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A tango in two worlds

Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance; A Novel; Lloyd Jones; Dial Press: 278 pp., $12 paper

October 11, 2008|Martin Rubin | Special to The Times

A CENTURY ago, Katherine Mansfield was beginning a distinguished literary career that would lead to her becoming New Zealand's best-known literary figure. By the time she died in her mid-30s in 1923, her stories had captured her nation's life in luminous, evocative prose. But Mansfield wrote these stories in Europe, for she had left her native land as a young woman, eager to escape what she saw as a parochial backwater. It took distance and homesickness for a place she was never to see again to so artfully bring alive the particular texture of that antipodean world.

In many ways, Lloyd Jones is the opposite of Mansfield. Born and bred in New Zealand, he makes his home in its capital city of Wellington, but when it comes to subject matter, the world is truly his oyster. He is the least parochial of writers, as readers may know from his novel "Mister Pip," which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize and which, in my opinion, should have won. A short but intense and probing account of two very different cultures interacting fruitfully on a ravaged island, that novel demonstrated the value of true multiculturalism.

In "Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance" -- a very long title for another admirably compact novel -- Jones once again shows us cross-cultural pollination, this time at home in New Zealand and halfway across the world in Argentina. Written several years before "Mister Pip" and published in New Zealand in 2001, this book is at least as accomplished and shows the author able to work on a broader canvas.

The plot is more complicated than that of "Mister Pip" and ranges back and forth over many decades. There are many disparate characters, yet by novel's end so many connections have been revealed, so many links explored, that these people seem to be all part of one far-flung family. The layered story of how a couple of New Zealanders came to Argentina in the aftermath of World War I and how decades later, Rosa, the grandchild of one of them, makes the return journey to live in Wellington is a tale as moving as it is complex. But it's not just ancestry that exerts its capacity to draw characters in, affinity -- indefinable but somehow definite -- works its magic here too:

"This was new air I was breathing. Much of my life up to then involved a world I had known in advance of actually experiencing it. School. University. Sports. Drunkenness. I put a tick in each box as I came to it. Rosa represented a different kind of eddy. She was foreign and an entirely unexpected element in my life."

When cultures interact in Jones' world, the result is positive: illumination, extending horizons, a palpable sense of benefits conferred.

The eponymous dance is the tango, and its rhythms and symbolism serve as a leitmotif. In an interesting twist typical of an author who seldom serves up the expected, it is the tango that draws Schmidt, the English piano tuner with the German name, to Argentina rather than something he experiences only when he gets there. In sad, grim wartime New Zealand, he had already taught a local girl, Louise, the dance that will keep them together through their decades-long illicit affair in postwar Buenos Aires:

"The piano tuner directed her with a series of feints and light shoves. They danced around the room, and then when the song he hummed in her ear showed signs of petering out he would dash back to play a few more bars, rekindle his memory, then return to her with the retrieved melody. Back and forth he went between the piano and her. He played up his forgetfulness and she laughed. They danced and danced until the late afternoon shadows spread over the lawn outside."

Rekindling memory occurs again and again in this novel. So does the tango, so good at kindling desire or substituting for it or sublimating it. Jones is adept too at summoning up diverse locales: An isolated cave on New Zealand's coast where four lost souls hide from the world, the mob and the law. A lively, trendy restaurant in contemporary Wellington, bringing a taste of the exotic to a still-stodgy town. Dance halls and cafes in bustling Buenos Aires. Jones' rejection of isolationism and imaginative embrace of so much that the world has to offer make him a literary figure to watch.

--

Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

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