Tomás Eloy Martínez
Helen Lane, Translator
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
Every story is, by definition unfaithful. Reality, as I’ve said, can’t be told or repeated. The only thing that can be done with reality is to invent it again.” (Chapter 4, “I am Giving Up the Honor, Not the Fight”, p. 83)
I was hooked by the description of the novel: a tale of the travels of the preserved corpse (and copies) of the body of Evita Perón, dispatched around Argentina and the world in an attempt by her (and her husband’s) enemies to keep ahead of her supportors, ardent in their devotion even after her death. With this intriguing premise in hand, I put it on order through my local library, but didn’t get to it before several posts went up at the end of September about the book (listed here). They all seemed to focus on one point, the discussion of reality versus fiction that takes place in the novel. At this point, I became worried, because I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a book which focused on metafictional discussion rather than plot.
I needn’t have worried. I loved Santa Evita, I think as much for the very metaficiton I was afraid of, as for the bizarre story it told. I really can’t say how much of it is true. Eloy Martínez presents the story both as novel and as a representation of thorough research and interviews he claims to have conducted with those who knew Evita and those connected to the disappearance of her corpse. It reads not only as novel but as memoir of his interviews, as biography of a corpse and biography of a life. In the background, behind the metafiction and the traveling corpse, was a glimpse into the story of Evita-while-alive, from country girl to B-movie actress to adored First Lady. And reading this, the question that came to my mind was not, “How much of this (novel) is true?” but “Who was Evita?” Her enemies would paint her as whore, the adoring descamisados, as saint. Where between these extremes, did the real Evita lie? It is our inability to really know this, hidden as this “real Evita” is behind both legend and lies—of her own creation, of her enemies, of her admirers—that I see reflected in the tension between reality and fiction on the novel’s pages. Even setting myth-making aside, the difficulties of memory and reliable recollection pose difficulties for a biographer seeking to create an exact portrait. Thus it is not surprising that the pages of the tale should turn to a debate of the very meaning of “reality.”
The sources on which this novel is based are not altogether reliable, 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.” (Chapter 6 “The Enemy is Lying in Wait”, p. 126)
It becomes a fascinating discussion.
The story of the novel, that of three journeys—Evita from young girl to First Lady, Evita the corpse from Buenos Aires to Milan, and Eloy Martínez in search of Evita—is also entertaining on its own merits. So many interesting characters and circumstances populate the book that in some ways I found it difficult to put down. I also found it a book to saver slowly, and was reluctant to ever pick it up if I only would have a few moments to read. Tomás Eloy Martínez’s writing captured me and before I had finished the novel I had already resolved to read more of his work, and Santa Evita again.