A few years ago, I took my mother to see the musical Evita. My father had been Perón’s ambassador to Israel, and my mother considered herself, if not a friend, than at least a more-than-passing acquaintance of Evita Perón. From time to time, Evita would swoop by our house in Buenos Aires and take my mother off on shopping sprees to Paris or Rome from which she returned loaded with gifts and stories. The year Evita died, in 1952, I was four years old, so I obviously don’t remember those regal visits, and later, in the days of high-school politics, the knowledge of General Perón’s fascistic tactics did little to engage my sympathies for my parents’ idols. (My brother, less lucky, was given the name Juan Domingo, after the General.) When Perón fell, in 1955, my father, against the better judgement of his friends, returned to Argentina from his post in Tel Aviv to show his loyalty to the Peronist cause; he was thrown into prison by the so-called Liberating Revolutionaries and, though he never quite accepted the fact, his political career was over. I grew up despising the dictator my father had supported and never quite reconciled myself with the image of Evita as a saint, even in the wake of the revisionist Argentinian historians of the sixties who took a fresh look at Perón’s politics and found in them fruitful ground for the left-wing guerrillas that opposed the military rule throughout the seventies and the “Dirty War.”
My mother left the show humming Lloyd Webber’s tunes but unimpressed by the character of the Englishman’s Evita. “She wasn’t like that at all,” my mother complained. “She was the feistiest, most ambitious, most brilliant, ruthless and seductive creature I ever met. She was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be, wouldn’t have dreamt of being.” And then, as if to excuse Lloyd Webber: “Poor man. I don’t think anyone could succeed in showing you what she was like.”
I’m not certain if Tomás Eloy Martínez, in Santa Evita, has succeeded in recreating that Superwoman to my mother’s satisfaction. What he has accomplished, however, is, in my opinion, the most powerful work of fiction to come from Latin America since the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Work of fiction” is a misnomer: Martínez uses the devices of the novelist but only to better establish his facts, in the tradition of Jules Michelet or Lytton Strachey. This artful telling allows him to grasp Evita’s huge myth, made up of historical events that have since echoed and grown in the popular imagination, and give it a coherent narrative shape. Thanks to Martínez, Santa Evita now has the verisimilitude of fiction.
Martínez’s own search for Evita’s story is woven through the book. As a young journalist in the sixties, interested in the convulsive history of Argentina from Perón’s ascent to power in 1946 to his fall in 1955, Martínez succeeded in convincing the aging dictator in his exile in Spain to grant him a series of long interviews that became Perón’s memoirs: an imaginary recreation of the past, largely invented by Perón’s magus-like secretary, the notorious López Rega. (When Perón returned from exile in 1972, with the blessings of the military government, he was accompanied by his new wife, the ex-cabaret dancer Isabel Martínez, and by López Rega who performed the duties of secretary. Rumour had it that every morning López Rega would consult the liver of a freshly killed pigeon before advising Perón on his movements for the day. He would also invoke the spirit of the dead Evita to come and inhabit the curvaceous body of Isabel, whom he wanted to enthrone as her successor.)
Intrigued by fiction becoming (in Perón’s telling) fact, Martínez decided to turn fact into fiction: The Novel of Perón, published in 1985, told the “true” story of Perón’s progress. The book became Argentina’s Mémorial de St Hélène and gave the Argentinian reader, numbed by the atrocious events of the military rule, a place to begin in his search for a coherent historical truth. And yet, as Martínez quickly realized, Perón, though important, was not at the core of that mass of essential images, myths, names and stories that define Argentina. It is possible that every nation finds its identity not in the profusion of its landscapes or in its multitudinous histories, but in a single face or name. If that is the case, at the core of Argentina’s imaginaire, lies Evita.
Roaches to riches, tangos to tiaras — there are few, thanks to Lloyd Webber and Madonna, who don’t know by now the early chapters of the Evita story. She was born Eva Mar’a Duarte on 9 March 1919, in a minuscule town in the province of Buenos Aires, the illegitimate daughter of a small-time politician. At fifteen, having attached herself to an itinerant singer, she arrived in Buenos Aires, hoping for a career on the stage. In 1937 she appeared in her first motion picture and later in her first radio dramas, where she interpreted a series of famous “heroines of history” — Josephine Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I, Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt — whose ranks she was to join one day. On 22 January 1944 she met Perón and unflinchingly supported his irresistible rise, up until the day of her death.
Less well known, perhaps, is Perón’s wish to have her corpse embalmed, and the fact that after his ousting in 1955, the body disappeared until it was (some say miraculously) repatriated in 1971. Unknown by all, except its kidnappers or guardians, is what happened to the body in the intervening sixteen years. Unknown, that is, until the publication of Santa Evita.
“What are the elements that went into the making of the myth of Evita?” Martínez wonders halfway through the book. Her meteorical ascent, he answers, her young death, the love Perón supposedly felt for her, her Robin-Hood-like Foundation for the Poor where common people got almost anything they wished for, the fact that she materially fulfilled poor people’s dreams of bridal trousseaus, refrigerators, beds in sanatoriums or artificial limbs, the fetishistic attributes of Evita herself, of Evita the Saint, that made people want to touch her and anything of hers in something like a religious awe, so that many refused to spend the money she flung at them and framed it instead like a sacred relic. Finally, the never-completed Monument to the Descamisados (to the “Shirtless Ones,” as the followers of Perón were called) that Evita had wanted built as her Taj Mahal to the people. Every myth requires an open end, something unfinished on which to build. Evita’s monument symbolizes that ongoing expectation.
For many months Martínez gathered his evidence. “For historians and biographers, sources are always a headache. They are not self-sufficient,” he notes. Martínez reconstructed Evita’s life with the thoroughness of an unbeliever, distrusting well-known stories, interviewing everyone who might bear witness. As he says in Santa Evita, there are only two characters in the book whom he never met, one of them Evita herself. Again and again, he came across trivial false statements, small facts altered by Perón or Evita, unimportant changes made to the truth as if merely to display their power over everything, even over history and over the events that paved its course. Why would they give Evita a false birthplace, for example, why would they wish to alter her age, why did they lie in their marriage certificate? “They lied,” Martínez suggests, “because they could no longer tell what was true and what was false, and because, consummate actors both, they had begun to portray themselves in other roles. They lied because they had decided that, from that moment on, reality would be what they wanted it to be. They did the same thing novelists do.”
Like their characters, novelists themselves fall prey to stock melodramatic situations. In 1989, when he thought he had all the facts, Martínez received a phone call. The voice on the other end told him that, since Martínez had given such an accurate picture of Perón, he had been chosen as the recipient of Evita’s real story.
Evita’s real story was “so incredible,” Martínez said in an interview, “so unbelievable, that it had to be written in a novel style.” True: nothing that any so-called magic realist might care to invent touches the story of the avatars of Evita’s body. If a country can find its representation in a person or object — as Argentina did in Evita — then to possess that object or that person, dead or alive, must lend the illusion of possessing the country. The English captured the Stone of Scone to show that they had captured Scotland; Napoleon stole the horses of St. Mark to secure his hold over Venice. The itinerant corpse brings to mind other grisly and adored relics whose possession meant something vaster than themselves: Rasputin’s prepuce preciously kept in Paris by a couple of exiled grandes dames in memory of Mother Russia, St. Teresa’s emaciated arm clutched by General Franco in his sick bed as proof that Christ was on his side, the poet Shelley’s heart rescued from the fire by his friend Trelawney “for the sake of the Soul of Poetry.”
Throughout its flights, Evita’s corpse was pursued by an enamoured colonel, bedded by a major who murdered his wife for its jealous sake, hidden in the projectionist cabin of a Buenos Aires movie theatre where the projectionist’s daughter played with it as with a doll. Like Argentina, the corpse was adored, pillaged, molested, guarded, abused, sanctified. But no only did the corpse carry within it the country’s agonies and libido; it also dragged in its wake the old-fashioned mummy’s curse that touches each of the participants in the saga, including Martínez himself who suffered, during the writing, from a series of unlucky coincidences and misadventures.
Santa Evita is not, however, a simple sequence of adventurous episodes. The characters, drawn by Martínez the historian from real life, take on, in the hands of Martínez the novelist, the even more authentic ring of the true characters of fiction: consider the multi-faceted mother of Evita who, as in a parody of Our Lady of the Sorrows, wants her daughter’s body returned to her in order to give it a decent burial; Doctor Ara, the embalmer, who says of his craft “all the arts aspire to eternity, but mine is the only one that turns eternity into something visible”; the complex Colonel Moori Koenig for whom Evita is “That Woman” and who becomes the keeper of something he knows to be vaster and far more powerful than mere flesh and bones; and finally Perón himself, crafty, weak, ambitious, foolhardy, his fate poised somewhere between the fate of Macbeth and that of Gösta Berling. These are the characters who, through their presence, define the absence created by the disappearing corpse.
Does Martínez’s method of relying on fiction to record fact weaken his historical testimony? I don’t think so. Daniel Defoe, one of the ablest journalistic counterfeiters of all time, who attempted to pass off the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe as an authentic account of a shipwrecked sailor and the Journal of the Year of the Plague as having been written actually during the year of the plague, voiced in 1722 a dread that was to echo in the hearts of many a future reader: “‘This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime. It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, in which by degrees a habit of lying enters in.” This, on Defoe’s part, is hypocrisy. The author of Robinson Crusoe knew full well that the verbatim account of a sailor’s shipwreck would probably make dull and hardly memorable reading, while the creation of his hero, told in a sagely invented first person, would stir in the reader a sense of what had truly happened on that singular island, and how and why, and in the process make history out of the various shreds of evidence. If this is lying, then it is the lying by which Cocteau defined true fiction: “I am a lie that tells the truth.”
Novel or chronicle, hagiography or history, the reader is ultimately indifferent to what shelf a book is exiled. Astonishing, intelligent, horrific, humorous, compassionate, in Santa Evita Martínez has told a story more rivetting than any tabulation, and in the process he has reinvented a country and its heroine far beyond the mere circumstances of one person and one place.
Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, Alberto Manguel is the author of several award-winning books, including The Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading.He was born in Buenos Aires, became a Canadian citizen in 1982, and now lives in France.