‘Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough,’ said Gustave Flaubert. He might have been talking about this slim volume, which takes a slimmer subject and inflates it to an epic of noble proportions.
The subject is unpromising. ‘This is the story of a man who took part in a dance contest,’ runs the opening line. It’s hardly one to set many hearts racing, especially since the event in question is no glitzy Strictly Come Dancing, screened on television for millions. Instead, Leila Guerriero’s focus is the world championships in malambo, an obscure Argentinian dance, whose annual apogee takes place in Laborde, a town of 6,000 inhabitants in the middle of the flat, fertile pampas.
There is nothing much there except fields of corn or soya and a ramshackle stage where the contest is held. The unique quality of the event lies partly in the dance itself, ‘a joust for men who take turns to dance to music’. They aspire to gaucho virtues of courage, sincerity and pride, and perform in the traditional dress of the gaucho, their feet bleeding due to the intricacy and intensity of the steps, unable to breathe because the exertion is so great. As Guerriero explains:
The fastest 100-metre runners in the world aim for sub-ten-second times; Usain Bolt’s record stands, at the time of writing, at 9.58 seconds. A malambo dancer in full flow moves his feet just as quickly as a 100-metre runner, only he has to keep it up for five minutes.
What fascinates Guarriero is that, in order to preserve the prestige of the world championship, the moment a man becomes senior champion — a feat that may have taken him a lifetime of practice to achieve — he must instantly retire from dancing.