“In my father’s world it’s a wise child that knows its own mother,” says the Narrator. He has no memory of her, nor any photograph, nor does he give us a name. For a period during his father’s infamous Grand Tour, he has a substitute, but for all he truly knows she might be his real mother. He doesn’t know if his parents were married.
This state of affairs is characteristic of the Pinfold family, who scatter their seed wherever they go. Senhor Pereira may be the Narrator’s uncle, cousin or brother. The same might be said about Teddy, the Goanese servant and companion to Pinfold snr. The Narrator has a child by Margaret, but that child is treated as the son of Johnny Cardozo. He chases married women: Margaret and the wife of Pouco Pedro being only the latest.
As with other themes in the novel, this one comes in two versions because the Narrator’s relationships are reflected in the amorous history of George Bernard Shaw as described in his correspondence. Shaw’s parents lived in a ménage à trios with Vandaleur Lee, the singing master, which mirrors the relationship of Margaret, Jonny Cardozo and the Narrator. It was Shaw’s practice to insert himself as a companionable adjunct to other people’s marriages; so the commentary on this subject in his letters is also a comment on the Narrator’s affairs.
This uncertainty over relationships is an aspect of the Narrator’s general rootlessness and fluid morality, and a specific manifestation of a more general confusion of identity that troubles most of the characters.
- The parentage of Senhor Pereira and Teddy isn’t known.
- Johnny Cardozo is Portuguese but sees himself as English. The same might be said of the wine merchant, Arthur Mainwaring. Johnny is a good man or a torturer.
- Shaw passes by the name of Sonny and never openly admits to his identity.
- Agatha Christie is mis-identified variously as an author of children’s stories, women’s books, or a guide to the Faroe Islands.
- Father Flaherty is a Fenian and publican, reluctantly “shanghaied” into the service of the Lord.
- Pouco Pedro is a petty journalist and aspirant gentlemen scholar
- Fairbrother is a fraudster behind the façade of a bumbling dealer in wine.
- Charlie at first passes himself off as the gardener.
- Allusion is made to the imposters who claim to be the Tsarevitch.
- Pinfold snr is at times a singer or a magician, and quite likely a jailbird if that is how we understand his Grand Tour. Finally he finds himself with an identity he doesn’t want: the proprietor of a failing wine business.
Of course disguised identities are a common contrivance of murder mysteries, but they are usually limited to one or two instances; they arise from the demands of the plot, and are normally the result of a conscious deceit. However that isn’t generally the case in the present novel, where confusion of identity is systemic and existential. The “real” identity of characters such as the Narrator, his father, Teddy and Johnny Cardozo, in the sense of their true nature, simply isn’t clear or fixed.
This is especially true of the dead man, Robinson. Although he is an individual, he is one of legion. As the Narrator says, “Robinsons seemed to have no other function than to make up humanity’s numbers.” Whenever his name crops up in conversation, the speaker makes reference to a Robinson he or she once knew, with the implication that the corpse might possibly be that person: not a pilot and war hero but, for example, a professional co-respondent in divorce cases. Even Pennyweight, who knew Robinson, is easily convinced by the nonsense in Pouco Pedro’s newspaper account that “the Captain” could have had a secret identity as a naval officer and spy. In the end Pennyweight is completely deceived as to Robinson, because “the Captain” proves not to be the chum that the fat man placed his faith in.
Only two major characters are always true to themselves and secure in who they are, namely Margaret and Pennyweight. The Narrator never supposes that Margaret is anything but ultimately faithful to her husband, and she is single-minded in pursuing her goal to have a child. And Pennyweight never deviates from his character as a “Holy Fool” which the Narrator recognises as at the heart of his “tremendousness”.
I suggest that it’s the Narrator’s existential confusion that lies behind his moral feebleness. How can he behave morally if he doesn’t know who he is? From his point of view, the events in the novel are the working out of his struggle to find an identity he can live with, and in the end that’s what he achieves, though he does it in a typically dubious and fraudulent way. The Narrator and Robinson are both aspects of the same person: both victims broken by the War and living a wounded existence. In the denouement, the Narrator in effect unites them: joining his fate and identity to Robinson’s by his marriage to Elizabeth; making one whole person out of two. It’s the best he can do.
So, is this a comic existentialist novel? Crikey !
I hope these few notes help you enjoy Tango in Madeira – always assuming you care to read it.
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