Thursday, 12 January 2012

You Know When You've Been Tango'd: Kapka Kassabova's Twelve Minutes of Love...

And now for something a little different. Kapka Kassabova is a Bulgarian born poet, travel writer and novelist who has traversed the globe before settling, for the moment, in Edinburgh. I first read her fiction in The Year of Open Doors, where her short story The Hostel in Junction Street is one of the highlights, and then discovered her beautiful poem 'You Are Never Consoled' in the second edition of Gutter Magazine. More recently she featured in one of this year's Christmas presents; The Atheist's Guide to Christmas.

Her latest book is Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story and it is ostensibly a personal memoir setting out how a love affair with tango not only changed her life but perhaps saved it, as she travels across continents to pursue her passion and to embrace new partners and old. If you want a copy then you may find it, as I did, in the dance section of your local bookstore. I suppose it is about dance, but Twelve Minutes of Love is so much more.

It is as much about the human condition; all life, love, death and tango is here. Like the dance itself the book is philosophical, psychological, physical, lyrical, spiritual and gives up something new every time you return. In the prelude there is the claim that tango '...sums up, more concisely than any epic poem or philosophical tract, the mystery of passionate love'. You may be initially sceptical about this, but by the end you are left in no doubt that, at least for the writer and those she partners, this is true. We are introduced to a deeply unhappy Kassabova in New Zealand where she appears to be having an existential crisis and as such is ripe to be effected by her initial tango experience in the near empty bar where she witnesses an older couple dance. From that moment she, and we, are hooked.

The book is beautifully written, but it is the searing honesty that is the most striking aspect of Twelve Minutes of Love. I've no idea if names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty, and who really cares, but Kassabova manages to see faults on both sides when a relationship, whether dance, personal or both, fails. She is as hard and harsh on her own faults as on anyone else, perhaps more so. This honesty can make for uncomfortable reading at times, as if you are intruding on personal grief, but this never becomes self pitying. Rather there is a melancholy which underpins the book just as it does tango itself. There is a quote from a 1940's song which claims: 'Tango smells of life, Tango tastes of death', and both life and death come in many guises. The end of every dance is its own 'petit mort'. The knowledge that love, and life, must die underpins not only tango, but arguably all art.

Kassabova poses fascinating questions about the nature of obsession. Are we likely to become obsessed when every thing is going well in our lives? It seems unlikely. Consider your own obsession, whatever that may be, and ask yourself what it gives you, or what need it fills. A recurring refrain throughout the book is that tango is not about sex, to the extent that you have to ask if the lady doth protest too much, and the lady is completely aware of this. Sex, or at least sexuality, runs through Twelve Minutes of Love like a suggestive sentence through a stick of rock. As soon as someone says 'this is not about sex' then they have you thinking about it. This made me question why any one becomes 'obsessed' in this manner. Is any obsession as selfish as it may appear? If you believe Freud (and the tango is a Freudian's dream) that everything we do or say is about sex, then at least those who dance the tango are more up front about it than most.

I'm never going to be able to fully convey the complexities of the tango, and of the book, in this review. Hopefully you'll be interested enough to find out for yourself, but by placing the dance in a social/political and near global context Kassabova has managed to make it relevant and recognisable to everyone who has ever obsessed. So that's everyone with a soul. The end of the book sees the writer in Edinburgh still dancing, but more content than 10 years previously. Perhaps what Twelve Minutes of Love teaches us is that in the end we want someone who, if they do not share our obsessions, at least understands them. We all dance some form of tango. The only thing to do is decide who you dance for and who you dance with.

This is a quite beautiful animation by artist Em Cooper which was created as a response to Twelve Minutes of Love, and I'm told that the female dancer is Laura Julia De Altube, an Argentinian tango dancer. That's just for those of you who care about such things:



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