Hoo boy, this book is a doozy. I'm participating in this month's Non-Structured Book Club, and am excited to see what everyone else has to say about this book. I read it when it first came out in 1996, but until now, have never found anyone else who'd read it or wanted to talk about it. So! Let's get started.
This is a macabre, dark little tale, not least because the line between fiction and nonfiction is so muddled. Author Tomas Eloy Martinez regularly inserts himself into the text, explaining his methods of research, recounting interviews he conducted, highlighting a-ha moments. So does that make this metafiction, or is it just lightly fictionalized nonfiction? Is there such a thing?
As it turns out, that's exactly the right approach for the topic. Santa Evita isn't about Eva Peron's life as much as it is about what happened to her body after she died, and the people who were responsible for it. Dr. Pedro Ara was brought in to embalm her in such a way that she could be permanently on display. He did an exemplary job, but while plans were being discussed for the monument that would display her, widower Juan Peron was thrown out of office and Argentina into turmoil. Evita's body became a political football. To throw Peronists off track, the military had copies made of the body, then had the copies and the real body shipped all over the place. Evita's body eventually ended up buried under another name in Milan, until her husband was returned to power in the 1970s, and she was dug up and returned to Argentina. Today she rests under several layers of protection in Buenos Aires' Recoleta Cemetery.
Martinez suggests that the military men appointed to hide the body and the copies ultimately suffered emotional breakdowns, developing bizarre attachments to the one they called Person and the Mare. He even goes so far as to suggest necrophilia--not exactly the most charming of ideas, but apparently it's a rumor that's persisted for decades.
But how much is true, and how much is rumor? Who knows? That's a big subtext of this book--where does truth begin or end? If we say something is true, does that make it true? Early in the book, Colonel Moore Koenig is quoted: "'Rumor,' he was saying, 'is the precaution that facts take before becoming truth.'" Later, Martinez speaks as himself:
"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."
That appears to be what Martinez is doing with the known facts and unsubstantiated rumors. In the obituary printed in the New York Times earlier this year, the writer noted that the facts of the novel are bizarre, but true. By relating them with explanations of his research and interviews, Martinez makes the book read as nonfiction. This gives the book a weirdly hallucinogenic feel--well, that and the fact that it's largely about the odyssey of an embalmed body. But on almost every page is a sense of: what is real? What is fiction?
A few other things to amuse:
A long-time obsession of mine comes into play when dealing with this novel. One of the book's epigraphs is a quote from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath: "Dying/Is an art like everything else./I do it exceptionally well."
Not such an odd choice for this book, and I wouldn't think more about it, but well into the text the Colonel, sliding deeper into madness, says to himself: "This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue." Those are opening lines to an earlier Plath poem, The Moon and the Yew Tree. The lines aren't attributed in the book, but it sure set my Spidey-Plath sense tingling. Earlier in the book is a recurring theme of bees, which evoked Plath's famous bee sequence. In some of those poems, a bee box frequently takes on more ominous overtones: "Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished,/why am I cold."
It occurred to me--and maybe I'm reaching here, but bear with me--that there's some similarity between Peron and Plath. Both have had bizarre afterlives, Peron's literally and Plath's mythically. Both are polarizing figures (think people don't care about Evita? Check some of the comments under that YouTube video above). Both tied themselves to powerful men. Both died young and tragically, Plath from suicide and Person from cancer. Both of them were a weight around their widowers' necks. Oh, and hey--both were bottle blondes.
OK. I'll step away from that topic now.
Final note: if you can get your hands on a copy of the October 2010 issue of O Magazine (yes, I know, it's Oprah, we all have our faults), check out page 214. An article titled "How to Light Up a Room" has a two-page spread of people that supposedly do just that, including George Clooney, Lady Gaga, Jackie Kennedy (chatting with Michelle Obama, natch), Jesus, Amelia Earhart--and Eva Peron, apparently listening politely to Muhammed Ali. It's trippy.