On most occasions the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover holds true, but with the latest offering from literary maverick Russell Hoban the cover picture does a pretty good job of summing it up. That’s a difficult admission for a critic to make – let’s not forget that I’d be out of a job if books could be judged by their covers alone – but for once the novel’s artist has done much of our critical summarising in advance.
Centre stage is given to a depiction of Barbara Strozzi herself, the seventeenth century Venetian singer and composer of the book’s title, but surrounding her is the paraphernalia of Hoban’s story. There are glass eyes, a baseball bat, the HMS Victory, an astrological constellation and a 24-hour pizza restaurant. And, of course, the basic steps to learn the tango.
My Tango With Barbara Strozzi is ostensibly a love story, although it often feels more like a study in postmodern realities and the nature of fiction. Phil Ockerman is an American novelist living in London; short of stature and inclined to fits of whimsy, he has recently been divorced by his wife Mimi after his repeated failure to write an exciting novel. His most recent work, Hope Of A Tree, is nicely written but boring.
The novel opens with Ockerman obsessing about Barbara Strozzi, when by chance he meets Bertha Strunk at a tango lesson in Clerkenwell and is immediately struck by her similarity to the classical composer. As they begin to see each other outside of the classes he starts to call her Barbara, and as their relationship develops Hoban unravels both their lives at an impressive rate of knots.
Bertha/Barbara has occasionally acted as an artist’s model, and had a brief love affair with a painter called Brian; a fight between the two of them led to Brian losing an eye, and Bertha/Barbara gaining a career painting artificial eyeballs. She also suffered a failed marriage to a bouncer called Troy, who used to beat her behind closed doors, and he occasionally still assaults her when their paths cross. Ockerman is the unlikely hero who sets out to save her, or at least to share her sorrow.
In the hands of most other writers these elaborate interconnecting stories might seem contrived and unnatural, but Hoban’s greatest gift is the ability to create the illusion of reality. Ockerman’s experience is so closely entwined with Hoban’s own that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins. We know from the book’s acknowledgements that the trip to HMS Victory was made by Hoban himself, but was there really a Bertha/Barbara Strunk? And if there was, did she really paint artificial eyes?
Reading My Tango With Barbara Strozzi is sometimes a confusing experience. Like the modern penchant for wobbly handheld cameras in movie blockbusters, the illusion of reality comes at a price, and the intricate network of characters and anecdotes can sometimes obscure as much as it reveals. Just as the camerawork in The Bourne Ultimatum left some audiences feeling queasy and off-balance, so My Tango With Barbara Strozzi will leave some of you disorientated and muddled.
From what appears to be a slim, simple story, however, Hoban weaves a complex fictional web that accurately echoes the intricacies of real life. His greatest trick is pulling this off with dexterity and wit, proving yet again that he’s one of modern literature’s true mavericks. He may share some surface similarities with his hero – but, unlike Phil Ockerman, Russell Hoban will never be boring.