Monday, August 14, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

“SANTA EVITA” by Tomas Eloy Martinez (first published in 1995; English translation by Helen Lane first published 1997)

I have often enough mentioned my alienation from “magical realism” (see on this blog my take on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s OneHundred Years of Solitude). In a lifetime’s reading, the only novel with “magical realist” tendencies that I read with pleasure was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – a fantasia of India at the time of gaining independence from Britain. “Magical realism” quickly degenerated into novels that blurred history with fantasy largely because their authors had a limited knowledge of history, or wanted to evade its meaning. Therefore I am almost embarrassed now to find myself praising a novel that not only has many attributes of “magical realism” but that, on the cover of the paperback edition I have, features an endorsement by Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself (“Finally, this is the novel I always wanted to read!”)
Why should I make this exception?
Because, despite being surrealist and dream-like in sections, Tomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, no matter how extraordinary it seems to us, is largely based on verifiable fact. And, in what seem its wilder flights of fancy, it also provides a shrewd analysis of the mentality of a very large part of a large nation.
First a word on the author, as is my wont.
Tomas Elroy Martinez (1934-2010) was an Argentinian journalist and novelist, some of whose publications were banned when Argentina was a dictatorship. He went into voluntary exile, mainly to Paris. While he was in Europe, he interviewed the exiled former dictator Juan Domingo Peron (who was then living in Madrid). Juan Peron had ruled Argentina from 1946 to his overthrow by the military in 1955. For much of his dictatorship, Peron’s chief propaganda asset was his wife Eva (“Evita”) Duarte Peron (1919-52), whom the masses adored because of her apparent genorosity and because she was a poor-girl-made-good. While dressed in diamonds and the latest Parisian fashions, she could still claim to represent “the shirtless ones”. Eva Peron died of cancer at the age of 33 in 1952. As you will already know, Webber and Rice wrote a sentimental and historically very inaccurate musical about her called Evita. Indeed by now you are probably whistling “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”. But, being a well-informed Argentinian, Tomas Elroy Martinez had a much more nuanced view of the woman
As well as writing Santa Evita, Martinez had already written a novel called The Peron Novel and he wrote other works set in the Peron years. He spent some years as an academic in American universities before returning to Argentina, once it was safely a democracy. And that was where he died. Santa Evita was his most popular novel and the one that was translated into many languages
The novel opens with Evita’s death from cancer. It then follows the travels of her corpse.
This is, in effect, a novel about a dead body and the strange legends that grew about it.
Evita’s corpse was laid to rest for three years in a modest burial place in Buenos Aires as plans were made for a huge mausoleum to her. But the military men who overthrew Juan Peron (in 1955) stole her corpse as they feared it would become a site of pilgrimage or a rallying point for Peronists. So the novel chronicles the travels of her corpse over nearly 22 years, until it was repatriated and buried in Argentina in 1974.  Copies of the corpse were made by the original Spanish embalmer Dr Arato, to  throw nosy people off the trail should they be looking for the real corpse. The corpse was hidden in government buildings, hidden on a boat, taken to Europe and hidden in a convent in Spain and then in a cemetery in Milan.
As a  functionary of the post-Peron regime, it becomes the obsession of Colonel Moori Koenig to find the real corpse and definitively dispose of it. But, even though they find ways of avoiding saying her name (they call her “the woman”, “the deceased”, “the body” etc.), he and his men become obsessed with the magical powers of the corpse anyway. They almost become the corpse’s guardians against defilement. And they are pursued  by Peronist devotees of Evita who call themselves the Commando of Vengeance, manage to track down the corpse to its every new hiding place, and set up shrines there despite the rigid security systems that are in place. (At some point one might ask why the corpse wasn’t simply cremated and the ashes thrown into the sea – but this question never arises.)
As it follows no neat linear chronology, and as it moves back and forth in time, Santa Evita proves to be a postmodernist novel. There are plenty of demonstrably “unreliable narrators” – the original undertaker, the officer who was responsible for Eva’s first interment, Eva’s butler, Eva’s hairdresser, Eva’s mother, an intelligence officer or two.
It is hard to guage Tomas Eloy Martinez’s own attitude. Does he see Evita as a saint or a whore? A great philanthropist or an embezzler of money donated by the trusting poor? (Plenty of people harboured all these opinions when she was alive.) Is he cynical or amused or in fact a party to the cult of Evita?
At the very least he is aware of how much his country’s mental health was bound up with this woman. “Miracles” were attributed to her after her death, and 40,000 letters were written to the pope asking for her to be canonised. (The Vatican wisely ignored them – which may be part of the reason Juan Peron turned so sharply against the church in the last years of his dictatorship.) Of course the novel presses closely upon the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose robes (in Argentina, at least) Evita was in danger of stealing. The novel becomes hallucinatory, but only in the way that this woman becomes so totally entangled in the Argentinian people’s dreams and aspirations – like, of course, dictators such as Hitler (“the psychopathic god” as one biography called him), Stalin (“Uncle Joe”), Mao, Fidel Castro and others who have claimed to actually be the people they rule. By accurately refecting the way Evita’s admirers saw her, much of Santa Evita put me in mind of the skewed conspiracy theories of the 20th century.
But here is the odd thing. When I checked the novel against a sober biography of Eva Peron, which I have sitting on my shelves next to Santa Evita, I found that all the craziest stuff about the peregrinations of Evita’s corpse were perfectly factual. I am referring to Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser and Maryia Navarro (it has also been marketed under the title Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron). It was first published in 1981.
This raises a number of awkward questions about Santa Evita. Martinez often writes in the first person and presents himself as the investigator interviewing witnesses. Martinez did in fact interview many relevant people before writing this book. So is this a novel or a work of non-fiction? But then we also have imaginary conversations and plainly fictitious elements. Especially in the character of Colonel Moori Koenig, some critics have detected the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, with his theories of the malleability of truth and the dominance of imagination. As a naïve seeker of truth, I find this unsatisfactory but I still admire this novel or work of non-fiction or whatever its genre may be..

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