Interview: Kapka Kassabova, author

Kassabova says it is easy to confuse the love and intimacy of the tango with  the real thing. Picture: Greg Macvean
Kassabova says it is easy to confuse the love and intimacy of the tango with the real thing. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Kapka Kassabova tangos with Lee Randall and explains how her obsession with the dance form took her around the world and back again

“TANGO is like heroin – it changes your metabolism,” writes Kapka Kassabova in Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story, her touching and insightful chronicle of a ten-year obsession that dragged her around the world and back again by the heartstrings.

Kassabova is that rare thing, an author who excels in every genre. She’s a published poet and novelist, a writer of travel guides, and of memoirs, whose earlier book, Street Without a Name, is an autobiographical travelogue about rediscovering her native Bulgaria.

When Kassabova, now in her late thirties, was a teenager, her family moved to England and then to New Zealand. “My years of loneliness,” she writes in Twelve Minutes of Love, “had started with my sudden arrival in New Zealand. Our family was swept up in the great exodus that flowed to the four corners of the world from post-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe. For reasons that were bewildering even to us, but involved post-Communism, desperation and a university job for my scientist father, we had ended up here, at the bottom of the map: two adults and two teenagers, plus a piano.”

Poems poured out of her from the time she was eight, but around the time of those moves, she stopped writing in her native Bulgarian, and adopted English, which is now her sole mode of written expression. “I speak other languages, but I don’t write in anything but English. I don’t miss writing in Bulgarian – it’s been 20 years.”

She was 18, an age when most are preparing to leave home, when her family arrived in New Zealand. Why did she go with them? Dragging the word “well” across a dozen syllables, she says, “We were a broken family. We stick together. You develop late when you’re from Eastern Europe.

“Once you leave your home turf, and especially if you do it several times, which I have done, you will never get rid of the ambiguity. You will never belong properly. That is both an affliction and a liberation. As a person it hasn’t necessarily served me well, but as a writer it’s been God’s gift. Suffering displacement and cultural confusion has been wonderful – as a writer. And tango sums it up. Tango is about people who don’t belong anywhere coming together in a room, or in an embrace with a stranger, to feel like they belong. It’s an illusion. They don’t belong. But it’s a beautiful illusion.”

Though tango has become a global phenomenon, Kassabova’s tango is resolutely Argentinian, so if you’re to understand the dance, you need to understand the country. “A friend with great insight into the psychological nature of tango told me, ‘tango is a product of crisis. Always has been and still is.’ Tango was created at the end of the 19th century, as an expression of the crisis of dispossession. Like many powerful grass-roots music forms, like flamenco, blues, fado, it’s an expression of spiritual and psychic suffering.”

At the time of tango’s birth, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, in Uruguay, were rapidly expanding, filling up with immigrants. She explains: “They were full of people who were missing something else – either the pampas, because they were dispossessed gauchos, or Europe, because they were poor immigrants who rocked up on the boat, never to go back to Italy or Germany or Spain. There was a big black population who were also migrating and dispossessed.

“There was a lot of mingling of people from different places. They had no access to respectable places, so they created their own special sound and their own special dance, and that was tango – which, of course, was done initially by men. Only men. With men.”

We raise our eyebrows at one another across our coffees. That’s interesting, I say carefully, because tango is intensely physical and intimate. As she writes in the book, it’s all about sex and death.

“I know, it’s extraordinary,” she replies. “That’s how desperate they were! Buenos Aires was a sprawling urban area, and short on women. Prostitution was rife. There were famous stories of women imported from Europe and forced into prostitution to service the huge population of migrants.”

That sounds uncomfortably like the sex trafficking problem we face today. “Yes, and it started in huge metropolises with a big, hungry, lonely population of men. Tango is about that, too. That’s why it’s so sad. It’s also about men wanting women and not getting them, or getting them but only briefly, and then losing them.

“So it’s all of that running through tango, to this day, even though tango is now in vogue.”

But we needn’t view this in a negative light, she says. “Crisis can be a very positive thing, a very creative thing. Tango is a very creative space where curious, restless people come together and discuss – without words – their life.

“You will find people on any night, in any tango club in Europe or the Americas, who, if you look at their journey, enable you to trace the history of the 20th and 21st centuries. People like me, who left Bulgaria after the fall of the Berlin Wall; people from Argentina, who left there because of the economic crisis, but whose great-grandfathers went the other way, because of the crisis in Europe.”

As her personal experience makes clear, the most dangerous thing that can – and inevitably does – occur is that dancers confuse the love and intimacy expressed during the close embrace of the tango for the real thing. Off the floor, if you cling to that feeling with your partner, you’ll wind up empty-handed. Kassabova made that mistake more than once, but it’s inextricably enmeshed in the experience of every tangoholic.

Nevertheless, tango is a great way of forming friendships, and one of the loveliest legacies of her decade-long obsession came about quite accidentally, when Clive James turned up at a New Zealand milongo (a social tango event). He asked her to dance and she rudely referred to his insobriety. James, never short for words, replied that she had a spiky nose and a tongue to match. They’ve been close ever since.

“We’ve only danced a few times, mostly we’ve been talking about dancing and people and smoking a lot. He has been a real inspiration. Clive is the only mentor I’ve ever had, and he’s been phenomenal. He reads everything that I send him and offers the most fabulous – as you can imagine – feedback. Also, in moments of writing crisis he has been the only person who could pull me up, just by focusing me back on what matters. He is giving and open with me. I like to think it’s because I’m the next generation and that he sees me as someone who’s carrying the torch, who is also from ‘elsewhere’. He says I’m a bluestocking, I take it as a compliment. An old-fashioned term. Someone who is intellectually engaged and who challenges the mainstream.”

James also told her, in a conversation recounted near the end of Twelve Minutes, that she must stop looking for the poet in the men she fell for, and realise that she is the poet, and get on with her creative work, even if that meant being alone.

Kassabova moved to Edinburgh with her then boyfriend in 2004, drawn to its stony skyline, and street names evocative of New Zealand. She merged into the lively tango scene at the Counting House, which is still going strong, “It just doesn’t have me,” she says with a wry smile.

Eighteen months ago, Kassabova went cold turkey and now only dances a couple of times a year. But despite all the money she spent on flights, and lessons, and costumes – money I should think a writer can scarcely spare – she has no regrets. “Whenever you become obsessed with an art form it’s a good thing. Even if you end up with broken heels and a broken heart, it’s still a good thing because it develops your sensibility and your humanity. It’s about relationships, it’s about people, it’s about understanding yourself. It’s a very humane thing.

“Once you are bitten by the tango bug, you are never immune. It’s just that I shifted from being addicted to the dance to simply living with tango in a more systemic way. I’ve gone to a more spiritual state of addiction where I listen to tango and I feel like I’m connected to the universe. If I listen to a piece by [Astor] Piazzolla, it’s as if I’m reliving my whole life with tango, and everybody I’ve known and everything that’s in the book. And that’s enough now.”

To sum up all the riches tango have given her, she tells me about a Jorge Louis Borges story, “The Aleph”. It describes a spot under the stairs of a Buenos Aires flat where the sceptical narrator glimpses the centre of the universe. “Where everything happens simultaneously and the whole of existence can be seen at the same moment. He sees everything about his own life and the lives of other people, complete strangers. He sees the universe expanding and contracting. All of his life in that single point. And that’s what I have had with tango. I saw the Aleph.”

• Twelve Minutes of Love, A Tango Story is out this week from Portobello Books, priced £18.99