by Tomás Eloy Martínez
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set mainly in Buenos Aires from 1952 to 1956, and including flashbacks from the lifetime of Eva Perón; published in Spanish in 1995, in English in 1996.
Santa Evita follows the strange Odyssey of Eva Perón’s corpse, which becomes a powerful political symbol in post-1955 Argentina.
Born in Argentina in 1934, Tomás Eloy Martínez immigrated to the United States in 1983. He had been forced to leave Argentina by President Isabel Perón’s government and had lived in exile in Venezuela for eight years, continuing to do so because of Argentina’s military dictatorship. A journalist and writer, Martinez’s many Spanish-language nonfiction books include Sagrado (1969), La pasión según Trelew (1973), Lugar común la muerte (1979), and Las memorias del general (1996). Most of these deal with Argentine history and/or Peronism in some form. To date, Martinez has published three works of fiction:La novela de Perón (translated into English as The Peron on Novel in 1987); La mano del amo (1991; The Hand of the Master), and Santa Evita (retained this title—which means “Saint Evita”—in the English translation). According to Martinez, both La novela de Perón and Santa Evita resulted from years of research and interviews; the stories he gathered, however, could only be told through fiction. In a 1996 review in the New York Times Book Review Nicolas Shumway writes, “With these two books, [Martinez] affirms his place among Latin America’s best writers” (Shumway, p. 27).
Argentina before Perón
Santa Evita begins with the death of Eva Perón, and then traces the movements of her corpse, using flashbacks to tell the story of her rise to power and her marriage to Juan Domingo Perón. The most influential Argentine leader of the twentieth century, Juan Domingo Perón was elected president in February 1946, three years after a military coup ended a period of Conservative rule. The time was ripe for a leader like Perón, who championed the working classes, composed largely of immigrants whose sense of class-awareness had been steadily increasing since the 1880s. In the 50 years before Perón came to power, Argentina had developed a large export economy, shipping beef and grain around the world, and experiencing periods of great prosperity enjoyed by the landowning classes. The introduction of foreign capital also helped develop the economy, as European and American investors, banks, and insurance companies contributed to the building of railroads and the handling of Argentina’s growing overseas trade.
For many Argentines the turn of the twentieth century had been a “Golden Age,” and although the new wealth did not trickle down to many workers, it lured hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to Argentina. Argentina’s economy before World War I was, however, a dependent one. Much of the beef and grain money had to be used to import large amounts of manufactured goods that were not produced in Argentina. What was needed was the development of an industrial sector that could produce many of these goods itself, but most of Argentina’s leaders before Perón were either neutral or openly hostile to such development. Until 1916 power remained in the hands of Conservative leaders, politicians aligned with the landowners whose wealth depended upon the export trade. The Radical party was elected into office in 1916 and maintained power for 14 years, but it had no clear economic vision, and little was done to industrialize the nation. In 1930 the Conservatives overthrew the Radical party, an ominous beginning to what became the “infamous decade,” or the “era of economic fraud,” throughout which elections were rigged to keep the Conservative party in power. Its leaders remained hostile to Argentina’s wider economic development and to the working classes.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: THE ORIGINS OF JUAN DOMINGO PERÓN
Perón was born on a small pampas farm in 1895. At five he moved with his family to Patagonia, in the cold south of the country, where he grew up in the manner of the cowboy-like gaucho; “breaking wild horses, lassoing ostriches … ford• ing icy streams in sub-zero weather, riding the stony mesa, spurs strapped to his bare feet, his poncho streaming in the wind” (Barnes, p. 26), At 16 he went off to military college, becoming one of the army’s best shots, a fencing champion, and a fierce fighter with his fists.
During the 1930s Argentina faced economic crisis. The worldwide Great Depression had a disastrous effect on its economy, prices on exports dropped, and the imports upon which the country depended became much less accessible. Thus, despite government reticence, national industries expanded in these years, and large numbers of rural Argentines moved to urban centers, joining the workers already involved in manufacturing. Many of these workers were by now second-generation immigrants who had risen into the new middle class and had rejected the more radical ideas of socialism or anarchism brought over by their European parents. By Perón’s time Argentina was far less advanced than other Latin American countries in labor and social legislation. Unlike Argentina, most of these other countries had passed labor laws that regulated conditions for workers and that recognized workers’ unions. Thus, any leader championing the cause of the workers would be poised to win vast support from a large segment of society ignored by most previous leaders.
Perón’s rise to power
In 1943 the Conservative government was overthrown in a coup led by a band of army rebels called the Group of United Officers, which included the young colonel Juan Domingo Perón. Perón was immediately appointed undersecretary of war and, soon after, secretary of labor; both positions would be crucial in his rise to power. Perón began cultivating the support of the working classes; he increased wages, enforced labor legislation, and helped form new trade unions while expanding those that already existed. As historians have pointed out, “by 1945 his Labor Secretariat was the nation’s sole collective bargaining agency, and under [Perón’s] auspices unions were virtually certain to attain whatever they sought” (Madsen and Snow, p. 46). Coming from an immigrant, middle-class background himself, Perón identified with the workers and widely publicized his pro-labor stance. Although many wealthy Argentines had recovered from the effects of the depression, many of the nation’s poor still suffered, especially since overflowing labor pools in the cities kept wages at depression levels. For obvious reasons Perón soon gained a mass following. By 1945 he also held the positions of minister of war and vice-president.
In October 1945 a group of military officers who opposed Perón’s pro-labor stance—and wanted to harness his ambition—arrested him. Two weeks later a few hundred thousand people, mostly workers, demonstrated in front of the Government House in Buenos Aires, and many smaller demonstrations took place outside the city—all for the release of Perón. Some scholars argue that Perón’s lover, Eva Duarte, whom he had met in 1943, mobilized these forces herself and sent them marching downtown; others claim that labor leaders spread word of Perón’s arrest. In either case, Perón was released around midnight, after which he addressed the crowd from the Government House balcony in a speech “interrupted constantly by a clamorous dialogue of love that established, definitively, a bond between the leader and his people” (Luna in Mad-sen and Snow, p. 49). Within days union leaders formed the Labor Party, which nominated Perón as its presidential candidate for the February elections. During his campaign the charismatic Perón inspired frenzy in his followers, even causing women to faint; in February he won the election with ease.
Perón in power—an overview
Perón first ruled Argentina from 1946 until 1955, when he was unseated by a military coup, and he returned to power from 1973 to 1974. The deep influence of Peronism on Argentine politics continues today. Though notoriously difficult to define, Peronism is at base a worker’s movement, with strong Argentine nationalist themes running throughout its various political philosophies. Perón promised his country a “New Argentina” based on social justice, political self-determination, and economic independence: a combination of philosophies that constituted the “third position, the golden mean between heartless capitalism and godless Marxism” (Poneman, p. 64). Officially his party was called the “Justicialist Party”; through the official doctrines of justicialismo Perón attempted to transfer class and corporate allegiances to a more general national allegiance, in part by protecting each according to his or her needs and opposing undeserved wealth and power. As mentioned, Perón reformed and improved life for Argentina’s working classes, whom he called masas descamisadas, or the “shirtless masses.” In addition to increasing wages and expanding labor unions, he placed controls on child and female labor, created employment agencies, annual bonuses, and vacation resorts, subsidized legal services and housing, and regulated working hours, as well as implementing many other labor reforms (Rock, p. 262). By 1955 the CGT, or Confederacion General del Trabajo (General Confederation of Labor), had 2.3 million members and was one of the country’s most powerful organizations. For many Argentines, Perón was a hero.
Perón’s other accomplishments include the construction of 500,000 new homes as well as new schools, hospitals, clinics, and recreational facilities; the decreasing of foreign investment, interpreted by Peronists as a newfound economic independence for Argentina; the promotion of women’s rights, including the right to vote; and the creation of a large number of businesses and manufacturing firms that decreased dependence on foreign trade.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, was to marry Eva Perón in 1946. She not only maintained her husband’s working-class support but broadened it with her powerful personality, impassioned speeches, and over-whelming charity. Her Eva Perón Foundation provided housing and hospitals for the poor, and every week she would hold personal audiences with the masses of people lined up outside, usually granting whatever aid they requested. She became famous for such charity, handing out money, medicine, and toys, becoming known as “Lady Bountiful,” “Standard-Bearer of the Poor,” “Lady of Hope,” and even as “Saint Evita.”
Juan Perón was not a perfect leader, however, and his critics have been many. Some of them regarded his political philosophy of justicialismo as ill-defined, an uneasy blend of national, social, and Christian elements that allowed Perón to seem all things to most people, and in this way to manipulate the masses more easily. Secondly, wage increases and Perón’s seemingly generous charity sparked the worst inflation in decades, almost depleted foreign reserves, and, some claimed, led to a completely shattered economy. The largesse reserved for party supporters, mainly the workers and the military, caused the rest of the community to suffer. In economic development, industrial growth was mostly limited to small businesses, while larger firms showed little growth; businesses employing fewer than ten workers made up more than 80 percent of the nation’s industrial firms (Rock, p. 265). Perón often resorted to force in order to temper resistance, squelching his opponents through exile, imprisonment, threat, and torture. His was a dictatorship in which the government, presses, and judiciary system were purged of all dissent. According to one critic Perón “destroyed anyone in his path, including supporters who did not bow low enough” (Poneman, p. 69). To many of Perón’s detractors he was a fascist ruler who did much to stunt the growth of the economy and prevent the possibility of democracy in Argentina.
Peronists and anti-Peronists present clashing versions of Perón, viewing him alternately as a hero and as a tyrant. The extent to which he was either is open to debate. What seems clear is that, while Perón did much to advance the cause of women, the working classes, and others, allowing them to prosper in ways they never had before, many of his achievements came at great cost to Argentine society as a whole.
During her husband’s presidency, Eva Perón became one of the most powerful women in the world. Even before their marriage and his presidency she began to involve herself in government affairs, taking on minor duties and rousing support for Perón. Soon she represented him at ceremonial functions, delivering speeches that moved crowds of workers. Her accessibility and continual interaction with the common people provided a link between the people and Perón, who was less interested in day-to-day administration. Although Evita, as she was called, would soon transform herself into a glamorous, blonde beauty, she never lost the traces of her working class background, the “tackiness” of which her detractors accused her, or her anger toward the upper classes. Evita always presented herself to the common people as one of them, a fellow worker from the provinces.
Evita Perón was born Maria Eva Ibarguren in 1919 in Los Todos, a village 150 miles west of Buenos Aires on the pampas, a “dreary, squalid, little pueblo, built on the site of a long-forgotten Indian encampment” (Barnes, p. 11). Her mother, Juana Ibarguren, had been a cook at the Duarte farm in the community of Chivilcoy, where she began a long-term affair with the married Juan Duarte. Juana had five illegitimate children by Duarte, including Evita. Although Duarte visited the children until his death, they all experienced the stigma of illegitimacy; when Duarte died (Evita was seven), for example, the children were not allowed inside the widow’s home to see their father for the last time. Without Duarte’s help, money became scarce, so Juana and her daughters began working as cooks at the local estates. Indeed, all that Duarte left his and Juana Ibarguren’s children was the right to bear his name, whereupon Eva Ibarguren became Eva Duarte. When she was ten the family moved to Junin, and at age 15 she left for Buenos Aires. Some say she left with the tango singer Agustín Magaldi when he passed through town; others, that she went alone. For a young Argentine girl with dreams of becoming an actress, however, Buenos Aires was the only place for her to go.
Evita appears to have been rather lucky in those early Buenos Aires years, for she seemed to get enough acting roles to support herself. Some biographers contend that she worked as a prostitute and/or had a series of brief affairs that advanced her career or position in some way; others argue that such claims are groundless. Much of her early life remains cloudy and inaccessible to us, especially because she herself later had many records destroyed or documents changed, and, therefore, her biographers often disagree. By all accounts, however, she was not a particularly gifted stage or film actress, although by 1942 she seemed to have found her niche in radio dramatizations—most successfully in a weekly series in which she acted out the lives of famous women, including England’s Queen Elizabeth I and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. This series was successful enough that Eva Duarte began appearing on magazine covers and making more money than she ever had before. In addition to working in radio, from 1937 on Evita appeared in a small number of films, usually in minor roles; indeed, Evita’s roles were so small that in only one, La pródiga, could she actually be seen (Dujovne Ortiz, p. 80).
In 1944 an earthquake almost completely destroyed the Argentine town of San Juan. Subsequent fund-raising efforts included a variety show at which Eva Duarte, one of the many actresses there, met Juan Perón. Again, events are unclear. Some accounts portray Eva Duarte as crafty and calculating, slipping into the seat next to the man rumored to be one of the most powerful in the new military government; others present their meeting as more random. In her autobiographical La Razón de mi Vida (My Mission in Life), Evita says she placed herself next to Perón and declared, “If, as you say, the cause of the people is your own cause, however great the sacrifice I will never leave your side until I die” (Perón in Barnes, p. 25). In Santa Evita she simply says, “Thanks for existing” (Martinez, Santa Evita, p. 176), and with these carefully chosen words she changes her destiny. Whatever the exact circumstances of their meeting, Eva Duarte and Juan Perón left with each other that night, married two years later, and stayed together until her death in 1952.
Like her husband, Eva Perón has been both loved and reviled, and, again like her husband, seemed to earn both responses. As the head of the Eva Perón Foundation, she oversaw fantastic displays of charity for the poor, but, as we see in Santa Evita, she could abuse her almost unlimited power in ways that were cruel and ruthless. Her foundation was unregulated, kept no financial accounts, and received generous state subsidies, CGT donations, and tax exemptions, all of which created suspicion among her detractors and fanned rumors that she was siphoning off foundation funds. The work she did was heavily publicized and a powerful element of Peronist propaganda. Everyone was aware of how grateful they should be to the Peróns, who became the “smiling parents” of an entire nation of children in this “benign but authoritarian” version of the New Argentina (Fraser and Navarro, p. 131). Almost everything the foundation produced—from hospital beds to clothing to vaccines—had Evita’s initials stamped or painted on it. Joseph A. Page states the obvious criticism: “[Evita] never explained why the Peronist government did not attempt to use the powers at its disposal to eliminate the causes of social and economic injustice, rather than dispense palliatives” (Page, p. 19). Since her death, an entire mythology has surrounded Evita. She is remembered variously as a saint, a revolutionary, a harlot, and a petty tyrant.
THE GENEROUS WOMAN
Evita’s last film was The Generous Woman, or La pródiga, in which she played the title role. Many of her biographers have noted the uncanny similarities between this 1945 role and the role she was beginning to play in realife. in the film, her character—called “Mother of the Poor” and “Sister of the Sad”—is always helping the less fortunate. All prints of this film were thought to have been destroyed, most likely on Evita’s orders, until a print was found in the 1980s.
Political instability after Perón
In 1952 Eva Perón died of cancer. The whole country went into an enforced yet generally sincere mourning for her, which is described in detail in the beginning of Santa Evita. Many feel that Evita’s death, at least partially, led to Perón’s fall three years later because she had eclipsed him in popularity and as the embodiment of Peronism. Several other factors contributed to his fall, however, including the damaged economy, which had been affected by bad harvests, inflation, and overspending; his persecution of dissenters, which had increased social unrest; and a fatal confrontation with the powerful Catholic Church. Unwilling to wait for a coup or to start a civil war, Perón resigned from office and left the country.
The military leaders who came into power after Perón had not only a vexed relationship to Peronism, but also a slew of social problems and a damaged economy to confront. These leaders were mainly liberals and nationalists, and each group of them had different ideas about how to deal with Perón’s legacy. Most liberals called for total suppression of Peronist materials, unions, and influences, while Perón’s first successor, General Eduardo Lonardi, had a more conciliatory approac that was supported by the nationalists. But Lonardi’s presidency quickly gave way to that of the liberalminded General Pedro Aramburu, who immediately assaulted Peronism in all its forms. Many Peronist organizations, unions, and laws were eliminated. Perón’s political party was dissolved, and the CGT appropriated. The government also forbade people from mentioning Perón’s name, or displaying Perónist signs or slogans. The names of both Evita and Juan Perón could be mentioned only through insults like “the fugitive tyrant” or “the whore.” It was at this time that Evita’s corpse disappeared from the CGT—a central event in Santa Evita.
After Evtta’s death, some Argentine labor leaders made an official request to the Vatican for Evita’s canonization. The Vatican denied this request, but images of Evita as saint became widespread while Perón retained power. The following lines are from a prayer in a 1953 children’s schoolbook:
… Evita, I promise to be as good as you wish me to be, respecting God, loving my country; taking care of General Perón; studying and being towards everyone the child you dreamed I would be; healthy, happy, well-educated and pure in heart.
(Fraser and Navarro, p. 170)
The primary goal of this new military government was to remain in power long enough to destroy all vestiges of Peronism and to set the stage for a civilian government. The Peronists, however, established a resistance movement; new generations of Peronists succeeded the old and took over labor unions. In short, Peronism remained a vital force in Argentina for many years, inspiring passions on both sides and preventing any kind of consensus or political order. Meanwhile, the economy continued to perform poorly, and recessions and inflation prevented industrial progress. Unemployment affected all major social groups. The standard of living, even for the wealthy, decreased dramatically. At the same time military rule became increasingly repressive. By the 1970s “Argentina had become notorious for its political violence and repression” (Rock, p. 321).
The novel opens during the last hours of Eva Perón’s life, as she lies dying of uterine cancer, reviewing her days and remembering her last request to Perón: “Don’t let them forget me” (Santa Evita, p. 7). After her death the country is grief-stricken: 500,000 mourners line up to kiss her coffin. True to his wife’s wishes, Perón has had Evita embalmed on the night of her death, and she has become a work of art, her body now incorruptible, immortal. The embalmer, Dr. Pedro Ara, from whose actual memoirs Martinez quotes, calls his creation “a statue of supreme beauty, like the Pietà; or the Victory of Samothrace” (Santa Evita, p. 20). After the public viewing of her corpse, Evita’s body is moved to the CGT, where a special laboratory has been set up for Dr. Ara to finish his embalming, and where the corpse lies almost forgotten in the political turmoil following Evita’s death. This is 1952.
Three years later Juan Perón has fled the country, the corpse remains with Dr. Ara, and the new government wants Evita dead “like any other” (Santa Evita, p. 16). Colonel Carlos Eugenio de Moori Koenig is appointed head of the Intelligence service and given the job of disposing of Evita’s corpse properly. In a country divided by political turmoil, Evita’s corpse is a dangerous political symbol. A tomb or grave would too easily become a sacred spot, inspiring political fervor in followers of Perón and possible rebellion against the new government. As the Colonel himself says, “Heaven only knows how the useless dead body of Eva Duarte came to be confused with the country… . Whoever has the woman has the country in the palm of their hand” (Santa Evita, p. 25).
The main narrative of Santa Evita follows the corpse’s bizarre journey across two continents, as again and again the new Argentine powers hide the body, only to have it discovered by avid Peronists hot on its trail. Illicit photographs of the corpse are delivered to the Colonel when it has been kept under strictest cover, and flowers and candles appear near the cadaver even when men are on watch. Three copies of the body had been made by an Italian sculptor before Evita’s death, so the Colonel and other members of the Intelligence service attempt to bury the fake bodies to confuse the enemy, while transferring Evita’s real body to a warehouse. A fire breaks out, and the real corpse is placed in an army truck parked outside the Intelligence service, for lack of a better place. Flowers appear by the truck. The Colonel hides the body behind the screen at a local movie house, but again the flowers appear and the owner’s daughter mistakes Evita’s body for a doll. The Colonel moves the body to the house of one of his men, Arancibia, but, like Ara and the Colonel, Arancibia also becomes obsessed with Evita. When he catches his wife around the corpse, Arancibia kills her, claiming he thought she was a thief. Finally Evita’s body is transferred to Italy, where, under a false name, it remains buried for 16 years. The Colonel, however, is now crazy, and mistakenly follows a copy of the corpse to Germany, tricked by other members of the Intelligence service because he knows too much. The corpse is eventually returned to Perón in 1971. He now lives outside Madrid with his third wife, Isabel Perón, who would become Argentina’s president upon Peron’s death in office in 1974. In 1976 Evita finally receives a proper burial in Recoleta Cemetery, Argentina’s most prestigious burial ground.
Santa Evita moves back and forth in time, from the corpse of Evita to Evita in life—as a girl, as an actress, as Perón’s partner, and so on. She is remembered and reconstructed in interviews, documents, screenplays, and testimonies. Martinez, who claims to be as accurate as possible in this reconstruction, speaks directly to the reader about the novel he is writing—citing sources, describing interviews, and musing on the nature of his own project. “The sources on which this novel is based are not altogether reliable,” he tells us, “but only in the sense that this is true of reality and language as well: lapses of memory and imperfect truths have found their way into them” (Santa Evita, p. 126). The author’s narration is central to the novel, as Martinez’s own story becomes wrapped up in Evita’s. “If I don’t try to know her by writing her, I’m never going to know myself,” Martinez concludes, implying that he, like all Argentines, is inextricably tied to his country and its past (Santa Evita, p. 368). That past, that history, is furthermore elusive. History, like literature, says the novel, is always a “search for the invisible, or the stillness of what flies” (Santa Evita, p. 54).
Argentina and the dead
At the center of Santa Evita is the dead body of Eva Perón. Colonel de Moori Koenig and his peers must hide the corpse so that others cannot use it as a political tool; meanwhile, the very men surrounding the corpse become obsessed with it, and are haunted by Evita, just as Martinez’s narrator is haunted by her. “The fascination for her dead body began even before her illness, in 1950,” this narrator tells us, when Julio Cortázar’s novel The Test imagined multitudes of people coming from all over Argentina to worship a bone and having their hearts broken by a woman in white (Santa Evita, p. 180). This is the image of Evita that literature is leaving us, the narrator says: that of her dead body. Indeed at one point the narrator compares his novelistic project to the project of an embalmer: “both try to immobilize a body or a life in the pose in which eternity is to remember it” (Santa Evita, p. 140). Dr. Ara, within and without the novel, published a book documenting his painstaking embalming of Evita, his masterpiece. In both Ara’s book and his own, the narrator says, “the biographer is at once the embalmer, and the biography is also the autobiography of his funerary art” (Santa Evita, p. 140).
In an interview with Calvin Sims, Martinez compared the embalmed body of Evita to the country of Argentina. “[Evita’s body] is the embalmed body of a beautiful woman who has not yet been resuscitated. In the same way Argentina is a country of hope and promise that has never been fulfilled. This is the melancholy nature of Argentina” (Martinez in Sims, p. 3). The powerful symbolic value of Evita’s corpse also “points towards [Argentina’s] tendency toward necrophilia” (Martinez in Sims, p. 3). For, as the Colonel is told in Santa Evita, “every time a corpse enters the picture in this country, history goes mad” (Santa Evita, p. 16).
Indeed, as Sims points out, Argentina has a long history of using corpses for political purposes. Spanish settlers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used to smear their bodies with their victims’ blood, and parade the corpses through town. Juan Perón’s hands were sawed off 13 years after his death, when vandals broke into his tomb; this event prompted a Peronist demonstration of around 50,000 people. In 1989 President Carlos Saúl Menem shipped the body of Juan Manuel de Rosas, the notorious dictator from the nineteenth century, back to Argentina from England. None of these cases could match, however, the case of Eva Perón, and the bizarre wandering of the corpse that might have inspired either worship or revolution.
Sources and literary context
Martinez’s novel can be categorized in different ways. First, Martinez himself discusses the long line of “Evita texts” that preceded his: works by Julio Cortázar, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jorge Luis Borges, Rodolfo Walsh, Copi, and Néstor Perlongher (SantaEvita, pp. 180-85). (Cortázar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories and Borges’s “The South” are also covered in Latin Ameñcan Literature and Its Times.) Biographers of Eva Perón proliferate, and, of course, Evita has received even more attention worldwide through Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s musical opera Evita, and the Alan Parker film adaptation. Santa Evita has a place, then, in the context of all these imaginings of Eva Perón—some comic, some tragic, some wildly inaccurate, and others, like Martinez’s, careful blends of history and fiction. Martinez lists his own sources—interviews, rumors, archives, old film clips, and so on—throughout the novel. But where history begins and fiction ends is never entirely clear. As Martinez puts it:
If history—as appears to be the case—is just another literary genre, why take away from it the imagination, the foolishness, the indiscretion, the exaggeration, and the defeat that are the raw material without which literature is inconceivable?
(Santa Evita, p. 129)
According to Gustavo Pellón, two of the three main currents in the recent Spanish American novel have been the documentary novel, which “exists in a constant tension between fiction and non-fiction,” and the historical novel, which often comments “on the process whereby history is constructed” (Pellón, pp. 282, 288). In Santa Evita and La Novela de Perón, Martínez straddles both of these genres. The two novels use documents to reconstruct particular events and people, while seeking the roots of traumatic events associated with Peronism, and engaging in the revision of history common in current Latin American fiction. Among Martinez’s influences is Jorge Luis Borges, without whom, says Martinez, “my novel would not have appeared” (Martinez in Bach, p. 14).
Striving for democracy
Since 1983, when President Raúl Alfonsín took office, Argentina has been undergoing a democratic rebirth. Alfonsín defeated the Peronists and neutralized the authoritarian and revolutionary extremes—all of whom had been discredited by the violent chaos of the 1960s and 70s. The country was filled with relief; “casting aside the shackles of censorship and repression, dramatists, filmmakers, poets, and artists joined together in an outburst of creative energy and cultural vitality” (Rock, p. 390). It seemed at the time that the legacies of militarism and Peronism would be put to rest, but by the late 1980s it was clear that the conditions from which dictatorship had sprung—mainly economic—were not so easily surmounted. Although he had freed a country long repressed, Alfonsín was unable to lead it into a “new future” (Rock, p. 403).
In 1989 Carlos Saúl Menem became president, and has remained in office through the writing of Santa Evita and into the present day. Under Menem’s leadership, the phase of consolidated democracy began. Faced with his country’s economic collapse, Menem made the economy central to his neoliberal political project, and reduced inflation to an annual 3.5 percent in his first term in office. Seen as an “economic miracle,” this achievement helped Menem win a second term in 1995, the year in which Santa Evita was published. Menem has also helped reconcile Peronism and liberalism, the forces that divided Argentina for so long. Many Argentines, however, have become disenchanted with politics, feeling their nation lacks a parliament committed to making democracy work and to representing the will of the people. In addition, Menem has been criticized for signing amnesties for those convicted of military crimes. The amnesty excused military violence like that seen in the “Dirty War” (1976-83)—a brutal, indiscriminately repressive domestic war that followed the collapse of Peronism, during which all due process of law vanished and some 30,000 people disappeared. Civilian courts had found guilty and sentenced the perpetrators. Menem’s granting of amnesty implied that such violence could be seen as a judicial act. Martinez himself has commented on the matter, noting cynically that Menem wants to prove that Argentina has made peace with barbarism.
When Menem first campaigned for the presidency, he fashioned himself a populist, charismatic leader in the style of Perón, made use of Peronist iconography, and spouted rhetoric reminiscent of Perón’s. Within the first months of his term, however, he began introducing the kinds of neoliberal policies traditionally considered within Peronism as antinational, thus turning the search for Argentina’s identity away from Peron’s “mystic nationalism” and towards an easier, more pragmatic approach to Argentina’s problems. Some argue that Menem’s policies are, in effect, undoing Perón’s legacy, but Peronism does not seem so easily quelled. In the 1995 elections Menem’s strongest opposition came from José Bordón, a dissident Peronist who took 29.2 percent of the vote. Clearly, Peronism is still a vital force in Argentine politics, though it has not been unified as a movement since Perón’s first presidency. Still ill-defined, Peronism has come to signify different meanings to different political groups. Even so, in 1987 Daniel Poneman was able to write:
Perón’s speeches blare from cassette-players at street-corner stands where Perón badges, books, photographs, and calendars are on sale. Many Argentines automatically vote Peronist, without even knowing who is running.
(Poneman, p. 79)
Evita—the enduring myth
Just as Peronism has had many faces and been used for strikingly different purposes, so has the myth of Eva Perón. To traditional Peronists Evita has been pure and saintly, to anti-Peronists she has been an impure social climber, and to the Montoneros (or the leftist guerrilla group of Peronists who emerged in 1969), she was a violent revolutionary, inspiring them to storm supermarkets, kidnap billionaires, and then distribute their booty in the shanty towns (Dujovne Ortiz, p. 298). As Martinez himself has said:
Her image is already installed in history with such force and with as many lights and shadows as that of Henry the VIII, Marie Antoinette or JFK. The immortality of great personages begins when they become a metaphor with which people can identify. Evita is already several metaphors: she is the Robin Hood of the twentieth century, she is the Cinderella of the tango and the Sleeping Beauty of Latin America. Broadway musicals and Hollywood films enrich those meanings, they don’t erase them. (Martinez in New Perspectives Quarterly, p. 32)
Indeed, the proliferation of Evitas in film and literature has led to rivalries and controversies, as artists, like the various Peronist factions, attempt to pinpoint and present the “real” Evita. Evita, the U.S. musical opera, has been banned in Argentina; like many others, Menem called Evita “a total and absolute disgrace” for presenting Evita as a tramp who exchanged sex for social advancement (Menem in Schrieberg, p. 55). During the production of Alan Parker’s 1996 film version of Evita, starring U.S. actress Madonna, the Argentine people had mixed reactions. Some were thrilled to be extras, but many protested the filming (and Menem refused to give it government cooperation or approval).
Upon its publication in Buenos Aires in 1995 Santa Evita became the “buzz of Argentina” and an immediate bestseller. Visitors to Evita’s tomb “could be seen clutching well-thumbed copies of it” (Fraser and Navarro, p. 198).
One foreign reviewer thought it was “a pity that the novel wasn’t better” “it gives the reader neither a visceral sense of Evita’s life nor an understanding of the powerful hold she exerted over her country’s imagination” (Kakutani, p. C31). This critic furthermore did not like the translation. But for the most part, reviews have been glowing. The writer Gabriel García Márquez called it “the novel I always wanted to read,” while Mario Vargas Llosa (see The Storyteller , also covered in Latin Amencan Literature and Its Times) admitted that “Santa Evita defeated me from the first page” (García Márquez and Vargas Llosa in Bach, p. 14). Echoing this admiration, Nicolas Shum-way called Martinez a “superb craftsman” and one of Latin America’s best writers: “In recent years few have confronted their countries’ past with the wit, style and candor that Mr. Martinez shows in ‘Santa Evita’” (Shumway, p. 27).
Bach, Caleb. “Tomas Eloy Martínez: Imagining the Truth.” Amencas (English edition) 50, no. 3 (June 1998): 14.
Barnes, John. Evita Eirst Lady: A Biography of Eva Perón. New York: Grove Press, 1978.
Dujovne Ortiz, Alicia. Eva Perón. Trans. Shawn Fields. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
“Evita or Madonna: Whom Will History Remember?” New Perspectives Quarterly 14, no. 1 (winter 1997): 32-33.
Fraser, Nicholas, and Marysa Navarro. Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Kakutani, Michiko. “The Legend of Evita as Latin Gothic.” The New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1996, C31.
Martínez, Tomás Eloy. Santa Evita. Trans. Helen
Lane. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Page, Joseph A. “Introduction.” In In My Own Words: Evita, by Eva Perón. New York: New Press, 1996.
Pellón, Gustavo. The Cambridge History of Latin Amencan Literature. Vol. 2. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Poneman, Daniel. Argentina: Democracy on Trial. New York: Paragon House, 1987.
Rock, David. Argentina, 1516-1987. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1987.
Schrieberg, David. “Don’t Cry for Menem.” Newsweek 126, no. 12 (September 25, 1997): 55.
Shumway, Nicolas. “Body Guards,” The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1996, 27.
Sims, Calvin. “Eva Perón’s Corpse Continues to Haunt Argentina.” The New York Times, 30 July 1995, sec. 1, p. 3.