Out of body experience

Alberto Manguel follows the progress of an undiplomatic corpse; Santa Evita by Toms Eloy Martnez, Doubleday, pounds 15.99
A few years ago, I took my mother to see the musical Evita. My father had been Pern's ambassador to Israel, and my mother considered herself a more-than-passing acquaintance of Evita Pern. Evita would swoop by our house in Buenos Aires and take my mother on shopping sprees to Paris or Rome from which she returned loaded with gifts and stories. My mother left the show humming the tunes but unimpressed by the heroine. "Evita wasn't like that at all," she complained. "She was the feistiest, most ambitious, brilliant, ruthless and seductive creature I ever met. I don't think anyone could succeed in showing you what she was like."

I'm not certain if Toms Eloy Martnez, in Santa Evita, has succeeded in recreating that Superwoman to my mother's satisfaction. What he has accomplished is the most powerful work of fiction to come from Latin America since One Hundred Years of Solitude. "Work of fiction" is a misnomer: Martnez uses the devices of the novelist but only to establish his facts, in the tradition of Michelet or Lytton Strachey. This artful telling allows him to grasp Evita's huge myth, made up of events that have since echoed and grown in the popular imagination, and give it a coherent shape.

Martnez's own search for Evita's story is woven through the book. As a young journalist in the 1960s, interested in the convulsive history of Argentina from Pern's ascent to power in 1946 to his fall in 1955, he convinced the ageing demagogue in his exile in Spain to grant him a series of interviews that became Pern's memoirs. These were an imaginary recreation of the past, largely invented by Pern's magus-like secretary, Lpez Rega. Intrigued by fiction becoming fact, Martnez decided to turn fact into fiction: The Novel of Pern, in 1985, told the "true" story of Pern's progress.

Martnez realised that, Pern, though important, was not at the core of that mass of images, myths and stories that define Argentina. At the core of Argentina's imaginaire lies Evita. "What are the elements that went into the making of the myth of Evita?", he wonders. Her meteoric rise (he answers), her young death, the love Pern supposedly felt for her, her Robin Hood-like Foundation for the Poor, the fact that she fulfilled poor people's dreams of bridal trousseaux, refrigerators or artificial limbs, the fetishistic attributes of Evita the Saint that made people want to touch her so that many refused to spend the money she flung at them and framed it like a sacred relic. Finally, there was the never- completed Monument to the Descamisados (the "Shirtless Ones," as followers of Pern were called) that Evita wanted built as her Taj Mahal to the people. Every myth requires an open end, something unfinished. The monument symbolises that expectation.

Roaches to riches, tangos to tiaras - there are few, thanks to Lloyd Webber and Madonna, who don't know the early chapters of the Evita story. Less well known is Pern's wish to have her corpse embalmed after her death from cancer, and the fact that after his ousting in 1955 the body disappeared until it was (some say miraculously) repatriated in 1971. Unknown by all, except its kidnappers or guardians, is what happened to the body in the intervening 16 years - until the publication of Santa Evita.

For many months, Martnez gathered his evidence, reconstructing Evita's life, interviewing everyone who might bear witness. As he says, there are only two characters in the book whom he never met, one of them Evita herself. Again and again, he came across trivial lies, such as Evita's birthplace or her age, invented by Pern and Evita for no obvious reasons. Why did they lie? "Because they could no longer tell what was true and what was false, and because, consummate actors both, they had begun to portray themselves in other roles. They lied because they had decided that reality would be what they wanted it to be. They did the same thing novelists do."

Like their characters, novelists fall prey to melodramatic situations. In 1989, when he thought he had all the facts, Martnez received a phone call. The voice told him that, since Martnez had given such an accurate picture of Pern, he had been chosen as the recipient of Evita's real story.

Nothing that any so-called magic realist might care to invent touches the story of Evita's body. If a country can find its representation in a person - as Argentina did in Evita - then to possess that person, dead or alive, lends the illusion of possessing the country. The itinerant corpse brings to mind other grisly and adored relics whose possession meant something vaster than themselves: Rasputin's prepuce kept by a couple of exiled grandes dames in memory of Mother Russia, St Catherine's emaciated arm clutched by General Franco on his sick bed as proof that Christ was on his side.

Evita's corpse was pursued by an enamoured colonel, bedded by a major who murdered his wife for its jealous sake, hidden in the projectionist cabin of a Buenos Aires movie theatre, where the projectionist's daughter played with it as with a doll. Not only did the corpse carry within it the country's agonies and libido; it dragged in its wake the old-fashioned mummy's curse that touches each of the participants in the saga - including Martnez, who suffered, during the writing, from a series of misadventures.

Novel or chronicle, hagiography or history: the reader is ultimately indifferent as to which shelf a book is exiled. Astonishing, intelligent, horrific, humorous, compassionate, Santa Evita tells a story more riveting than any fabulation, and in the process reinvents a country and its heroine.