The Enigma of Evita : ...

Kelly Cherry is the author of "Writing the World" (University of Missouri Press)

By now we have grown used to thinking of history as fiction. We've read the "nonfiction novel," the New Journalism, the biography whose subject thinks thoughts that the biographer, apparently, can mind-read years later. We have forgotten that "magical realism" is an oxymoron.

But are we ready for the life that is pure theater?

"She came out of the shadows of the wings," writes Tomas Eloy Martinez in his new, marvelously absorbing and wildly funny novel about Eva Peron, "opened a door and walked to the center of the stage. She was never to leave it."

Never. After her death, "her body lay in state for 12 days. . . . Half a million people kissed the coffin. . . . The coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by an escort of 35 labor union representatives in shirt-sleeves. Seventeen-thousand soldiers were posted in the streets to render her military honors. A million-and-a-half yellow roses, stocks from the Andes, white carnations, orchids from the Amazon, sweet peas from Lake Nahuel Huapi and chrysanthemums sent by the emperor of Japan in warplanes were thrown from balconies. 'Numbers,' the colonel said. 'That woman's only anchor to reality now is numbers.' "

Eva Peron had "ceased to be what she said and what she did to become what people say she said and what people say she did."

Martinez, born in Argentina and now teaching at Rutgers University, previously published "The Peron Novel" about Juan Peron. Here he gives us "Santa Evita," a novel that is about Eva but also about his search for this novel about her. Thus we hear, or think we hear, from the sources he consulted, including her hairdresser, her mother and, indirectly, the aforementioned colonel, whom her husband had assigned to spy on her.

One such source is the doctor drafted by Juan Peron to embalm his wife's corpse when she died in 1952. Her husband had realized that the corpse, as a locus of national sentiment both pro and con, was too valuable to just stick in the ground. It would become a relic, something like a saint's finger bone or Christ's foreskin. To fool anyone who might come looking, copies were made, or so it was rumored. It was rumored that there were corpses galore. Will the real Eva please not stand up?

These peregrinations of a multiplied corpse are hilarious in the retelling, however dead earnest the intentions of various governmental factions in, supposedly, finding, losing, burying, exhuming and burying again. A corpse appears in Madrid, another turns up in Milan, a third in Germany--that country with whose history Argentina's has been so entangled.

In 1969, the colonel, watching Neil Armstrong dig a hole for a flagpole, decides the true corpse is being interred on the moon. "So beautiful," someone in Houston is heard to murmur about the flag.

"She's the most beautiful person in this world," the colonel, by now permanently ensconced within a haze of gin, says, thinking he's agreeing with Houston.

She had not always been so beautiful, according to Alicia Dujovne Ortiz. In her biography, "Eva Peron," she describes her subject at 24, her age when she met her husband: "Her face was waiting, malleable, like clay, which was also the color of her skin. Pygmalion's tragedy seems to be knocking on the door." Ortiz attempts to account for the passions aroused by a woman who, she says, was born of unmarried parents and provincial but had always potentially possessed the royal personality of a queen, or at least of "Norma Shearer playing the part of Marie Antoinette."

Unfortunately, hypothesized dialogue, a subjunctive case out of control (she might have thought this, he could have said that), and some completely weird suggestions--did Evita "inherit" an "aptitude to survive" by sleeping around? Did her "aquiline nose" give away "her power"?--undermine this book's claim to seriousness. "She was 11, then she was 12, then 13"--and so she was, but is this a biography? "Eva Peron" reads more like a young adult romance with a bibliographical appendix.

Still, the book serves as an introduction to the life and death so interestingly shaped by Martinez's part-historical, part-autobiographical, part-fictional novel and gives us a vivid and most useful portrait of the social and political climate of the country in which Eva came of age and, so soon afterward--when she was 33--died.

"In My Own Words: Evita," translated by Laura Dail, presents the first English translation of "My Message," the manuscript purported by some (denied by her estate) to have been written or dictated by Eva on her deathbed. According to this document, "The suffering of the poor, the humble, the great pain of so much of humanity without sun and without sky hurts me too much to keep quiet." If she wrote those words, she wrote them in great pain and without sun and without sky, although on the first day of her husband's second term as president she had insisted on accompanying him on his visit to Congress. They rode, standing up, in a convertible. A hidden plaster cast held her up next to the window of the car. She had uterine cancer and weighed 82 pounds.

In a section titled "Fanatics," she--if it is she--states, "I would give my life for Peron and for the people . . . because I am sure that only by giving it will I win the right to live in them for all of eternity."

Reading these books, we are reminded of the mystery that is any human being. Was Eva Peron a good person or power hungry? Was she superficial or always more aware of the world around her than her desire to declaim poems--or as she called them, "poetries"--led others to think? Was she selfish, conniving, cold? Or truly devoted to her descamisados--the poor and downtrodden, literally "the shirtless"--compassionate, a warm and loving heart? Most of us are not one thing or another--we are many things. Surely we don't need to refuse her the right to contradict herself or change. One way or another, she became herself.

Or maybe not. As Martinez says, "People construct the myth of the body however they please, read Evita's body with the grammatical declensions of their gaze. She can be anything and everything." She may be a myth for the ages, preserved precisely because a gaze transforms her, enduring precisely because she was a woman of her time.

Eternity is still a long way off, of course. Look, we're still in the same century, even, these hundred years of horror and hoax, of tragedy and the tragically absurd. Will Eva Peron continue, in the next hundred years, to live "in the people"? It's too soon to say.

In the meantime, she's alive and well and living onstage and, soon, the screen. We don't have to wait an eternity to see the movie, and I, for one, wouldn't miss it for the world.

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