Lost Empires in Tango in Madeira

Tango in Madeira is pervaded by the theme of Empire. It was no part of my original conception: rather it grew from the bare fact that Karl von Hapsburg is an emperor in exile and an inescapable part of the plot, and that the action takes place shortly after the end of World War One, which had the fall of the great European empires as its most distinctive outcome, and the Narrator is a casualty of that fall. There is also something in the setting of Madeira, which at the date in question had a quasi-colonial status.

In plotting terms there are three parallel tales of empire. The first and most overt is the fate of the Emperor Karl, but this is provided in a second version through Shaw’s comic play; and his character, “Charlie”, is in truth more real to the reader than the shadowy Karl hidden away in Monte. The third version is a parody of empire. The Narrator’s father, the former light tenor and stage magician, is in exile from the music hall “Empires” of his youth (inspired by J B Priestley’s excellent Lost Empires), and the failing Pinfold wine business is a form of empire to which the Narrator is heir, so that he is a counterpart to Karl/Charlie.

The same theme is echoed in smaller details. Mrs. Christie is travelling in support of the British Empire Exhibition. The attitudes and speech of the British characters in Madeira reflect an assumed imperial superiority over the Portuguese and servants such as Teddy. And, not least, the inscription on the gravestone of young Michael Cardew is: “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

The essence of the Empires in Tango in Madeira is that they are failing or have failed. They belong to the past and those who are bound to them or who seek to inherit them, are doomed. The Narrator senses this, and all his efforts in Madeira are directed at freeing himself from his inheritance. Does he succeed? The answer isn’t clear. He finds a new love and marries, but at the conclusion it seems he has returned to Madeira, though we don’t know why or on what basis. Johnny Cardozo, on the other hand, wants to escape Madeira, but only to embrace the British Empire and become an archetypal Englishman. In this he succeeds, but all to no purpose, because he leaves no heir: his son, Michael Cardew, is killed in the next war. The invitation to “inherit the kingdom” is ironic. Of all the characters whose fates are tied to empires, probably the most successful in escaping their baleful influence is Charlie, the Emperor within Shaw’s play. The politics of his old empire destroy him and he is killed, but he achieves a degree of spiritual freedom in the love of his wife and we can see this in his denunciation of his coronation oaths and thorough exposure of the absurdity of his empire.

What does it all mean? I can’t give a complete answer because the theme of Empire emerged gradually and blindly from the process of writing, and only when the book was finished and at some distance could I recognise the extent of its use and try to interpret it. Most obviously Empires stand for the failures of the past and hopeless aspirations for the future, and the curse of being tied by either. In my note on Background I make a suggestion as to how themes like this one should be read.

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

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