Review: Santa Evita (Tomás Eloy Martínez)

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(Photo by Robin Minchum, at Perón Perón [x])

I accumulated floods of file cards and stories so as to be able to fill in all the unexpected 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.

In this, I am of one mind with the author. And it is more for the ‘unexplained blank spaces’ and for the swampy, indefinable territory between history and fiction that I came to Santa Evita, than out of any knowledge or particular interest in Argentine history.

It’s a long, meandering novel, and it feels appropriate to begin by discussing the ending, not least as the ending concerns the work’s beginning. By its close, I felt more than anything the strength of its similarities with Javier Cercas’ far more compact Soldiers of Salamis (2001; Santa Evita was first published in 1995). Whether there was direct influence I won’t speculate, but the same slightly neurotic, ambivalent narrator is pulled inexorably, reluctantly into both stories. Both are stories mired in a violent, vivid memory of history, and both thus encourage ambivalence: the accidental moment where a leading fascist was spared death, and the strange indignities to which the body of Eva Perón was subjected after her husband’s first deposition in 1952. Soldiers of Salamis discovers an ending full of internationalism and hope, however, where Santa Evita finds the author finally able to return to Argentina after years of exile, unable, or unwilling, to fully describe the hold that Evita’s story has on him — and on the other subjects of his story — though perhaps it is indescribable, recognised and understood only by the Argentines who lived through the politics of the twentieth century.

It is an interesting story, though not, perhaps a satisfying one. Santa Evita weaves an imagined account of Evita’s last days with the author’s interpretations of newsreel footage and his interviews with figures such as her hairdresser. It also wanders into her past, via the recollections of her mother and fellow actresses, and the lascivious speculations of her political enemies, but its focus is largely on the reception of her corpse by Perónists and by the military following Juan Perón’s flight from Argentina later in the year that she died.

The author retains a sympathy for all the characters who appear in his text, though he describes himself as a distant, unemotive and on occasions cruel researcher, as in the encounter with ‘Irene’. He is perhaps keen to emphasise the journalistic intent that originally prompted his investigations; or perhaps mired in the depression that he claims lifted miraculously upon his decision to write the story down. The sympathetic approach to all the individuals involved, from his depiction of Eva Perón’s last days, to the struggles of the man initially tasked with concealing the embalmed corpse, means that this is not a novel with a particularly strident political message. It explores madnesses and insecurities on all sides, teasing out the human doubts of its subjects, and the inappropriateness of their equally human lack of doubt. Some of Martínez’s ‘revelations’ are shocking — such as all that is inflicted upon the corpse — and others are less so — the proposed reason for the young actress Evita’s mysterious absence from the historical record for a period of eleven months or so will probably surprise no female reader, at least.

A sense of personal dislocation and unease permeates the novel, where description is at its finest in instances such as when a source’s brief flashes of emotion are accompanied by his need to look away from the author, who describes this expression as one in which the subject’s experienced emotion is thought to be the mislaid emotion of some other person, whom he then looks for. The involuntary nature of our feelings and the actions that they induce us to take is a constant here: never investigated directly, nor questioned, but implicitly underlying the inexorable descent into obsession that so many characters in the novel experience.

The story is also one of male possession. Evita’s voice opens its narrative, her dreamy self-reflections as she lies weakening, dying of cancer, but after her death her wishes are denied, she is talked of and talked over and constantly redefined as an object of want by so many others. The way in which her requests are ignored upon her death; the way that her mother gradually loses influence over what is to happen to her daughter’s remains; the fearful helplessness of Colonel Koenig’s wife; of Arancibia’s sister-in-law; the unaffected horror of Irene when informed that she had not had a doll as her childhood companion, but a real, human body; all cry out pitifully from the margins of the novel. As Perón claimed to have made her, so each man who encounters her body after death remakes her in his own imagination, turning the hatred of slurs — Mare — and attempts at distance — Person — into a fierce struggle to ‘tame’ bones and formaldehyde, and the dangerous ideas that live on with her preserved corpse.

Eva Perón died at 33, the same age that Christ was supposed to have died, the same age that medieval representations of the dead aimed to show their subjects. Like all good saints, she must have a martyrdom, only in Santa Evita the deprivations and misunderstandings that martyrs are subjected to occur after her death, to her impassive body. Flowers and candles apparently planted by her supporters, and the scent of lavender from the embalmer’s ointments, are the standard attributes of a saintly corpse. But the removal of a finger, a nick of her ear, a star-shaped incision, and the endless longing hands of a stream of fascinated men are Evita’s trials after death; she is as passive in her ‘sufferings’ as the tortured women of medieval saints’ lives.

The novel offers neither historical fact, nor closure to the reader. Like Soldiers of Salamis, I am most fond of it when the author’s voice is clearest, musing on the nature of truth and fiction and watching, listening to his sources, drawing sad and lonely people with an effective line or two of description, or by recounting a night of conversation between them and the author. Martínez somehow needed to tell this story, but he does not offer a full explanation of why. Prompted to ‘join the cult’ by Rodolfo Walsh, who stayed, and died, for his publications, he does not say whether following the story that he found himself investigating to its end(s) brought him any closure for himself. But he doesn’t really need to say; the loose ends, the blank spaces, are true to both life and to the form of the novel. They leave us space to think in, and they leave the story space to just be, without imposing any trite, moralising conclusions or explanations for the events within it.


I read the translation by Helen Lane from 1996.

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