***In the short span of six years between 1946 to 1952, Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentinian dictaror and founder of the Perónist party, Juan Perón, won over the Argentinian people so much so that her popularity was said to rival, if not exceed, that of Juan Perón himself. Having risen from obscurity, the youngest daugher of an unwed mother, her rise had been all the more spectacular.
Tomás Eloy Martínez's Santa Evita could have been termed as a biographical account Eva Perón's life had the author chosen to write about her short but eventful life.
Instead, he has chosen to write about her corpse.
Eva Perón's body, like Lenin's, was embalmed after she died of cancer at the age of 33, at the height of her popularity. However, before the corpse could be housed in a mausoleum for public display, Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, and thus began the after- life journey of Eva Perón, as the incumbent military government wondered what to do with the embalmed body.
To bury the corpse could have, they feared, incited the loyal Perónists and even the masses. And Eva dead was perceived as more dangerous than the living one.
Even a few replicas were created to mislead any followers, and attempts were made to bury them. For over a decade, the corpse and the replicas changed hands and locations, traversing within Argentina and to Europe- one replica was buried in Bonn and the actual corpse in Milan, Italy from where it was finally recovered and returned to Juan Perón after his return from exile in Spain.
Martínez recounts the stories of all those that came in contact with the corpse, and the often calamitous ends that they came to. Insidious accidents wait those entrusted with the corpse.
Some were haunted till death, some met with unexplicable accidents and others were relentlessly followed by a mysterious person called the 'Commander of Vengeance'.
It is characteristic of Martínez to write a novel that takes the after- life of Eva Perón rather than her not less eventful life as its theme. He does show us slices of her life too but often as flashbacks and in recollections of those that he meets with.
In a sense, therefore, he underlines the persona that outlived Eva Perón herself.
This is akin to his previous novel, the redoubtable The Perón Novel, where he focussed not so much on Peron's politically active years, but the seemingly innocuous journey of an exiled dictator returning to his home country in old age.
Santa Evita is a novel within a non- fictional account where Martínez goes out in serach of information about Eva Perón's corpse- the story emerges as he interviews people associated with Eva or later with her restless corpse.
He makes the reader an accomplice in this journey of discovery- it becomes very much like a mystery in which the reader has as many, and more often as few, clues as the writer. This makes the novel extremely readable, if not racy.
Santa Evita turned out to be unputdownable, and I finished it within a week. Along with The Perón Novel , it has been one of my best reads from Latin America in the last one year.
[Cross posted at Bhaswati Ghosh's blog: At Home, Writing]
Tags: Latin America, Argentina, Peron, Eloy Tomas Martinez, Literature, Books