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