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Tango for a Torturer Paperback – April 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A one-time Argentine revolutionary exacts an inventive revenge on the ex-military man who once did him a horrible wrong in this superior crime novel from Uruguayan author Charvarría (whose 2001's Adios Muchachos won an Edgar). While visiting Havana, Aldo Bianchi, now in his mid-50s and living in Italy, falls in love with Bini, a spectacularly beautiful, not particularly monogamous 27-year-old woman. In the midst of his efforts to talk her into marrying him, he discovers that the now retired Uruguayan military officer who tortured him and killed his girlfriend years earlier is living in Havana, enjoying a happy life under the false name Alberto Ríos. Intent upon seeing harsh justice done, Bianchi employs every trick he can, including Bini's personal charms, to lure Ríos into a complicated trap. The author, who lives in Havana, brings to his novel a superlative narrative sense, keen feel for human behavior in desperate situations and a deep understanding of the nature of dictatorships. Charvarría is as adept at comedy as he is at tragedy. (May)
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*Starred Review* Sultry, sensuous, mysterious Havana is the locale for this unusual political thriller. Argentine-born Italian businessman Aldo Bianchi meets Bini, a beautiful, headstrong Cuban hooker, and becomes a 55-year-old satyr. For Aldo, this is a stunning development, because as a young man, he and his girlfriend were tortured by "Triple O," an infamous torture specialist trained by the U.S. government; that horror affected his relations with women. Through Bini, Aldo learns that Triple O is living in Havana under an assumed name, and he launches a convoluted plothinging on a pair of two-toned Florsheim shoesto get his revenge. What makes this novel unusual is that it is by turns bawdy, funny, dark, cheerful, learned, and madcap, populated with memorable characters and filled with the sense that Havana is a must-see travel destination. Chavarria knows his subject, too: a revolutionary in South America in the 1960s, he fled to Cuba in 1969 and taught classical literature at the University of Havana. Devotees of Paco Taibo III will love Chavarria, as will readers who travel vicariously with the help of the burgeoning ranks of international crime novels. Gaughan, Thomas
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I wasn’t disappointed. The book, a dark political novel about an Argentinean expatriate businessman’s plot for revenge against the man who tortured him and killed his girlfriend on behalf of the military dictatorship set in the late 1990s in Cuba, weaves one hell of a tale.
It’s definitely a yarn with seriousness of purpose rather than high-minded literature. Chavarría may name-check Borges, Homer and Donald Westlake within a few pages, but his story shares much more DNA with the work of the latter than the former two. It’s a gritty novel of weaving conspiracies and people getting in touch with their basic instincts, where the protagonist may be out for revenge for the most understandable reasons possible but is still at least in part trying to cover up his own misdeeds and deal with the evil in his own soul. Though it ends on a surprising hopeful note, the world it exists in is one where morality is cheaply bought and sold, bad men prosper by working with other bad men and justice is assured to almost no one. Compelling and thought-provoking, and comic in a black way, but it’s a novel meant to be enjoyed rather than analyzed too closely.
There may have been something going on with the structure that went over my head (I was not a literature major of any kind), but it struck me as having some rough spots writing-wise. A lot of poorly executed info-dumping, a slow start and wherever Chavarría lost sight of the central plot thread of the battle between the vengeful Aldo Bianchi and the sadistic Orlando Ortega Ortiz it often dragged. If you’re a fan of tightly-conceived plots you’re going to scream – it turns on not one, but two truly incredible coincidences.
That being said, the book legitimately kept me guessing where it was going until the very last pages and offered some insight into life in Cuba in the later Castro years unfamiliar to me as someone who is not really a student of the country and into Afro-Cuban culture and religion in particular.
It also offered an intriguing take on Chavarría’s central broad theme: the psychology of the torturer and the tortured and the nature of cruelty. Triple-O is a thoroughly and unrepentantly repulsive character, with every bad quality one could be assigned and clearly intended to be a sociopath from his teen years – but we still get to spend enough time in his head with him thinking about his work to be chilled. He is not someone motivated by duty or country or anyone of what he would consider imbecile nonsense. He is someone who rejects a great deal of the moral trappings of modern society as essentially false, who believes cruelty is central to human nature and is willing to use whatever tools are at his disposal for his own gain. The fact that he was naturally a torturer and simply found a way to do so professionally was not quite as interesting a choice for me personally as it could have been, but he rings true enough as a character to be profoundly disturbing. The scars he left on Bianchi reveal themselves a little more slowly, but do speak to the devastating impact these horrors leave long after the physical harm is over and to the difficulty of trying to live with one’s self with these things in your past.
Very much worth a read.
Alberto Rios, a military torturer living the retired good life in Cuba is spotted by Aldo Bianchi, one of his former victims, who plots to frame him for a man's death. Helping him is his mistress, Bini, who's incredibly hot but also emotionally unstable.
It's set in Cuba, but Castro makes as much an appearance as George Bush would in my life. He's background noise. Instead, we're given the native's tour, of people scraping by from day to day, working at their jobs, making a little money on the side, staying out of trouble and taking time to live the good life when they can afford it.
But there's some political moments. Rios (aka Triple O) is a psychotic who made torturing political prisoners his career. Reading that he perfected his craft at Devil's Horn, Fla., and Fort Paramount, Ga., raises the point that the uses of persuasion (as Rios would put it) wasn't institutionalized by Bush, no matter what Seymour Hersh says.
Chavarria loves to take little side trips with the story. There's Dr. Azua, the defense attorney, a Cuban combination of Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe, who infallibly determines the guilt or innocence of his clients by laying hands on them. Then there's the homicide detective, Captain Bastidas, called in to investigate the hit-and-run death of a bicyclist in the rain. I can tell you much about his life, but he plays his role early on and doesn't show up again.
What would a New York editor make of this? Would she read the nine pages devoted to a surprise party for Aldo, or the 11 pages at the end describing another party, this time in prison, and suggest they'd be cut back? There's also plenty of backstory about Rios and his career as a torturer (or as he would tell himself, as an expert in the science of persuasion), about Bini's life, from a little girl to doing time in prison and her work as a mistress. Are all these details really necessary?
But I wouldn't cut a word. Maybe they do things different in another country. Perhaps it's the reader, trained to read books with tight plots, minimal digression, and endings that seem drawn more from genre fiction -- the biter biting, the worm turning, the fatal weakness lifting the lever of tragedy -- than from the concatenation of events. Whatever. Reading this takes you out of the country and into a very different but familiar world. It's a cool book.