Villa Pacifica & Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story by Kapka Kassabova

Truthful Fiction,
Narrative Truth

However tempting it is to read a novel as the author’s true self, we must be cautious not to imagine too much truth in the fiction construct. But with the parallels between Kapka Kassabova’s first UK novel and third memoir – as well as their joint publication – we are positively encouraged to draw parallels between (so-called) truth and fiction.

In Villa Pacifica, 39 year-old Ute is travelling with her husband, Jerry, through a remote and exotic part of the South American coastline. Ute is used to travelling for her job as a guidebook writer, but unseasoned traveller Jerry joins her to work on his stalled novel. They stumble across Villa Pacifica, an almost-empty hotel beside a national park. It’s 2009, but the guestbooks are only filled in up to 2006 – which is the beginning of the time-slips, confusions and overlaps. More guests arrive, the sexual tension builds, the weather threatens, and it’s not long before someone ends up (literally) inside the tiger’s cage.

On the surface, the non-fictional Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story seems very different. It’s a personal chronicle of the author’s 10-year obsession with tango, as well as a history of the dance and its music. Kassabova’s intense prose and emotional distance create an odd contrast, as the narrative feels simultaneously sparse and lush – rather like tango itself, perhaps. Even those with little interest in the technicalities of dance steps will appreciate how Kassabova’s ennui turns to a gradual kindling of passion for dance, for love, for life.

twleve minutes of love

Reading Twelve Minutes of Love after Villa Pacifica, I felt like I was seeing childhood photos of acquaintances, or old pictures of buildings before they’re renovated. Look, there’s the ruggedly sexy man with his mate gourd! There’s the tsunami, the political upheaval, the snapshots of exotic but disappointing places! And of course, Ute/Kapka, the wandering woman with her Eastern European hangups, repressed desires and confusion about love. It may sound like it would be dull to read the same characters in two different narratives, but in practice it’s quite the opposite. It’s fascinating to trace the lines of truth in the fiction – as much as memoir can be truth, that is – and to see how authors continually spin their lives into narrative.

For me, Twelve Minutes had a far more satisfying narrative than Villa Pacifica, and it’s only when reading the former that I realised what was lacking in the latter. I wouldn’t want to give away Villa Pacifica’s ending, but to be honest I couldn’t if I tried; even weeks after reading it, I still don’t see how all the little mysteries tie together. It reaches no conclusions, touching on many possibilities but committing to none. And maybe that’s the point: it doesn’t all tie together, just as in life. But a novel is not a life, it is a narrative – and while ambiguous endings aren’t necessarily a bad thing, here it felt unsatisfying after such an intense and lushly-described buildup. Twelve Minutes, on the other hand, wraps everything up beautifully. Perhaps because it spans a much longer time period, Kassabova is able to step back and see the route of her journey: not just where she’s been, but where she might go next. It even has an epilogue to conclude the stories of each of the principle characters. And of course, there’s a happy ending.

Both Villa Pacifica and Twelve Minutes of Love stand up perfectly well on their own, but reading them together gives a much more enriching experience. The joy for me as a reader was in the blurring between fact and fiction: the echoes of people; the intensity of place; the protagonist’s desire to find herself, to lose herself, to capture some intensity of life that constantly eludes her.

Velveteen Rabbit

Villa Pacifica & Twelve Minutes of Love:
A Tango Story
Kapka Kassabova
Alma Books, rrp £12•99, 320pp &
New Live Portobello Books, rrp £18•99, 323pp