The waterfall of accolades and anecdotes that followed the death on 31 January 2010 of the Argentine author Tomás Eloy Martínez is a measure of the recognition of his achievement. The imaginative range of his work across four decades, as journalist and teacher as well as deep observer of his country's extraordinary 20th century, make him one of the outstanding literary figures of his time. Yet if there is one thing that makes Martínez’s star shine with exceptional fervour, even among a boom generation of Latin American authors, it is a moment in the early 1970s when he sat and listened to a doddery old general in a verdant garden of western Madrid.
Martínez would recall that, in the hours he spent with former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón, a rare journalistic technique proved invaluable: silence. The writer, faced with a politician-in-exile capable of unsurpassed ideological incontinence and autobiographic elasticity, Martínez enticed the interviewee to pour forth. There was, it seems, but one limit: every time that the journalist mentioned the name of Evita Perón, the wife of Perón who died of cancer in 1952 and whose smile still watches over many Argentine political marches today, the general’s ghoulish private secretary would materialise to close the line of inquiry.
The spirits of violence
This secretary, whose name was José López Rega, went on to smear his country’s history with violence while submerging himself in a spiritualist belief system. Martínez himself describes how Rega supervised the depositing of Evita’s embalmed corpse in an air-conditioned eyrie in the Madrid mansion, where efforts were made (in seven languages) to achieve the clinching metempsychosis: the transfer of the spirit of the dead idol into the body of Perón’s new wife, an actress by the name of Isabelita. The spirit did not fly; Isabelita’s presidency, from 1974-76, opened the gates to hell.
For one who (like myself) did not live through these times, the tales of this short pre-dictatorial period of Argentine history - as relayed and embellished by Martínez in The Perón Novel, Santa Evita and countless other books and shorter articles - seem at once disconnected from contemporary events yet filled with profound resonances from the Latin America of the early 1970s. The distant echoes of the Chilean coup of 1973, the Bolivian narco-dictatorship, the long road to Nicaraguan revolution and other repressions or revolutionary efforts seem to reverberate through Martínez's work, and in ways that continue to give it purchase. To read Martínez from the 1970s, for example, is to feel that he anticipated the Honduran putsch of June 2009, and its aftermath of stealth assassinations.
But the greatest resonances radiate from the foundational experience of the first Perón administration, lasting from 1945 until the coup in 1955 that sent him into exile. The eternal disputes over the methods and merits of this administration notwithstanding, it is clear that Perón's personalised cult of redistribution – be it partial, paternalist or growth-destroying - anticipates Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega, and indeed further afield Muammar Gaddafi's military socialism or Thaksin Shinawatra's populist mobilisation of the Thai poor. “The masses equal the muscles”, Perón said as president, according to Martínez. “The muscle is worthless without the brain to put it in motion.”
What, though, is to be made of José López Rega: svengali, impostor and - before and after becoming Argentina’s social-welfare minister in 1973 - employer of psychotic killers? Many thick, reference-studded works testify to the enduring interest in this figure, his relation to the elderly General Perón, and the wider "dirty war" period (1976-83). They include some of the most important historical works in recent Argentine publishing: among them Martín Caparrós and Eduardo Anguita’s La Voluntad (The will), three huge volumes of which track the journey of revolutionary militants in the decade before 1974; or the biography of novelist Osvaldo Lamborghini, a character with few if any parallels in Anglo-American literature, who combined the literary language of (say) a Trainspotting with intense political commitments and a fetish for nightlife.
More recently, El Secreto de sus Ojos (The secret of your eyes), the winner of the Oscar for best foreign film in 2010, is a brilliant narrative meander through the last years before the military seized power in 1976, evoking the hollowing out of the legal system and its refilling with male brawn. The writer Andrew Graham-Yooll has observed of this time that every armed group, from far right to revolutionary left, had its own set of police documents with which to bundle a pedestrian into the back of a sedan car.
The cult of the leader
This is the world that Tomás Eloy Martínez breathed in as a young journalist and poured out, after a time in exile, in long lyrical books, where fiction and reality are virtually indistinguishable. There is some guarantee of a bedrock of fact in the characters he draws, many of whom he met and interviewed. But how could he possibly have inhabited the internal monologues of the thugs who fired their guns at the crowds - perhaps the word should really be “masses”, since there were over 2 million of them - who gathered for Perón’s return to Argentina on 20 June 1973? And what status should be given to the quotations that come from Perón’s mouth, or future president Isabelita’s obsession with her dogs and clothes and state of hair? “If I have become a protagonist of history, time and again, it was because I contradicted myself. The Socialist motherland? I invented it. The Conservative motherland? I keep it alive… I can’t ever rectify myself, but just keep on accumulating sentences.” (Apparently, Perón did deliver this last gem to Martínez).
The author sources this ideological promiscuity to Perón’s early career, when the German military - including the strategist Alfred von Schlieffen - exerted increasing influence over the army’s methods. Martínez attested that it was von Schlieffen who provided two axioms for political life: always attack, and have a Plan B. The rest, it would seem, is the filling provided by opportunity and circumstance, or - in the shape of a meeting with Evita - serendipity. (A comparison with Hugo Chávez is hard to avoid. The Venezuelan, who knows his military theory extremely well, has insisted time and again that attack is preferable to defence, and is widely reputed to have two pedals - steady democratic and fast authoritarian.)
Beyond these broad behavourial guidelines, the Peronist doctrine comes down to leadership, conducción. Devotion to the leader for his or her goodness and perspicacity in the national interest pervades the “twenty truths” of the Peronist movement, conceived in 1950. Within this and generically similar governments, the freedom of action of officials professing utter loyalty to the cause has tended to be considerable; intermediary institutions of control, particularly parliament and the courts, usually wither under the glare of the leader’s virtues. But when this leader is absent, as Perón was for eighteen years, these spaces and freed zones turn into powerful private fiefdoms.
The general watched from Madrid as vast chasms opened up between the fragments of "his" movement, all of which still managed to pay him their respects. The irony, which seeps through Martínez’s pages, is that a movement fixated with the role of the conductor should become a hydra of violent factions - Catholics, politicians, hardmen, trade unions, militant leftists and revolutionaries - which disputed between themselves ownership of the loyalties of the “people”, and locked together outside Ezeiza airport as the father was about to return. The official toll was thirteen; the truer total, hundreds died. The centre of fighting was the stage, and the brunt of the shooting took place under a giant photo of Perón.
Delusion and liberation
Well before then, the names of Perón and Evita were being snatched from reality to suit just about any psychological and political need. Martínez said that his style of fusing fiction and reality is suited to an era in which governments relentlessly falsified official documents, but it is clear that the delusional state was more widely distributed.
The mummy of Evita travelled the world as the legends at home accumulated: “She stopped being what she said and did to become what it was said that she said and did”, wrote Martínez. She and her husband were claimed for multiple causes, even if this demanded a Cartesian disconnect of spirit and body. “To save Perón, you have to oppose Perón”, the metal-workers’ union declared. After the Ezeiza killings, Martínez quotes a member of a poor family watching the general’s feeble excuses on television and refusing to believe it is him. “When Perón finds out what’s going on, he’ll come back.”
In his later work, such as El sueño argentino (The Argentine dream) the author returns to find a country where the bitter corrective of poverty has disabused many of their political illusions. Buenos Aires he finds almost unrecognisable, the ground-floor levels of ornate buildings taken over by little kiosks and vegetable-stalls. There is a regretful quality in these later works, and a nostalgic sense of what has been lost. It would be almost patronising, were it not for Martínez’s panache for understanding the lives and hopes of his interviewees. For in spite of all his unarguable insights into the degradation of the Latin populist archetype, he remains enchanted by what the political scientists are unable ever to see or depict. He glimpsed what went unaccounted in all such studies of Perón and his heirs in Latin America: the unquantifiable mass of personal mental liberations, the value of the sudden revelation in public from the crux of authority, from the stifling class barriers that have enclosed a life.
This is the power of redemption from social force that across Latin America rational liberalism is pressing against, generally in vain. In Evita, this power found a personal history, an archetype and a perfect exponent. “There was a time when I didn’t know how to look at unhappiness, misfortune, poverty”, she tells the general. “The more blind I was, the more injustice surrounded me. But finally you came, Perón, and you opened my eyes. Since that day I love you so much that I don’t even know how to say it to you.”