Background to Tango in Madeira

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Tango in Madeira is above everything a comic novel and you should enjoy it for that reason and not because it will make you wiser or smarter. It has its origins in a holiday my wife and I took in Madeira in November 1999. On one of the island tours we stopped at Cabao Girão to admire the view from the sea cliff, and afterwards had a drink at the nearby café. It was there, on the wall, that I first saw a photograph of George Bernard Shaw learning to dance the tango with the wife of the manager of Reid’s Palace Hotel, when he spent a holiday there in the winter of 1924-25. It was so unexpected and bizarre that the image remained with me. Memory plays tricks but I think that, even from the first, I felt there was a story in how the picture came into existence; but at the time it was just a free-floating notion: not an idea for a book that I would write myself, and I was involved in other projects. Not least I was unfamiliar with both the period and the location, and no particular plot sprang to mind.

I returned to the idea in 2001 after completing The Argentinian Virgin, and I visited Madeira a second time specifically for the purpose of research. By then I was aware that the Emperor Karl of Austria-Hungary had been exiled there after the First World War, and that Agatha Christie had made a stopover while on a promotion tour for the British Empire Exhibition. The three visits – by Shaw, Karl and Agatha Christie – were not contemporaneous, but within a year or two of each other, and this seemed to me close enough to be immaterial unless one had a concern for historical accuracy, as one might when writing historical fiction. However, Tango in Madeira, isn’t “historical fiction” in the strict sense but a jeu d’esprit, combining elements of the mystery novel with comedy and one or two more serious themes.

The general tone and a certain orientation to the plot in the form of the three rootless survivors from the War, namely the Narrator, Pennyweight and Fairbrother, owe a lot to Graham Greene: specifically to his novel The Comedians. The atmosphere of Madeira as invented by me is a deliberate voyage to “Greeneland”, and the mix of comic and religious themes is again a feature of Greene’s writing. It would be reasonable to consider the book an homage to Greene, though that doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s good or successful.

The Shavian element owes nothing to Greene, but the fact that the novel alludes very explicitly to Shaw and clearly if less explicitly to Graham Greene reflects the same feature of my writing, namely an interest in parody and pastiche. I started down this road in Recherché, with its allusions to and parodies of Proust, Wilde and Pasternak, and in The Strange Death of a Romantic I threw caution to the winds and tackled A E Housman, Byron, Just William, Noel Coward and others. The Shaw correspondence and the play are further explorations in this direction and also reflect my desire that each of my novels should have a specific narrative voice appropriate to its subject and that dialogue should be individualised to the degree that if one were to read only a paragraph, it would be possible to know which character spoke it.

The characters are my own invention but influenced by other sources. The narrator owes something to Greene. Father Flaherty owes a little to Shaw. I tried out Pennyweight under a different name in a cameo role in The Strange Death of a Romantic.

The theme of tango and of dancing generally has become as prominent in my writing since The Argentinian Virgin. My wife and I are avid social dancers and have experienced the intense transformative effect of dancing. Writers are always on the lookout for interesting takes on subjects such as sex and relationships where there’s a serious risk of lapsing stale conventions. Dancing seems to me to be a distinctive trope that can be used to give freshness and drama to these subjects.

In the end, of course, there’s never an entire explanation for the existence of any book. Authors write them in order to discover as well as to describe what’s already there. The result – certainly in this case – is that there are emergent themes that form no part of the original design of the book; and for the same reason – that writing is a process of discovery – the themes may be incoherent in their formulation and lead to no clear conclusion. But this is OK. We’re dealing with literature not science or philosophy. The reader can revise the questions and figure out the answers using the book as nothing more than a prompt.

If the various ideas pursued in the present novel were summarised, I fancy they wouldn’t appear intellectually complex or especially profound, but I suggest it’s a mistake to look for such complexity or profundity. Themes and motifs in novels often work in a way more akin to music and move us (if at all) emotionally rather than intellectually. They shouldn’t be understood as arguments about ideas, but as part of the narrative rhythm of the novel, a layer of substructure that develops along with the surface plot and lends the story some depth and satisfaction.

With this background in mind, you may want to read my thoughts on some of the themes in the novel: specifically Lost Empires, Relationships and Identity, and Religion and Morality, bearing in mind that any analysis tends to make a book appear serious, which isn’t the case here. Tango in Madeira remains a comic novel. It should make you laugh. Nothing much else matters.

I hope these few notes help you enjoy Tango in Madeira – always assuming you care to read it.

If you would like to read a sample, click here

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