Neither truth nor fiction gets much stranger than the tale that Argentinean novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez tells in this stunning, brilliant novel. The subject is the posthumous journey of Eva Peron -- that is, of her corpse.
The story begins in 1952, when hundreds of the dying Evita's poor followers are making personal sacrifices in hope that God will spare her. (They're also petitioning the Vatican to have her declared a saint.) The image this former movie actress created for herself -- as a savior of the poor -- has grown far beyond her cancer-devastated body. After she dies, that image heads for the stratosphere.
Martinez describes how Evita's perfectly preserved corpse was commandeered by the Army when Peron fell in 1955 and shuttled from one place to another for nearly two years before being buried under a false name in Italy. The Argentinean Army feared that the corpse, a sacred relic to Evita's followers, would become a lightning rod for the Peronists. But they were also afraid to destroy the body and become the target of popular rage. The officers charged with transporting the corpse were obsessed with it, and terrified that the catastrophes that befell almost everyone who came in contact with it would also befall them.
The most incredible thing about this story is that it's true, or true to the stories told to Martinez by the military officials he talked to. For Martinez, this tale -- which he relates in fetid, intoxicating prose, as eerily enticing as the faint odor of lavender said to emanate from the corpse -- isn't just a way into his country's essence but into its soul. Santa Evita is an implicit, mournful indictment of a stillborn country hoping for miraculous deliverance.
It's also an expression of faith in the power of stories -- not to resolve mysteries but to bring forth other stories. "I have rowed with words," Martinez writes, as obsessed as the men and the country he writes of, "carrying Santa Evita in my boat, from one shore of the blind world to the other. I don't know where in the story I am. In the middle, I believe. I've been in the middle for a long time. Now I must write again." Martinez lays out the fruits of his detective work only to tell us nothing is resolved. Santa Evita is the closest thing to a great novel I've read this year. -- Salon
What ever happened to Evita Pern's embalmed body? Therein lies a tale by the director of the Latin American Program at Rutgers.
Read an Excerpt
On coming out of a faint that lasted more than three days, Evita was certain at last that she was going to die. The terrible pains in her abdomen had gone away, and her body was clean again, alone with itself, in a bliss without time or place. Only the idea of death still hurt her. The worst part about death was not that it occurred. The worst part about death was the whiteness, the emptiness, the loneliness of the other side: one's body racing off like a galloping steed.
Although the doctors kept telling her that her anemia was in remission and that in a month or less she would regain her health, she barely had the strength left to open her eyes. She was unable to get out of bed no matter how intently she focused her energies on her elbows and heels, and even the slight effort of turning over on one side or the other to relieve the pain left her breathless.
She did not seem to be the same person who had arrived in Buenos Aires in 1935 without a penny to her name, and who acted in hopeless theaters where her pay was a cup of coffee with milk. She was nothing or less than nothing then: a sparrow at an outdoor laundry sink, a caramel bitten into, so skinny it was pitiful. She began to make herself look pretty with passion, memory, and death. She wove herself a chrysalis of beauty, little by little hatching a queen, who would have ever thought it?
...Nobody realized her illness not only made her thinner but also made her more hunched up. Since they let her wear her husband's pajamas till the end, Evita drifted about more and more aimlessly inside that vast expanse of cloth. "Don't you think I look like a Jibaro, a pygmy?" she said to the ministers standing around her bed. They answered her with adulation: "Don't say that senora. If you're a pygmy, what can we be: lice, microbes?" And they changed the subject. The nurses, however, turned her reality upside down: "See how well you've eaten today?" they kept saying as they took away the dishes she hadn't touched. "You look plumper, senora." They fooled her like a child, and the rage burning inside her, with no way out, was what made her gasp for breath: more than her illness, than her decline, than the senseless terror of waking up dead and not knowing what to do."