Tomás Eloy Martínez: Writer celebrated as a novelist who combined fiction and history and as a provocative journalist

Thursday 04 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Tomás Eloy Martínez was one of the Spanish-speaking world's most-respected authors and most provocative journalists of the last few decades, his novels acclaimed by contemporaries including Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende. Stricken by cancer several years ago, the Argentinian continued to write until his last days, notably as a columnist with the Argentinian daily La Nación, El País of Spain and The New York Times.

A close friend of García Márquez when they were national newspaper journalists in the 1960s, he helped the Colombian launch the Fundació*Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, or New Iberoamerican Journalism Foundation, which seeks to stimulate young journalists throughout the Spanish-speaking world and of which García Márquez is president. He also played a key role in promoting his friend's 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which would propel the Colombian to international fame and eventually a Nobel prize.

Martínez himself was best known for his novels Santa Evita (1995), translated into more than 30 languages, and La Novela de Perón (The Peron Novel, 1985), which mix fact and fiction over the lives of the former Argentinian president Juan Domingo Peró*and his second wife Eva Duarte, or Evita.

In both books, Martínez said, he sought to create a technique which was the reverse of the New Journalism writers in the US. Whereas they wrote about real events using fictional style, he he used a factual, journalistic style to tell stories which were largely fictional, based on real and made-up characters, thereby "introducing elements of doubt into history," as he put it. "In The Peró*Novel, the fictional characters are the most real," he said.

García Márquez, the first person to read Santa Evita before Martínez sent it to his publishers, was said to have been stunned by it, while Fuentes said, "I and Gabo [García Márquez] separately came to the conclusion that we'd have been delighted to be the author of such a perfect work, with its soldering of fiction and history."

Martínez's 2002 novel El Vuelo de la Reina (The Flight of the Queen) reflected his own falling in love with an Argentinian journalist half his age and delighted him, he said, because "it sold half a million copies in China, though it didn't make me rich." The book, which won Spain's Alfaguara prize for best Spanish-language novel, tells the story of Camargo, a voyeuristic director of a Buenos Aires newspaper who falls in love with Reina, a 30-something colleague; as always in the author's work, the fabric of the city is as much a leading character as the two lovers.

His penultimate novel, El Cantor de Tango (The Tango Singer, 2005), led to him being shortlisted for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, which recognises overall achievements rather than a single novel. Also on the shortlist were García Márquez, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike; the prize went to the Albanian Ismael Kadaré.

The Tango Singer, which Martínez said came to him in a dream and which was described by the Independent as "a work of hallucinatory brilliance," tells the tale of Bruno Cadogan, a young New York academic who criss-crosses Buenos Aires during Argentina's financial crash of 2001 trying to track down the tango singer Julio Martel.

His last novel, in 2008, was Purgatorio (Purgatory), partly based on his own experiences in the 1970s, told the story of a couple who were separated during the "Dirty War" against leftist sympathisers but reunited 30 years later. Drawing on his own experiences of exile and return, he sought to awaken readers to the fact that dictatorships, as he said, "are not possible without the complicity of society."

Martínez spent eight years in exile in Venezuela during Argentina's military dictatorship and Dirty War, having been threatened by right-wing death squads. He became editor of the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and founded a new daily, El Diario de Caracas. He later spent more than 20 years in the United States, first as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. From 1995 he was director of Latin American Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and latterly professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the university's School of Arts and Sciences. He returned to his homeland only three years ago, announcing that the US had become "asphyxiating" and that "George Bush has changed the culture of freedom in his country in a way that may be irreparable."

Tomás Eloy Martínez was born in the northern Argentinian city of San Miguel de Tucumá*on 16 July, 1934, the eldest of four children of what he called "parents who came from an old family but had fallen into hard times." As a child, he recalled shutting himself up in his room to read. "I devoured the complete works of Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas, later Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry James, and, of course, my compatriot Borges" he said. "At 14, a librarian gave me Kafka's The Trial to cure my insomnia but I've been an incurable insomniac every since."

While studying Spanish and Latin American literature at the National University of Tucumá*he worked began as a proofreader and later a reporter at the local paper, La Gaceta, before moving to Buenos Aires in 1957 as theatre and film critic of La Nación. In 1962, a leading Argentinian Jewish journalist, Jacobo Timerman, invited him to help launch a magazine, Primera Plana (Front Page), which be-came dangerously outspoken despite censorship and became part of "El Boom" in Latin American literature largely inspired by the Cuban revolution. While at the magazine he wrote his first novel, Sagrado (Sacred, 1969).

In 1972 he wrote a series of articles about a massacre of political prisoners in the Patagonian city of Trelew, named after its 19th century Welsh settlers. After the articles were published in 1974 as a book, La Pasió*Segú*Trelew (The Passion According to Trelew) it was banned and led to death threats against him and his children from a military-linked death squad known as the Alianza Anticomunista de Argentina, or the Triple A, one of whose gunmen once held a pistol to the head of his three-year-old son.

For the sake of his six children from two former marriages he fled to Paris, where he was aided by Mexico's then ambassador Carlos Fuentes, then to Venezuela, where he married a local journalist, Susana Rotker, in 1979 and had another child. Susana was killed by a drunk driver in New Jersey in 2000 and he married the Argentinian journalist Gabriela Esquivada in 2003.

Phil Davison

Tomas Eloy Martinez, author and journalist; born San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, 16 July, 1934. married four times (five sons, two daughters); died Buenos Aires 31 January 2010.

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