díaz’s” essays, and especially around her interpretation of Julio Cortázar’s Las Puertas del Cielo (The Gates of Heaven). In this short story from 1951, Cortázar described a lawyer whose friend’s girlfriend, Celine, has just died. He decides to take his friend to a milonga, which he explores ethnographically as an outsider. At one point a moving tango is played, and both men are caught in a transcendent moment of remembering Celine, who appears to them as a ghost, or as the tango incarnate.

Savigliano relishes this text as an example of the standard ethnographic practices she so wishes to critique. I notice that her account and interpretation of it leaves out certain key facts, however, which makes me simultaneously realize that I am just about to critique her as her very own character did in Part I. She focuses her interpretation of the short story on the final moments, when both friends see Celine as ghost and engage in a common memory. Savigliano argues that this is a moment of “corporeal passion,” a mystical or transcendent state she has frequently invoked throughout her book. Later, she (disguised as her character Manuela) places music, and especially the voice, in this realm, arguing that, “the singing voice, a major feature of musicals, is dangerously powerful in that it appeals to emotions that provide synthetic judgments not readily available to critical ponderings” (203). The tango as dance likewise possesses supernatural powers to “transport the dead and the living into a common ground of nocturnal collapse” (163). It brings with it “a strange philosophy, where ultra physicality leads into a metaphysics of the corporeal” (162). Metaphysics? What is Savigliano saying? Has she not taught me in Part I that she does not believe in culture (as universal or transcendent ideas), and that only a physical act of translating language as material can be trusted in the contemporary world? Why then, again here, does she shift music, dance and relationships to a metaphysical realm, reserving the reality of corporeal materiality for the limited domain of the word/memory object?

The answer to all these questions lies in her interpretation of Celine’s ghost, which she believes returns as a body, or the body of tango, representing memories as physical entities that insert themselves into our lives. I now understand the central scene in her opera, when XYa remembers the history of Argentina in a trance. The physicality of memories as ghosts or incantations have the power to disrupt the exoticizing act of colonial spectatorship, Savigliano seems to be telling us (thereby confirming the thesis of her introduction and the illustration on the book’s jacket). Memories block our view like pillars in an opera house, frustrating our desire to indulgence in spectatorial fantasies about colonized others. 

But there are problems with Savigliano’s symbolic system, in which memories can achieve presence only by becoming objects against the metaphysical landscape of music and dance. Can it not all be reversed, with music as the corporeal presence that evokes memories as transcendent ideas? A ghost’s body is not material but rather an in-between state, I would argue, evoked in Cortázar’s story not by the tango movement but rather by its sung words, which his character do not dance but rather hear: “Faces were turned toward the stand and you could see them, even twirling, fixed on Anita bent intimately over the microphone…you were so much, you were so much mine,/and now I look around for you and cannot find/youYou were so much mine, weird how Anita’s voice cracked over the speakers, again the dancers (always moving) grew immobile…”(110-11).1  Cortázar describes a mediated, amplified song, the words of which move the emotions of his characters rather than their physical bodies, and evoke ideal and spontaneous rather than corporeal memories. His characters do not mystically engage with the passion of tango and its impenetrable song, but rather celebrate the words as they come through the microphone, an instrument for controlling sentiment. The corporeality of amplified sound seduces them into poetic reminiscence, immersing them in the nostalgic reverie so characteristic of tango culture. The ghosts they see remind me nothing of the Madres de Plaza de Maya, who “reappear with life” unaccompanied to music, using their very real bodies to fight the political amnesia of contemporary Argentina (165). They are, rather, gestic bodies evoked by the swaying rhythms, the fantasies Savigliano otherwise would want us to discard in favor of historical truth.

I now realize where Savigliano and I differ. Whereas she believes that identities, ideas, concepts, emotions, and sentiments can be summarized in symbols, signs and words, whose materiality she trusts, I resist such a reductive practice. Not every North-South exchange or memory is corporeal, reducible to a tango step, word, sign, or symbol. Translation as a metaphor polarizes her narrative, I decide, forcing her to squeeze identities into symbolic straight jackets (Argentina as tango, for example), think in elementary binarisms (by opposing the body of memory to the metaphysics of tango, for example), and subsequently combine her entities like leitmotifs in a Wagnerian opera. Surely the porous and malleable postcolonial subject needed to resist such rigid signifiers by recapturing its metaphysical content—the aspect of human subjectivity that Savigliano has so mystified in her text. We share not only our bodies and language with others, but also our minds, emotions, and (depending on our beliefs) souls. Music participates in the relationship of love or friendship rather than flirtation, enabling memory, rather than serving as its mystic backdrop. Yet the rigid materiality of Savigliano’s approach prevents access to these realms. Is this why Savigliano has labeled her North-South translations “fatal”?

Suddenly I realize that I have been duped. I have just defended universal truth, denied geographical specificity, and wallowed into the mire of the soul, thereby becoming the most primitive of Northern subjects, embracing the very notions I have spent my academic life fighting to reject. Has Savigliano done this to me on purpose, in order to reveal once and for all the futility of both aesthetic and postcolonial discourse?

I cannot answer that question, or many others. I am left in awe of Savigliano’s achievement. I turn the book over, open its cover, and start again. Maybe this time I will find a new path to follow, out of the stagnation of postcolonial theory and ethnography and into a possible new world.

Tamara Levitz
University of California, Los Angeles

Works Cited

Cortázar, Julio.“The Gates of Heaven.” In Blow-Up and Other Stories. Translated by Paul Blackburn. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967. 110-11.

Savigliano, Marta Eleana. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).

  1. Note the frivolous use of a translation (Savigliano has trained me well.)
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