July 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Tango, Borges, Perón and Eva

Argentina was once Borges, Perón and Eva. Fifty years later, Argentina is tango, Borges, Perón and Eva. At least that’s how most still see them: a temperamental cocktail of romanticism and caudillo. Their two major political parties -- the Perónists and the Perónists -- represent left and right. Tango is still Argentina’s claim to international music fame, despite its exeunt from brothel. In fact, it feels like a hundred years later -- Argentina is still a shadow of its past, in particular their golden epoch of glory in the early twentieth century, when the country was as wealthy as the United States. All of that leaves out the time since then, long periods of political unrest and financial crises.

Tomás Eloy Martínez, who passed away some six months ago, was describing that Argentina, obsessed with trying to describe itself. Of course, as he would be the first to admit, it wouldn’t be simple.

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.

The novel is at the same time about a biography of Perón that López Rega writes, of course presenting Perón as the Fascist, as López Rega would be. Perón's life is fascinating. A soldier living in the country's then hardly-populated south, speaking with natives, boxing with the British, it's difficult not to fall in love with Perón like his native country did. This is also where the book goes meta-hyper-whatever. At the end of one chapter, referring to his life, Perón says, “What misfortunes will the next chapter bring me?” We also hear López Rega remind Perón of that journalist who interviewed him, that Martínez guy, of whom López Rega says, "Martínez isn´t a problem. We´ll give him a good scare and that´ll be the end of that." When López Rega does rise to power in 1975, Martínez is forced into exile. Thus, his dense and bizarre political history of Martínez is the history of his own exile.  

Santa Evita, also cost him dearly: years of research, interviews, fact-finding, revision. He writes, “The closer I got to Evita, the farther away I get from myself,” a sentiment he repeats at the end of Santa Evita, when he says that he’s still somewhere in the middle of writing the novel, if it is a novel. The book is really a mix of reporting, historical fiction, memoir, even literary essay. Martínez shifts genres in order to get at his elusive subject. Ironically, the book about Eva Perón, Argentina's eternal second lady, although conceived in his native country, only began to take shape after Martínez moved to New Jersey with his wife. Do we owe this brilliant book to GTL (gym, tanning, laundry)?

The book begins with Evita 's war with a body that’s failing her. Who was Eva Perón, or Evita? She was broader than Broadway, bigger than even her massively popular husband. From an extremely poor area, she rose from being a fatherless child to a bonaerense radio actress, and eventually met Juan Perón, who was quickly overcome by her charms. It is also widely believed he married her because he recognized her incredible political potential. She became a B to his A, a Goebbels to his Himmler -- had Goebbels also been Eva Braun. Eva is as much legend as she was a real, feeling person. This is exactly the tight-rope hagiography Martínez both tries to avoid, and can’t help but fall into. Plenty of other Argentine writers have tried writing about Eva (Borges, Walsh, Copi, Gelman, Onetti), some of whom Martínez mentions, others that Martínez meets, and some that he analyzes, in the hope of getting to the very essence of Eva: figure and person, body and mind. But Martínez's real story begins when Evita dies and only her figure and body are left. Her body is injected with embalming fluid, hidden by the government, cloned in wax, all to avoid what Evita in her life had promised, namely, "I will come back. I will be millions." While Eva's body is dragged around, admired, and absconded, Martínez gets frazzled by the novel, his subject, and -- believe it or not -- New Jersey. 

There are some flashbacks and the like; the plot isn't traditional, but unlike so many untraditional plots, this had that -- I shouldn't say it -- certain page-turning quality. There is Colonel Moor Koenig, who descends into alcoholism and madness, succumbing to his worst fears, namely Eva Perón's superiority.  Koenig makes for an interesting villain, mostly because he was real. Real and fictional, Koenig along with his cohorts (not to mention their twisted logic) is frightening. Meanwhile, a cascade of astounding Evita "facts" emerges: She held audiences with polis to discuss their problems until nightfall, working sometimes fourteen to sixteen hours a day; she couldn't spell, nor was she eloquent, but she riled crowds; she was treated as a saint, and after she died, there were requests for her to be beatified; her name, when said in conjunction with muerte, sounds like evita (avoiding” or “evading” in Spanish). In other words, "she evades death."

Martínez weaves in and out of his own investigation. When outside, he finds himself once again near her. Like when she turns up on a logo in a freezing parking lot in New Jersey. Some of the book's best moments are shared between Martínez and a friend of his whose daughter has recently died. Although unorthodox, and at the same time scholastic in approach, Martínez's intentions are sincere. In writing the book, he joins the cult of Evita. 

So we're left with tango and Borges, the subjects of The Tango Singer, which follows Bruno Cadagon, an NYU student to Buenos Aires, where he is to study the greatest tango singer of all time, Carlos Gardel, based on a tip from Borges. The doctorate candidate becomes intrigueed by Gardel while writing his dissertation about some of Borges’s essays on tango. He runs into Jean Franco, an expert in Latin American literature, who tells him that Julio Martel is even better than Gardel. Then he discovers some essays, cited in The Tango Singer's epigraph, by Walter Benjamin. A bit contrived, excessively meta-hyper-para-meta-fiction, especially when we take into account he leaves in September 2001. Things improve in Buenos Aires when the protagonist finally meets the world he had only read about. For the next month, Cadagon (which would mean “shitting” in the Argentine dialect lunfardo) does the things a tourist does, as he is still a tourist. Then he meets a taxi-driver from the northern town Tucumán (largely native and immigrant-populated, that is, non-white) who agrees to take him around, to uncover the real Buenos Aires. Somehow that leads him on a mission to find the aleph. "The Aleph," one of the Borges stories from Fictions, that impeccably compact short story collection, follows the protagonist to a house with an aleph that at once is everything, sort of like seeing infinity. While his dissertation fades, his pursuit of the aleph, followed by a mission to see Gardel sing, becomes his new imperatives. What he finds of Gardel is mostly stories. The stories are quite good. Martel, inspired by Gardel, sets out to sing, despite a health condition, mostly to wow his mom. As the years progress and his condition worsens, his singing does not. He stands on stage with braces, hardly able to move, but his voice, and the words of his tangos -- according to his new friend Alcira -- moved people to tears. 

In short, Gardel remains a mystery, an aleph, if you will, that at once reflects Buenos Aires, which is Argentina, and for Cadagon, his universe. In all these songs are rumors and hints, lore of the Buenos Aires of old, from serial killers to military-police intervention, to again Evita, to a plague of mosquitoes. As Cadagon gets closer to Gardel, now sick in the hospital, and having written nothing of his thesis (Why bother, right? "Doctor" of Literature?), a year later Argentina explodes in the infamous week of five presidents. As digressive as the book is, I thought much of it could have been cut. I also thought its premise was forced. The Tango Singer runs through some recent Argentine history, and bonaerense customs that would be at once interesting and useful to any potential travelers, or interested undergrads.

Tomás Eloy was also a member of that nearly-extinct species in North America, the reporter-novelist. As novels drift more and more towards the lyrical, these are buoys of crisp, crunchy prose that explains stuff. It's a nice change: neither the tiresome logorrhea of solipsistic prosists, nor the barren (and sometimes boring) boxcar sentences. The obvious comparison is with the Polish reporter-novelist Ryzard Kapusckinski. I wouldn't be surprised if Martínez, a highly regarded journalist, corresponded with him, but that, like one of Martínez's novels, is speculation.    

Why is Argentina tango, Borges, Perón and Eva? Why was Martínez writing about them? Perhaps during his time as an expat living in that quarter of the world mysteriously dubbed the Tri-State Region, he became very aware that these four pieces of Argentine´s past still define Argentina. It clearly wasn't easy for him. Juan Forn, an author and journalist working for Planeta, the Spanish publishing behemoth, at the time, says that the early chapters of Evita were "horrific," and only improved after he arrived in New Jersey. Perspective, especially for a talented journalist like Tomás Eloy, can do wonders. Being a nobody for a while, a Jersey professor, might have given him the space he needed to approach these topics and figures in their purest platonic forms. Of course, he was a very important somebody. I would have liked a few more novels like The Perón Novel and Santa Evita, but there is only one Perón and one Eva, and there was only one Tomás Eloy Martínez.