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Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

Review: Santa Evita


Reviewed Work(s): Santa Evita by Toms Eloy Martinez
Review by: Carlos Fuentes
Source: Transition, No. 70 (1996), pp. 44-51
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African and
African American Research at Harvard University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935347
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( Under Review

SANTA EVITA
Diary of a reader

Carlos Fuentes
looks like it was filmed before the inIn 1943, I lived with my family on the

corner of Quintana and Callao in

vention of cinema. Eva Duarte would

Buenos Aires. I had just turned fifteen, also make an occasional appearance on

but was not going to school so as to

the cover of Antena magazine, in badly

avoid the fascist ideology fostered by the cut swimsuits or decked out as a sailor.

minister of education, Martinez Zuviria.

In the apartment building where we

I wanted to go back to Mexico, and Ar- lived, everybody left in the morning at

gentina was just an interlude. Rather ten; the only people remaining were
than study, I read Borges, followed the myself, reading Borges and listening to
tango orchestra ofAnibal Troilo, went to Eva, and a gorgeous European woman
the movies on Lavalle Street, and listened who lived alone on the floor above us.

to the soaps on the radio.


The actress Eva Duarte starred in a ra-

One morning I played dumb and went


to knock at her door. She appeared, all

dio series on famous women in history: platinum and with an artificial mole on
Marie Antoinette, the empress Carlotta,

her cheek. I had lost my copy of Sin-

Madame Du Barry . .. These programs tonfa, I apologized, and wanted to know


were announced in the bible of Argen- if Eva Duarte would be playing Joan of
Discussed

in this essay
Santa Evita,

tine radio, Sintonia. They were quite


atrocious, and she was a terrible actress.

Tomas Eloy Martinez transcribes her

Tomas Eloy Martinez, tirades

New York: Knopf

Arc this morning.

- No, answered my neighbor. Today


she is doing Du Barry. She is less saintly,

to perfection in his splendid but more amusing.

novel, Santa Evita: "Macksmilian is suf-

Thus it came about, indirectly, that I

fering, suffering, and I vill go mad!" Eva owe my sexual initiation to Eva Peron. I

Duarte's films were no better; I remem-

knew her, by voice, even before Colonel

Evita, 1944

ber seeing an adaptation ofAlarcon's La Juan Domingo Peron himself, who at

UPI/Corbis-Bettman

Pr6diga which, as Eloy Martinez notes, the time was minister of labor in the

44 TRANSITION ISSUE 70

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military cabinet of General Edelmiro

Eloy Martinez goes back to the source

Farrel, and was already said to be the

of this Latin American paradox to re-

power behind the throne. My surprise

mind us, first of all, that in it lies the ori-

knew no bounds when I learned a year

gin of the novel; then, to subject this

later that Peron and Eva Duarte had met

paradox to the test of biography (the life

the year before and were now starring in and death of a historical figure, Eva

their own radio soap opera, acting out Peron); and finally, to restore a docubefore the crowds, without any need to mented and documentable history to its
pretend to be Caesar, or Cleopatra. I sawfactual truth, which is fiction.

them together for the first time on a

The only duty we have toward history

newsreel: they were on their balcony is to rewrite it, says OscarWilde, quoted
overlooking Plaza de Mayo, and I real- by Eloy Martinez. And the Argentine
ized that from now on Eva Duarte and

author continues, "Any account is, by

Juan Peron would be playing two chardefinition, unfaithful. Reality ... cannot

acters, "Eva Duarte" and "Juan Per6n."


be told or repeated. The only thing we
can do with reality is to invent it anew."

Eva Per6n, Cinderella in power, exercised


And if
it like the stepmother in a fairy tale.

history is one of the literary gen-

res, "why deprive it of the imagination,


absurdity, exaggeration, and defeat which

As Eloy Martinez notes, they ceased are


to the raw materials of literature?"
distinguish between truth and fiction,Walter Benjamin wrote that when a
and decided that reality would be whathistorical figure has been redeemed, all
ever they pleased; they acted as novelists.
of his past can be cited, apotheoses and
"Doubt had vanished from their lives."

secrets alike. Let us imagine for a moment the unredeemed life of Eva

Duarte, born in the little village of Los


To many, the Latin American novel has
Toldos on May 9, 1919-an illegitimate

become synonymous with a kind of


child, a virtually illiterate girl who never
magic, a dizzying, fantastical reality which
learned to spell, who would say, "I am

warps the boundaries of the everyday.going to the phygician" when she was
First the novels of Carpentier, then thosegoing to the physician, forced to learn

of Garcia Marquez and Roa Bastos, gave


the basics of etiquette: an Eliza Doolita supreme and unsurpassable literary lifetie from the heartland of Argentina,

to this hyperbolic truth. It was not-iswaiting only for a Professor Higgins to


not-possible to go further, in this reteach her to pronounce her aitches. Ingard, than The Autumn of the Patriarchstead, she was taken to Buenos Aires at
and I, the Supreme. It remains true, howage fifteen by a conductor named Car-

ever, that the novel can hardly competeifio, a comedian whose orchestra played
with history in Latin America. Garciatango, and who was wont to dress up as
Marquez himself said to me, regardingCharlie Chaplin.
the incredible recent events in Mexico:

When Eva Peron began her spectacWe should cast our books into the sea,
ular rise, the elites and the oligarchy of
for reality has surpassed them. Tomas
Argentina attacked her with ferocious

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Eva and Juan

Peron addressing
the crowd from

the balcony of
the Casa Rosada,
Buenos Aires,
1950.

AP/Wide World Photos

contempt: "That cheap hussy, that


emies
bassaw beyond the cultivated,
tard bar floozy, that little shit." In Parisian,
the eyesCartesian Argentina which the

of her social enemies, Eva Duarte


was
elite
of"a
Buenos Aires presented to the

base resurrection of barbarism,"


in aled by Victoria Ocampo and Sur
world,
country convinced that it was "so
magazine.
ethe- After all, didn't fiction van-

real and spiritual it had nearly quish


evapohistory, imagination reality, in a
rated." The defeat-mediate and imme-

country where the soldiers at a camp lost

diate-of the Argentine oligarchy andin Patagonia would tie six or seven dogs
its pretensions by the "cheap hussy" to
is a wall, organize a firing squad, and execute them in a frenzy of missed shots,
one of the best stories of political venge-

blood, and howls? "Our only amuseEvita wielded a single historicalment here is executions," Eloy Martinez

ance in our century.

recalls, and describes the penchant of the


weapon in this vendetta: she did not for-

Argentine military for sects, crypgive or pardon anyone who had humiliated her, insulted her, hurt her. But her
tograms, and the occult sciences, which

mythical weapon was even more powerculminated in the reign of the "Sorful: Eva Duarte believed in the miracles

cerer" L6pez Rega, eminence grise of the

of the radio soaps. "She thought that, ifsubsequent Mrs. Peron, Isabelita. Only in

there had been one Cinderella, there a fable would we find the plan of an Arcould well be two." And she was right: gentine colonel to assassinate Per6n by
this much she knew, and this her ene- slicing off his tongue as he slept. And
mies did not know. Evita was Cinderella, only in a fable would young Eva have
armed and dangerous.

already launched her "philanthropic" career by supporting a tribe of mute albi-

nos who had escaped from an instiNo matter how sordid the story of the tution. (When Evita presented them to

origins and rise of Eva Duarte may ap- Peron, a group all naked and covered
pear, from the outset it is paralleled bywith shit, the horrified general sent
another story which is historical, myth- them away, out into the country-

ical, magical. The enemies of Evita saw where they escaped once more, disaponly the naturalistic novel, a la Zola: pearing into the cornfields.) Reality or
Evita Nana. She sought to live the dra- fiction? The answer: reality is fiction.
matic novel, a la Dumas: Cinderella
Eloy Martinez admits it: the forces at
Montecristo. But neither she nor her en-

play in his novel are dubious, but no

SANTA EVITA 47

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Eva Per6n

speaking at labor
meeting, Buenos
Aires, 1951.
Corbis-Bettman

more than language itself. Lapses ofbe as hard as any general or politician,
memory filter tainted truths: "Perhapsbut this was secondary; now Cinderella

none of what seemed to be happening did not have to do bad films or bad rawas really happening. Perhaps history dio plays. Cinderella could act in history,
was made not of realities but of dreams.

and even see herself making history:

Men dreamed of events, and then writ- Eloy Martinez recounts a marvelous

ers invented the past. Life did not ex- scene in which Eva, from her theater

ist-only stories did."

seat, watches Eva onscreen paying a visit

Eva Peron, Cinderella in power, ex- to Pope Pius XII. The frustrated actress
ercised it like the stepmother in a fairy repeats in a whisper the silent dialogue

tale. Like a Robin Hood in skirts, she

between First Lady and Holy Father. She

gave everything away, attending to the no longer has to act in the disgraceful
long lines of people in need of furniture, settings of Argentina Sono Film. Now

a wedding gown, a hospital. Argentina her stage is nothing less than theVatican,
became her own Island of Barataria; the the World ... and Heaven. Only God, afonly difference was that she herself was ter all, can write a perfect script. But to

Don Quijote, and Sancho Panza, her imitate God's imagination is to accede to
down-to-earth, snub-nosed, working- his celestial kingdom while still on this
class husband, devoid of charisma until earth. Santa Evita did so in her lifetime:
she invented a myth for him, a myth he in 1951 a sixteen-year-old girl, Evelina,

finally came to accept. Eva Peron could wrote Evita two thousand letters, at a

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rate of five or six a day. All contained the

corpse disappear. But they do not incin-

same text, as befits a prayer addressed to

erate it, though it would have been easy,

a saint. Evita was already in her lifetime

with all the wrappings soaked in chem-

the Virgin of Guadalumpen, as Ricardo

icals: she would have ignited at the touch

Gariby says of Mexico's patron saint.

of a match. The president in office de-

How could such a body, such an im-

crees, instead, that she be given a Chris-

age, possibly endure illness and death? "I

tian burial. Her body is "bigger than the

would rather die of pain than sadness,"

says Eva Peron when her cancer be-

Eva Duarte, born in the little village

comes terminal. At thirty-three years of

of Los Toldos on May 9, 1919-an

age, that powerful, beautiful, adored,


capricious, and philanthropic woman,
the wife of Peron but also mistress of the

descamisados, Mother of the Greaseheads,

illegitimate child, a virtually illiterate


girl who never learned to spell, an Eliza

sinks irrevocably into an unbearable

Doolittle from the heartland of Argentina,

early death, taken by the Fates.... And

waiting only for a Professor Higgins

the legend surrounding her is enlarged


by her agony. Her valet, Renzi, removes

to teach her to pronounce her aitches

the mirrors from the bedroom of the dy-

ing woman, keeps the scale at an un-

country," and Argentines put into it "all

changing 46 kilos in perpetuity, tampers

their shit, their hatred, their craving to

with the radios so she won't hear the

kill it again." And their grief. Perhaps, af-

lamentations of the crowd: Evita is dyter a Christian burial, Evita will finally
fall into oblivion.
ing. But it is in death that Eva Peron begins her real life. This is the essence ofBut Eva Peron, mistress of her fate at

Tomas Eloy Martinez's hallucinatory


last, refuses to disappear. Masterfully, Eloy
novel.

Martinez reveals to us the ways in which


she stays alive, ensuring her immortality,

as her body becomes an object of pleaDr. Ara, a true criollo Frankenstein,sure


is even for those who hate her, even
charged with giving immortal life to the
for her custodians.... Fetishism, as Freud

embalmed corpse of Eva Peron. "Evita


observes, is a displacement of the sexual

had become firm and young, likeobject.


a
It provides a surrogate satisfactwenty-year-old.... Her entire body ration-satisfaction, but also frustration.
diated a soft fragrance of lavender and alThe guardians of Evita's corpse do not

monds ... a beauty which made one forjust replace an impossible sexual love
get all the otherjoys in the universe." Dr.
with a National Goddess. They ensure

Ara's final, theatrical touch is to suspend


the corpse's survival, assisted by Dr.

the dead woman in thin air, supported


Ara-who prays, of course, that his masby invisible threads: "Visitors fell to their
terpiece will endure. The corpse is trip-

knees, and arose lightheaded."

licated: the real one and two copies, the


When Peron falls in I955, the neworiginal identified by hidden marks on
military rulers decide to make Evita's
the genitals and the ear. The corpse

SANTA EVITA 49

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Eva Per6n's

funeral, Buenos
Aires, 1952.
UPl/Corbis-Bettman

corpses-are moved around to createman. "She ceased to be what she said


confusion in a funereal odyssey fromand did, to become what people say she
garret to projection room, from Patag-said and people say she did."
onian jails to Army trucks and transat- The art of the embalmer is akin to

lantic ships. She is called The Deceased. that of the biographer. It consists of

TD. TW (That Woman). She is calledfreezing a life or a body, says Eloy


"the Person." The French personne, whichMartinez, "in the pose in which eternity
means at once "somebody" and "no-must remember them." But Evita's des-

body," perfectly captures the ambiguitytiny is incomplete. Maddened by Eva,

of this sobriquet. That Person who is Colonel Moori Koenig, one of her

Nobody is idolized by her successivecorpse's many guardians, believes he is


jailers. Evita survives all calamities. Herwitnessing the destiny of Nobody when
death is both her fiction and her reality.he sees American astronauts land on the

Wherever it is taken, the corpse beginsmoon.When Armstrong begins digging


each day mysteriously surrounded by ta-to collect moon rocks, the colonel cries

pers and flowers. The task of the care-out, "She is being buried on the moon!"

takers becomes impossible. They mustI myself prefer this other climax: the arcombat a death whose life millions be-

tillery captain Milton Galarza escorts the

lieve in. Her ghostly reappearances arebody of Nobody to Genoa on board the
many and identical: she says only that the Contessino Bianocamano. The embalmed

future will be somber. As ever, Santacorpse is knocked about in a huge casEvita is infallible.

ket filled with newspapers and bricks.

The embalmer always knew it: "Dead,Galarza's only pastime during the crossshe can be infinite." It is Dr. Ara who is

ing is to go down to the hold and talk

entrusted, after Evita's death, with an- every night with Nobody. Eva Peron, his
swering the letters still sent by her faith- corpse, "is a liquid sun."
ful, asking for wedding gowns, furniture,

jobs. "I send you a kiss from Heaven,"


replies the dead woman. "I speak with The Russian formalist Victor Schlovsky
God every day." The jailers of the corpse admired the daring of those writers caare, themselves, prisoners of that ghost of pable of revealing the inner design of

Nobody, The Dead Woman, That Wo-

their novels, who made shameless display

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of their methods. Don Quijote and Tris-

never ceases to exist, make me exist; she

tram Shandy are two famous examples;

makes of her existence an exaggeration."

Cortazar's Hopscotch is a great contem-

Tomas Eloy Martinez is the last cus-

porary example. Tomas Eloy Martinez's

todian of The Deceased, the last lover of

novel belongs to this club. Santa Evita

Nobody, the last historian of That

is constructed somewhat like Orson

Woman.

Welles's Citizen Kane, with testimony


from a varied cast of people who knew
Evita and her corpse: the embalmer, Santa
her Evita is the story of a Latin Amer-

valet, her mother Juana Ibarguren,ican


the country which deceived itself,
which
imagines itself to be European,
projectionist from a cinema in which the
coffin was hidden-like a second film

rational, civilized, and awakens one day

bereft of illusions, as Latin American as


-behind the screen. Evita's hairdresser,
El Salvador orVenezuela-but still more
the soldier who took charge of her

insane, because it never imagined it was

corpse.

All of them, however, are transcended so vulnerable. It has been forced to recall

by the author himself. Tomas Eloy Mar- that is also the country of Facunde,

tinez is conscious of what he is doing. Rosas and Arlt-as brutally savage as its
Myth and history part ways, and be- military, who are torturers, murders, detween the two lies the defiant reign of stroyers of families, generations, and enfiction. He wishes to elevate his heroine

tire professions of Argentinians.

to fiction because he wants to save her,


in a sense, from history: "ifwe could see The art of the embalmer is akin to that
ourselves within history," he writes, "we
would be terrified. There would be no

of the biographer

history, because nobody would want


to move." To overcome that terror, theJust as Latin America invades the Re-

public of Argentina, as the povertynovelist offers us not life, but stories. The
stricken
mestizos surround the Parisian
novelist knows that "reality does not
come back to life; it is born in another
city on Rio de la Plata, so did Eva

Duarte invade the heart, the mind, the


guise, it is transformed, it reinvents itself
in novels."

guts, the dreams and nightmares of Ar-

Abandoning this credo, however, the gentina. A hallucinatory gothic novel,


novelist is doomed to live with the

a perverse love story, a shocking tale

ofinhorror-a hallucinatory, perverse,


phantom he has created, the dream
shocking national history in reverse,
vented by the past, the fiction halfway
Santa
between myth and history...."Thus
do Evita is all that and something
more.
I advance, day by day, along the thin
line

between the mythical and the true, finding my way among the lights of what did

not happen and the darks of what might

have happened. I lose myself among the

folds, and She always seeks me out. She

SANTA EVITA 51

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