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Dead Becomes Her

The aftermath of Eva Peron's life is a bizarre stunner

Santa Evita
By Tomas Eloy Martinez
Alfred A. Knopf; $23; 369 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Spicuzza

THE UNUSUAL LIFE of this Latin American legend may have already inspired many biographers, a Broadway play, and even an upcoming movie starring Madonna. However, Santa Evita--a new novel by Argentinean author Tomas Eloy Martinez--is the most captivating Evita lore yet. While others have explored her life, Martinez focuses on her death--the macabre post-mortem, real life journey of the woman worshipped as a saintly "Blessed Mother" by many of Argentina's working class.

This beautifully written historical novel proves "Evita's life and death are inseparable. " It is impossible to understand one without the other. Eva Peron's life was not typical by any stretch of the imagination. Born to a single mother in rural Argentina, Eva Duarte was a second-rate B-movie actress, often performing in rundown theaters for a cup of coffee or a meal. That is, until her lover became the ruler of the country and took her as his first lady. She quickly developed a cult following amongst the poor, who felt she was one of them.

Any similarities to the Cinderella story ended when she was immobilized by severe uterine cancer. As she lay dying, Evita's last request was that Peron never let her people forget their Blessed Mother. Peron followed his wife's last wishes so literally, in fact, that he had an embalmer ready and waiting when she died. For the next three years, the self-titled "artist of preservation" worked with formaldehyde to give Evita her dream of immortality. The author uses the embalmer's notes and reconstructs the intensity of a man obsessed with creating a masterpiece made out of human flesh. Fearing the enemies of Peron, the embalmer secretly made wax copies of the body, hoping to fool anyone trying to steal "his Evita."

The novel becomes more perverse with Peron's fall from power in 1955. During that time the opposition party kidnapped Evita and her wax duplicates. Martinez presents the bizarre circumstances that repeatedly prevented the burial of the real Evita, using journal entries and family interviews of the colonel entrusted to hide the body. Like the embalmer, the army officer became obsessed with Evita, believing only he could properly guard her. The problem is that Evita's followers had not forgotten her and--armed with flowers, candles and occasional explosives--tormented the soldiers hiding her. But the body apparently wants to rest in peace, and a curse haunts those who attempt to move her.

Martinez, who now lectures at Rutgers University, weaves together history, politics, corruption, class issues, gender roles and the literal objectification of women. His mastery of language, a gift for storytelling, and knowledge of the culture creates a brilliant and original novel. As Martinez explains, "The only thing that can be done with reality, and with history, is to invent it again." While the story of Evita Peron may have been told by others, it never sounded anything quite like this.

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From the November 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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