The legendary Eva Peron, wife of Argentina's great dictator and unofficial queen of the masses, is one of history's most elusive figures, lending herself more easily to pop-opera deification than standard biography. Tomas Eloy Martinez's absorbing and intricate new novel, Santa Evita, uses so many narrative tricks to both remedy and explore this problem that it almost defies description.
Martinez embraces a wide range of styles and perspectives in an attempt to capture Evita's mystique, frequently shifting his focus from past to present, from fact-based journalism to whimsy-based fantasy and from black comedy to deep philosophical inquiry. The result is a subtle, moving study of the life and death of a national icon and a distinct sense that "what is history is not always historical."
The novel's most shocking--and most effective--move is to follow the story of Evita's corpse and its improbable travels. After Evita dies of cancer at age 33, her husband Juan Peron has her embalmed so that she will forever look like "a liquid sun." Even after Peron's regime topples and he retreats into exile, Evita remains a national obsession. The Argentinean people will not let her go, insisting that "she will come back, and she will be millions."
Evita's political and personal enemies also cannot forget her, and her corpse becomes an amulet of power. Martinez implies that Evita was not regarded as a thinking and feeling human being, but rather as a national treasure whose thoughts and emotions were defined by her subjects.
The argument that Evita was merely a filter or receptacle for the struggles and dreams of the masses pervades Santa Evita, making the tale of her corpse's adventures richly ironic. Several of the military officers and other characters responsible for the transport or maintenance of her body fall deeply in love with her, until their obsession controls their lives. They speak of Evita as if she were living, and many believe that she has mystical powers. They avoid saying her name, instead referring to her as "Person," "the Deceased," or "that woman." She is both a curse and blessing, but at no time, in life or death, is she ever truly herself.
Interweaving segments in an attempt to uncover her identity at various points in her life. Martinez carefully reconstructs conversations and interviews he has had with people connected to Evita, dead or alive. These journalistic starting points facilitate flashbacks relating scenes from Evita's youth, rise to power and rapid physical decline. But which Evita is the real one: the illegitimate little girl who must sneak into her father's funeral or the demigod standing next to Peron on the balcony of the national palace?
The question is unanswerable, and rather than dwelling on this point, Martinez emphasizes the incompleteness of historical facts. Only fiction can fill in some of the gaps, but even fiction cannot tell the full story of the "Argentine saint." Martinez admits this fundamental inability to the reader: "I accumulated floods of cards and stories so as to be able to fill in all the blank spaces of what, later on, was going to be my novel. But I left them where they were, leaving the story, because I am fond of unexplained blank spaces." Instead of chasing the impossible, Martinez writes about the magic and mystery associated with Evita with impressive skill and completeness.
At the same time, the author keeps a running commentary on the nature of history and storytelling. Martinez bases the shifting structure of his story on the idea that "nothing is like anything else, nothing is ever just one story, but a net that each person weaves without knowing the overall pattern." Martinez realizes that the work of other artists who have attempted to capture Evita is part of this patchwork, and he mentions fellow Argentinean writers Rodolfo Walsh and Jorge Luis Borges frequently. He even discusses the opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, calling it precisely the simplification he wishes to avoid: "a sing-along article out of selections from the Reader's Digest."
In Santa Evita, Evita emerges as a more complex figure whose identity was confused with that of Argentina and the adoring masses. Martinez drags a lifeless body through the pages of his novel, hoping that his presentation of the true-life adventures of Evita's corpse will shed some light on her existence. What emerges is more than just a meditation on the life and death of Eva Peron. Martinez has constructed a remarkably entertaining and insightful look at the way history is formed, insisting that both truth and fiction feed our knowledge of the past and the present.