Jorge Enrique Adoum

03. Gardel and nostalgia

he portal which runs opposite Parque Montalvo of Ambato along Sucre street leads, with a stair, into Castillo street. Each time I arrive at that corner I remember when I was about to take a step to go down the portal, on 24 June 1935, my elder brother told me: «Carlitos is dead». At that moment I was looking, from my smallness, the building where today is placed la Gobernación and which was occupied by the mail service. Each time I see it I remember the news in my brother's voice. (Fortunately, he was who told me, because he was also named Carlos; but, at that moment, Carlitos was, evidently, Gardel: only later, much later, he had an illustrious namesake, when we came to know that in such a way the touching and absent-minded vagabond personified by Chaplin was called in Spanish). And, as if it were a family mourning, he did not have the courage to tell the bad news to my mother, who was celebrating her birthday on that day. I still can see her on that night, distressed (weeping was her second tongue): «Carlitos is dead», she told me. It hurt me again, but I did not despair, because I knew it was Gardel, not Carlos.

I guess he got to know about it through somebody's radio, because we were poor. (For example, I knew the negro Joe Louis had defeated the Aryan Max Schmeling -what made me win a bet- the day after the match, before going to school, thanks to a guambrita in whose house surely there was a wireless). And what I asked myself even today is how much we knew him and loved him, we kids of nine years old, in a city which was not placed in Argentina and which was not even the capital of a country. Of course, there were his recordings, but we were poor. Even if making an effort, It turns out impossible for me to remember what we had heard, and with no one to ask what that would have meant, but guessing a sort of sin, that of cabaré from where a woman was goint out in the wee small hours of the morning «sola, fané, descangayada»; misunderstanding the «rumores de milonga» as «de mi longa» and «la cuenta del otario» as belonging to the «notario», devoted to dark money affairs, whose license plate we saw everyday when passing along the doorway of his office. (I doubt that somebody then —even less my mother and other house-wives who hummed his songs— had undestood something of that percanta who amuró (forsook) him leaving the cotorro (love nest) and for whom he, when le tocó hocicar (he happened to be humiliated), se encurdelaba en el bulín (was getting drunk in his room). I rather arrive to the conclusion that Gardel was, in one way or another, present in the city, and those of my age admired him, even without knowing him, almost as it happened to us with Sandokan. I mean he was not a man then but a legend, and that since then he was, rather than a saint, a little god, with altar and everything: that horrible statue in the Buenos Aires cemetery, who always has fresh flowers and among whose fingers they say there is always a lit cigarette).

There were also his movies. At the Teatro Viteri, the public was following with respect his deliciously pretentious performance (we realized that when we reached maturity and also that mostly the scriptwriter was to blame for making him recite pseudo-poetic lines, especially in Tango Bar and El día que me quieras), and when the Mago (magician) finished his song, a thundering applause burst, so obstinate that the operator turned on the theater lights (and we saw, among the grown-ups, that some of them had wept with “Sus ojos se cerraron”) and rewound the film to be projected each song once again. (That of Mago comes from a cinema in Montevideo where El tango en Broadway was projected. After a bacchanal of the night before, with nocturnal corpses lying in couples on the ground, Carlitos —silk gown and hair gel— opened a window towards the city of New York at sunrise. Somebody from the audience then shouted: «Bravo Mago, not even when sleeping you ruin your hairdo». It was also in Montevideo where Cortázar heard in the street, about a Gardel movie, this dialogue: «Let's go to the movies.» «What can we see?» «One of the Mudo's» [dumb]).

When a teenager, I found that on the radios in Chile were broadcasted more tangos by Gardel than on those of Argentina, and their number was even greater in those of Medellín, touched, as in a contrition act, feeling as the city unjustly guilty of his fate.

That is to say that all, sooner or later, become adepts of that religion, more intolerant than the fanatics of any other, with the reprobates who did not understand Gardel (better saying, they did not understand us) or those who did not like him: in Europe I had to refrain from answering back someone who told me that «he seems to be Tino Rossi»; and Osvaldo Soriano —profession: novelist and Gardelian— got angry with anyone who talked while we were listening to a record of his immortal compatriot and when we arrived at “Siga el corso”, in a whisper, as in communion, he said: «Listen, che, listen: no one in the world can say like him "Decime a dónde vas, decime quién sos vos" [Tell me where you are going, tell me who you are].»

Many times we have wondered what is the reason of his growing and lasting glory: It is not enough to say that it is his voice, because voices more beautiful than his (and just by thinking that there may be, I'm sure of arousing the anger of others like me) used to die down soon after their owners (Does anyone imagine that after Frank Sinatra's death somebody will remember that one day he was called The Voice?). Maybe it is because he gave to the lament, inevitable in our continental melodrama, a male voice and attitude: identified with him, it was not shameful that a woman «betrayed» him because «all them, my friend, pay you badly» and even we could remind her of «her felony and her cruelty», acknowledging, of course, as our own merit «the value which represents the courage of loving».

Gardel always sang the nostalgia in which we are somewhat professionals: not only that of lost love but also that of much humbler things: the wall, the suburb, the street light, the echo of the echo of a voice: everything which gets into that «old time that I cry for», in those «twenty five Aprils which will not come back». But when the dictatorships, particularly those in the south, blew Latin Americans all over the world, he turned out the prophet of a greater nostalgia, which grew with his songs of “Anclao en París”: they reminded us, to the many, exiled or not, we were so far, that “Lejana tierra mía”, loved in spite of anything, and made each one think: «con las alas plegadas también yo he de volver» (with my folded wings I will also return), although no one knew exactly when.

In spite of the years of performing in Paris, only the Americanists know about him there, thank to the Latin Americans who around the 70s Fate took to France (is Fate the dictators´ stubborn blindness?). For reasons easy to understand, they are much more acquainted with Astor Piazzolla. The movie Tangos, el exilio de Gardel, by Fernando Solanas, made him be in vogue, maybe because it comprised, from the title, what I have just said. (The French then repeated, proudly, because they had learnt from us, that he was born in Toulouse in 1890 and that he was called, after his mother, Gardés). And there, nobody can either explain this massive and re-started devotion, as if each day were his funeral —only equaled by that of «the unique», the Egytian Um Khalzoum—, because (and it is known that what is French is the pattern for all things) «that has not even happened with Edith Piaf».

I always found odd that some singers dared to interpret Gardel´s tangos: everybody lose in the involuntarily established comparison. In the case of women is worse, including Susana Rinaldi: due to a stubborn misogyny, («de las mujeres mejor no hay que hablar» —of women we´d better not talk of—), in his country and in ours, at his time and at ours, it is not enough to change the pronouns and the gender of adjectives (it would be useless, for example, to say «que una mujer hembra no debe llorar» —that a female woman does not have to weep—). Because in his songs —maybe with the sole exception of “Volvió una noche” («había en su frente tantos inviernos/que también ella tuvo piedad» —there were so many winters on her forehead/that she also had compassion—)— he is always witness and accuser of the decline which age (sometimes also vice) causes in a woman («aquel espectro que fue locura en mi juventud» —that specter which drove me crazy in my youth—), a blame from which is exempted the male, unharmed, as it seems to be, after the passing of time.

But neither anything of the abovementioned, nor all that together, explains his permanence in our memory and in our devotion, his Latin American universality. It is, we have to believe, that magic by which all in him was, although contradictory, convincing: a gentle malevo, a misogynist in love, a gaucho dressed in silk, with spurs and without horse. And who had all the heroe´s attributes: an uncertain origin, the unraveled biography (in spite of Hugo del Carril´s movie and some books around there), the secret intimate life, that violent and unfair death, full of morals about the inevitableness of destiny and with suicides of women who burnt themselves to die like him... And if it is, as it seems, unavoidable to say, a very commonplace, that he is singing better each day, we can guess that it implies, according to a elementary logic, the illusion with which one gets ready to listen to him the day after tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Jorge Enrique Adoum: Poet, essay writer and novelist, was born in Ambato in the year 1926. In 1949 he published his first book of poetry, Ecuador Amargo, to which followed Los cuadernos de la tierra: los orígenes, el enemigo y la montaña (1952); Dios trajo la sombra" (1960), and No son todos los que están (1979). In his theater production stand out El sol bajo las patas de los caballos and La subida a los infiernos. His novel Entre Marx y una mujer desnuda (1976) is considered as an exceptional American novel and has more than four re-issues either in Mexico or in Ecuador. Adoun was awarded the Premio Nacional Eugenio Espejo 1989.