Tango in Madeira: a dance of life, love and death

by Jim Williams

I downloaded this book while on holiday in Madeira, having briefly searched the internet for novels set on the island.

The setting is the Madeira of expatriates in the 1920s.  Three young men, who have served in the First World War and are, each in his own way, psychologically scarred by it, arrive on the island on board a ship bound for South Africa.  The ship is obliged to stay in port for a couple of weeks for repair work (and there are hints that it may have been sabotaged).  The three men’s lives cross and re-cross, and their relationships and encounters with inhabitants and visitors to the island form the plot, such as it is.

None of the characters is very sympathetic.  They are all egotistical and, to a greater or lesser extent, dissipated.  What stands out is the setting, which appealed to me as I was on the island at the time I was reading the book, and easily recognised most of the locations.  I found I could easily imagine Madeira as it might have been in the twenties, with wine merchants living in luxurious but already quite dilapidated mansions up the hillside in Monte, and low-life prowling the streets of Funchal.  The colonials have their own rules, their own doctors and policemen, and their lives scarcely impinge on the local community.

Famous visitors to Madeira come into the story, as marginal characters with no real significance.  There is some humour in the way in which the narrator is oblivious to Agatha Christie’s new-found fame, and assumes her to be a minor writer of children’s fiction (through hearing the title of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles as The Mysterious Fairy Stiles).  George Bernard Shaw assumes another name and, although his identity is suspected by several characters, others strenuously deny that it is he.  The exiled Emperor Karl of Austria plays a central role in some parts of the story – but even he is not quite what he appears.

The author uses various literary devices -letters, short plays, as well as prose narrative – and this could be distracted, but I found it made the book more interesting to read.  This is, in the end, a light-weight but enjoyable book.