Every six months or so the friends I made when I was training for my profession meet up, which we did yesterday. They were remarkably good natured as the question “how are you?”, when directed towards me, was met with a wail of despair and a twenty minute garbled monologue about how difficult I was finding things. Safe to say I’ve never really mastered the British stoic reticence thing.
My ongoing crisis aside, time spent with my lovely, indulgent friends prompted me to look this week at novels that focus on a profession. Firstly, The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall (2004, Faber & Faber), which is about a tattoo artist. Undoubtedly this is a growth industry, certainly in the UK which is the most tattooed nation in Europe: one-fifth of adults have a tattoo, rising to almost one-third of those under 45. That’s a lot of ink.
I recently wrote about Hall’s first novel Haweswater, which I loved. I didn’t feel The Electric Michelangelo, her second novel, was as accomplished as her first, but it was still strong. It follows tattooist Cy Parks from an adolescent apprenticeship with the alcoholic Eliot Riley in his hometown of Morecambe Bay to a career in carnivalesque Coney Island and back again. Growing up in early twentieth-century Morecombe, Cy’s formidable mother Reeda runs a hotel for consumptives:
“They sucked it down in between their fits and held it inside their lungs like opium smokers in a den…Morecombe’s air was renowned, if not nationwide then reliably in the north, for its restorative properties, its tonic qualities. That was how everyone described it…”
Cy is fairly directionless until his artistic skills catch the eye of Eliot Riley, a man who “lived as if trying to siphon out that darker portion [of life], with alcohol, with banter, with bad habits, bad politics, bad language, obloquy, anguish and despair.” Riley offers Cy an apprenticeship, and for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, Cy accepts. “Tattooing was like being called by a siren song, or the music of the spheres, impossible to resist, impossible to explain.”
We are drawn into the world of tattooing alongside Cy “a dreamscape type of world, where strange occurrences and dark-wrought ideas, if not normal, were almost commonplace.” Hall is clearly respectful of this ancient trade and its rituals and rites: what the tattooists enact and what the customers endure.
“Riley paused for whisky. After ten more minutes the customer stood wearing art. The snake and dagger flexed on his back, weeping a little as he bent for his shirt. The man had added to his body in a way that was brave and timeless and beyond adornment.”
After his apprenticeship ends, Cy moves across the Atlantic to Coney island, where he falls in love with circus performer Grace, who employs him to tattoo her entire body with eyes.
“the eye was in a league of its own. It had meaning upon meaning, there were currents writhing under currents where that symbol was concerned, like the sea. He had the distinct impression that Grace possessed a fast-flowing undertow also, a restlessness behind her own dark eyes.”
Image from here
Like the other relationships in Cy’s life, his romance with Grace is characterised by the unknown and the unsaid. The man who works in images finds spoken language inadequate and lacking, unable to express pain, desire and love in the way his needle can. Sarah Hall certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of eloquence, but despite this, I came away feeling The Electric Michelangelo didn’t quite add up to an entirely satisfying whole. However, she is such a hugely talented writer that this barely matters. The Electric Michelangelo is a beautifully written character study of Cy and of a profession.
Secondly, The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez(tr. Anne McLean, Bloomsbury 2006), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It was Sarah from Hard Book Habit who made me aware of this novel so a big thank you to Sarah 🙂
The Tango Singer is narrated by Bruno Cadogan, a student who is writing his thesis on Borges and the origins of tango. He travels to Buenos Aires to track down Julio Martel, the titular legend whose voice has never been recorded but is unforgettable to those lucky enough to catch one of his impromptu performances around the city:
“I was floating in mid-air, and when the voice fell silent, I didn’t know how to detach myself from it, how to get back to earth…the Martel experience is like another dimension, almost supernatural.”
Cadogan’s search for Martel becomes entwined with the city and its history, ultimately indivisible: “the grass that grows over this field of music and lyrics is the wild, rugged, invincible grass of Buenos Aires, the scent of weeds and alfalfa.” Buenos Aires is a city in a constant state of flux: politically, linguistically, architecturally, geographically:
“Every time I looked up I discovered baroque palaces and cupolas in the shape of parasols and melons, with purely ornamental turrets. I was surprised that Buenos Aires was so majestic from the second or third storey upwards and so dilapidated at street level, as if the splendour of the past had remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear.”
“the language of Buenos Aires shifted so quickly that the words appeared first and then reality arrived, and the words carried on when reality had already left.”
This layering is a theme throughout the novel. Martinez is interested in how reality is formed of the past as well as the present, the unknown as well as the known. It is a beautifully evocative portrait of a city and explores big themes around politics, memory, loss, time and truth in an extraordinarily short novel (243 pages in my edition) which cannot be read quickly. It is also a highly literary novel, peppered with allusions and quotes. Bruno becomes convinced the city houses Borge’s aleph, all of the universe held at a single point. If the aleph is anywhere, probably it is Buenos Aires, which in this novel is a place where reality constantly reforms itself.
The Tango Singer is a sad novel, but not depressing; it is elegiac, and yet suggests that nothing is ever truly lost:
“I would have liked to explain that it wasn’t her who attracted me but the lights that Martel had left on her face that I could half make out, the reverberations of the dying voice that were inscribed on her body.”
To end – what else? – an Argentine tango being performed on the street in Buenos Aires: