Jesse Tangen-Mills has a review of three of Tomás Eloy Martínez’s books, Saint Evita, The Novel of Peron, and the Tango Singer at Book Slut. He gives a good overview of the books, ones I should have read some time ago, especially since I own a copy of the Novel of Peron in Spanish. Both of the Peron novels are intriguing approaches to story telling. He gave an interesting interview here where he discussed some of what he wanted to do with the books.
His first attempt, The Perón Novel, took him thirty years to complete, and took me nearly six months to find. Big Spanish-language publishing houses have bases in more than one country, certainly in the biggies like Mexico and Argentina. The really big publishing houses have a base in every country in South America, and publish roughly a dozen autóctonos novels in each country, that will only be sold within that nation. The Argentine novelist, and contemporary of Martínez, Ricardo Piglia recently described it as “the Balkanization of literature in Spanish.” A less brilliant mind might just say it sucks. Every bookseller I spoke to in Colombia had read the novel, but didn’t have it. The translation was much easier to get used. In the end, I decided to read a bootleg version first (bootleg PDFs abound in Spanish) on my grime-covered laptop, before turning to the translation.
I didn’t mind starting The Perón Novel on a laptop because it was as good as I had expected, although I should warn the the reader that despite the straightforward prose with which the novel is written, without a good foundation in Argentine history, the book’s plot — and its many unbelievable characters — will be confusing. So before I get into the novel, I need to provide some background. Perón was what no American president has ever been, but always promises to be: bipartisan. He’s a Fascist-socialist-dictator-populist. And depending on who you ask, he is all or none of those labels. He’s Mussolini, an orator he greatly admired; he’s Lenin. His second wife was Evita, Miss “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” until her death in 1952 (Martínez devotes another novel, Santa Evita, to her). Then in 1955, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu led a coup, and Perón was forced into exile for nearly twenty years. And then one day he came back. That’s where this novel begins.
It should be said that Martínez never intended these books to be nonfiction. He was adamant about that. He said it was fiction correcting the so-called “truth.” The entire book, in fact, reconstructs the arrival of Perón to Argentina and the mayhem that followed. The whole historical cast is here: José López Rega, astrologist, maniac, the Iago to Perón’s Othello; Isabel Martínez de Perón, who is also a star-reader; the dictator Aramburu’s guerrilla assassins for whom Perón is like Trotsky; the counter-insurgent Archangel, a poor boy trained in the art of taking abuse. I’m not sure if that last one is real, and all of them appear to be fictional. Astrology? Really? Yes? It’s all quite unbelievable.