Long After Midnight at the Nino Bien
Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui's Missteps in Argentina by Brian Winter (PublicAffairs 2008).
The elegant streets of Paris. The cable cars of San Francisco. The futuristic electronics of Japan.
Every one is a travel cliché: musty, unchallenging, rote.
But clichés can be useful, as illustrated by reporter Brian Winter in his new book Long After Midnight at the Niño Bien: A Yanqui’s Missteps in Argentina.
Winter’s book is a memoir of his fours years as a cub reporter from Texas covering the Argentine financial meltdown of the early 2000s. While writing the book, Winter could have organized his story around any of several themes. He could have focused on Argentina’s consistently useless government, his personal fish-out-of-water story, the country’s renowned beef, the class-driven rivalry between the Boca and River football clubs, or the political telenovela of Juan and Evita Perón.
Instead, Winter choose the biggest Argentina cliché of all: the tango.
As Winter describes it, he moved to the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires at the turn of the millennium with $2,000 and a vague goal of working as a reporter. But journalism jobs were scarce, and Winter filled his days with lonely, low-cost activities such as riding the city buses for hours at a time. Finally, out of desperation, he called the father of a friend and was invited to an evening at the Niño Bien.
The titular Niño Bien, it turned out, was a milonga, a dance hall specializing in tango. The lords of the dance were a group of older gentlemen, known only by nicknames such as El Tigre and El Dandy, who spent their nights drinking, gossiping and dancing. Their mastery of the tango earned them the respect of everyone in the milonga, including, it was not lost on our unmarried author, attractive young women.
Thus began the author’s journey into the world of the tango, and thus begins a book which can be described with a phrase like “thus began the author’s journey into the world of the tango.” While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy or honesty of Winter’s account, the tango theme of Long After Midnight . . . . feels contrived, less the lynchpin of the author’s expat experience than a pre-digested formula designed to sell books to an unadventurous American public.
More’s the pity, since Winter is, from the evidence on the page, an excellent reporter. He reconstructs the mysterious origins of the tango from ragged primary sources. He has a feel for the sensibility of Buenos Aires, the way its residents simultaneously have huge egos and an inferiority complex. And, after landing a job with Reuters, he followed every twist of the Argentine economic crisis, although few of the details made it into the book.
The tango cliché serves its purpose. For Americans unaccustomed to reading about other nations, the romance of the dance may open a few minds. Better yet, Winter’s sympathetic story may coax a few Americans into spending their next vacation in B.A. instead of Branson.
But, to an internationally atuned reader, the book will read like a better-than-average “one year in _____” tome, held together by an artificial and arbitrary spindle which limits its reach. Repeatedly throughout Long After Midnight . . . ., Winter begins to discuss an interesting aspect of Argentine life only to force the narrative back to the subject of tango. It’s like building a book around the Venice gondoliers or an attempt on Everest. No matter how well researched or written, you feel that there’s more to the place, something new and unexpected that could have been explored but for the requirement of always having to return to a market-friendly theme, in this case tango.
The travel cliché, having enticed the reader into the parlor, becomes a poor host by dictating the limits of the conversation.