A thoroughly modern myth - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

A thoroughly modern myth

Eva Pern: A Biography by Alicia Dujovne Ortz trs Shawn Fields, Little, Brown pounds 6.99 and Santa Evita: A Novel by Toms Eloy Martnez trs Helen Lane, Doubleday pounds 15.99

The plainly titled Eva Pern, the accredited biography of Argentina's first and forever First Lady, is presented as a historical chronology, but from the first chapter it cannot resist references to the "Norma Shearer of Junn" and "Tango in Los Toldos" - Eva's alternative birthplaces. The more fantastical Santa Evita begins where Eva Pern leaves off, at the point when Eva, as the nation was told, "entered immortality" on 26 July 1952, after suffering from uterine cancer. The account is deliberately confusing, not only with its macabre multiplicity of corpses (one "miraculous corpse" and three carefully crafted effigies), but also with its dual account of the iconography of Eva and the obsessions of the author.

According to Dujovne Ortz , Eva's first day at school was scarred by a chalked scrawl on the blackboard informing the entire class of her illegitimacy. Her father was Juan Duarte, a crooked minor local landowner with a parallel, wedlocked family; he acknowledged her in life if not in name. At the height of her political power, Eva would push through a law awarding bastards the same rights as other children, while promoting the legalisation of divorce.

She was born sometime between 1919 and 1922 (even her marriage certificate lies on this, as on much else); arrived by car (or train) in Buenos Aires aged 14 (or 16), with or without the tango singer (or dancer) Agustn Magaldi (accompanied, or not, by his wife). She joined Radio Belgrano as a soap star with cinematic aspirations, but with a verbal dyslexia that had her pronouncing consonants the wrong way around and a constitutional incapacity for investing her lines with emotional conviction. Casting round for another route to the main chance, Eva then associated herself with the Communication Workers' Union, rising through the ranks to become its general secretary in 1943. Her life altered dramatically when she met one Colonel Pern, purportedly on 22 January 1944, a week after the fateful night of the San Juan earthquake in which 10,000 died.

Here again there are two versions of her first words to him: "I am grateful to know you exist" (as apparently recorded on a contemporary newsreel) or the speech she preferred to recall in later years: "If your cause is the people's, then I will be at your side, no matter what the sacrifices I make" - not that one imagines a cheesecake actress running low on parts would have that many hostages to offer to fortune. It was revenge and redemption Eva was after: revenge on her own humble origins through merging with a grandiose national identity ("I am millions") and redemption for the poor and dispossessed.

Even this brief synopsis of her arrival and exit cannot, however, easily be gleaned from either of these books. Latin American writers have been at the forefront of a literary genre which refuses to distinguish myth from history. In fact, the former may be the true version of the experience of those otherwise "hidden from history", the vanquished. Eva invented herself and the Argentine nation (itself called a "recent figment of a collective imagination") and fabricated an icon from that invention. A lay icon, in political terms, but a religious one in that she closely conformed to Vatican requirements for early beatification: a "saintly" existence; a response to the prayers of the faithful and the working of veritable miracles. Even her dead body was rifled for relics by graverobbers who cut off her hair, one finger and part of an ear.

Eloy Martnez calls Eva's meeting with Pern "an epiphany; she believed herself to be Saul on the road to Damascus, saved by a light from heaven ... Pern was the redeemer and she the downtrodden victim." Was he the vampire, sapping her youthful energy to advance the ambitions he still hadn't realised, or was she harnessing her trade union links to his political star, obtaining patronage of the Trades Union Council for her candidacy as Vice President, a campaign that it took the President himself to sabotage?

Dujovne Ortz quotes contemporaries in affirming that "Eva was asexual. That was her affinity with Pern, for he too was not very sexual. The marriage united two wills, two passions for power. It was not a marriage for love." Fatherless, Eva had frequently used older men, not only to keep her in clothes and rent-money but to advance her theatrical pretensions. Pern in his turn wanted to fabricate a Galatea - one who would learn to eat with her mouth closed and produce rabble-rousing platitudes, while bleaching her hair and dressing from Dior.

But Eva seized her chance to foment power. If she was denied direct access to a political stage, she would take what histrionic skills she possessed and devise parallel structures - through the Association of Peronist Women (which secured the vote for women in 1947) and the Eva Pern Foundation, which established schools, hospitals and policies of free primary education and healthcare, wages for women and birth-control programmes which led to a drop in maternal and infant mortality rates.

When in 1947 the army threatened rebellion, it was Eva who armed the populace, moving in on the military headquarters at the Campo de Mayo (something Pern failed to do to forestall his ousting in 1955, three years after her death). Conversely, in 1949, when the economy was running out of steam for the promised grandiose plans, and Pern wanted to send in troops to quell mass discontent, she presented herself at her most frail and female to trade union leaders, soft- soaping them into further concessions. Her sense of timing was as exact as Pern's was lumbering, and he never enjoyed the popular base she managed to establish with the common people and against the elite. This phenomenal power-base she called the descamisados (literally, those without a shirt to their backs, the truly indigent). In Helen Lane's unusually slack translation of Eloy Martnez , the term becomes "greasers".

Nothing is simple in Eva's history. It is as well, in fact, that in Spanish "history" and "story" are the same word. It is too simple to claim that Dujovne Ortz is the biographer of a life and Eloy Martnez the raconteur of a posthumous fantasy. Both use scandal and gossip, miracles and obsessions in their repertoire. Dujovne Ortz relies heavily on secondary sources, building on the earlier biographies of John Barnes, Abel Posse, Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro. Her book sports a sound bibliography but, infuriatingly, lacks an index. It contains much background and some original and convincing work about the formalised links between not only fascism but Nazism and Peronism (one reason why the Italian communists successfully sabotaged Eva's visit on her "rainbow tour" of Europe in 1947).

Eloy Martnez follows his own personal quest for Evita, searching for the one true corpse amid the replicas, and through his own depressions and obsessions, compulsions and insomnia. This alternates with repeated attempts to seize the moment amid the mythology, at times resorting to diary entries and lists of salient characteristics in the attempt to order an increasingly unwieldy legend. At times the journeys meld and we read of Eloy Martnez 's "necrophiliac relationship" with the daughter of one Emilio Kaufman, alternating with that between his neighbour, the film projectionist at the Rialto where Eva's coffin was briefly hidden, and his daughter who used the mummified corpse as a giant doll.

Confusing? Of course, and as unreliable as any funeral oration or literary post mortem can be. Eloy Martnez , having started Lewis Carroll-wise at the end and thereby returned to the beginning, candidly concludes by admitting: "I don't know where in the story I am. In the middle I believe." Each book complements the other, and neither has the monopoly on either the history or the legend. Either, however, offers considerably more of both the credible and the fabulous regarding the "Madonna of the Americas" than the Madonna of the celluloid Evita.

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