Not Saluting, but Waving

Michael Wood

  • Evita directed by Alan Parker
  • The Making of ‘Evita’ by Alan Parker
    Boxtree, 127 pp, £12.99, December 1996, ISBN 0 7522 2264 3
  • In My Own Words by Eva Perón, translated by Laura Dail
    New Press, 120 pp, $8.95, November 1996, ISBN 1 56584 353 3
  • Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Helen Lane
    Doubleday, 371 pp, £15.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 385 40875 7

Nothing became her life like the remaking of it, but there were so many remakes. The latest stars Madonna, but the earliest starred Eva María Duarte herself. Or was that María Eva Ibarguren? She was María Eva Duarte de Perón on her marriage certificate, but then she also took three years off her age on that occasion. Some of this is easily unravelled, and a number of the remakes are easy to name: country kid to city girl, dancer to actress, brunette to blonde, actress to politician, President’s wife to secular saint. But none of this is easy to explain, and all of it turns to myth at the slightest touch. Even her body had its long adventures: laboriously embalmed at her death in 1952, it began its mysterious travels when Perón fell in 1955, was dug up in Italy in 1971, although Perón didn’t take it back with him to Argentina when he was reinstalled in 1973. That act of piety was left to his widow, his second wife Isabel, who became President in 1974 and had Eva Perón’s corpse buried (at last) in a Buenos Aires cemetery.

We are probably not going to be able to sort out the order of the first names, but the second names are not as much of a problem as they look, although they certainly symbolised a lasting pain for their owner. The girl, born near the little town of Los Toldos in 1919, was illegitimate and her mother was called Juana Ibarguren. The father was called Juan Duarte, and like many Latin American men before and after him, had two families, one legal and one on the side: not so much philandering as double domesticity. The rather died when the girl was seven, and his second family was not allowed to attend the funeral – or, in some accounts, only the children of that family were allowed to attend. This is an important part of Eva lore, often presented as one of the sources of her sympathy for the poor and excluded, and is faithfully represented in the movie, where the little girl gets to weep on her father’s coffin before she is thrown out of the church. You will not be surprised to hear that the film cuts straight from this scene to Eva’s own, vast funeral cortège, shot in Budapest in a sumptuous style which suggests a cross between early Eisenstein and late Cecil B. De Mille. There are fine pictures of this and many other scenes in The Making of ‘Evita’. The movie looks great in the book, and pretty good on the screen. Its looks are not its problem. The point of the juxtaposition of the funerals, I take it, is to lead us into pathos, or into irony if the pathos won’t work. The lonely mourner becomes the immensely mourned. A kind of triumph, but more sorrowful than consoling, since dead, the images also remind us, is dead.

There is a lot of dying in the film, and death, in spite of what you might think, is what makes its emphasis so uncertain. It opens in a cinema, where a romantic movie is interrupted for the announcement of Eva Perón’s death, in the now famous words: ‘At 20 hours 25, the Spiritual Head of the Nation passed into immortality.’ The whole cinema, peopled entirely, it seems, by working-class couples, starts to weep. Or rather, the women weep, and their men fold them compassionately into their arms. Just as you are thinking this is all too much, even by the most liberal standards of mawkishness, particularly since the film has hardly started, and we don’t know anything about the dead person who is arousing all this grief, the camera finds another kind of face, stony, unmoved, or if he is moved, disgusted. It is that of a single man: Antonio Banderas, the man who will haunt the film as our delegate and Evita’s counterpart, the incarnation of everyone who doesn’t believe in her myth but can’t stop following her around. This is an imaginative device, and ought to work well. For the commentating Che Guevara of the stage musical Alan Parker has substituted a ubiquitous, many-roled Argentinian ‘bloke’ (the colloquial che is not really translatable because it is used where the parallel words are not used in other languages, but it means something like ‘pal’, or ‘mate’, or ‘buddy’, as in ‘Buddy, can you spare a dime,’ or ‘No skin off my nose, mate,’ or ‘Pal Joey’), who appears wherever Evita goes, and sometimes where she doesn’t. He is a waiter, a society gent, a marching militant, a man in a bar, a mourner, a journalist and a movie projectionist. The device doesn’t work, though, and I’m not quite sure why. I have two guesses. The appearance of the figure becomes too predictable, excludes almost everything else. The camera leaves Evita ostensibly to show a crowd or a setting, but it always finds Banderas. The effect is to dissolve the crowd, and bleach the settings. You begin to look for Banderas in every scene, because you know he’s got to be there; it’s like a puzzle or a game, or a tic you can’t take your eyes off. My other guess has to do with Banderas himself. He doesn’t sing badly, and he looks appropriately butch in general, but he has only one facial expression, a virtuous, looming scowl. After a while, you think this must be the school play. The teacher is saying: try that again now, with a little more sincerity.

But the real uncertainty in the opening scene seems to be Parker’s. Does he want us to weep with the grieving or scowl with Banderas? This is not a real question, since if we seriously scowled the movie would be over. Parker wants an irony where his material won’t give him one, and the whole movie is like this, whenever it turns away from fame and stardom, and gestures towards politics and history. There are no grounds for criticising or contextualising Eva here – not in Banderas’s scowl, not in the many brilliantly filmed scenes of police or military violence. The story is about Evita Perón superstar, about the little illegitimate girl from the provinces who won the love of millions and had an audience with the Pope; about Cinderella as populist, and about the politician as pop star. It is a story not so much of rags to riches (well, that too) as of obscurity to eternal light. In this perspective the evocation of actual politics and history can only be a frill, like the Nazi allusions of Madonna’s video ‘Justify My Love’, or the blandest tokenism – see, we did show the darker side of Peronism, even if we made it completely irrelevant. Have you ever thought about the politics of the prince Cinderella married, and would it help if you did?

So how are we to feel about the announced death? The invitation to irony runs out fast, but the film does a reasonably good job of evoking the young Evita, the kid who runs off with a lugubrious tango singer (played by Jimmy Nail as if the mourning had started already), and takes on the big city. Madonna has all the bounce that is needed, and manages to combine an effect of ruthlessness with an effect of vulnerability. Throughout the movie, she makes you feel, not that stardom has its price, for her or for Evita, although I assume it does, but that charisma is exhausting work, particularly if it’s not supposed to look like work. These glamorously sleazy early scenes have something of the pace and mood of Parker’s movie Fame: the music is awful but the montage is good, and you feel the frenzy of wanting renown, as Madonna gets off the train, walks the night streets, dances in bars, ditches one man after another, rising in showbiz towards the charity event where she will meet Perón. The snotty rejection of Evita by society and the military is staged as a series of choruses out of a Latin My Fair Lady, and another essential feature of the Eva myth is put across: if you thought she was awful, you should see the folks who disapproved of her. It all gets a little desultory after that, partly because Jonathan Pryce has decided to play Perón as just a nice chap – a little reserved and distant, but certainly a gentleman compared with all of Evita’s other fellers. You also start thinking about the limits of the genre the movie belongs to: the pop biography, requiring only that the main stations of the subject’s life get mentioned, along with the famous phrases, and the peaks of the legend. You don’t need, and could hardly have, a point or a plot.

Then two things happen. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber miss a very easy shot, a chance to do something interesting without trying, even within the confines of the genre; and Alan Parker caves into the idea of death. You think those long closing scenes are going to be about Eva Perón dying, but they are not. They are about Eva Perón dying, the shortness of life and sunlight, the death that comes to us all. Eva disappears into an irrefutable but none too nuanced idea of mortality, and we can all weep happily for ourselves. We weren’t crying for her after all; she didn’t have to tell Argentina, or anyone, not to.

The easy shot that Rice and Lloyd Webber miss is the meeting of Eva and Perón. No one knows what happened here. Perón was then (in 1943) a rising colonel, but a long way from being President. Eva was an on-and-off radio star, who had also appeared in quite a lot of forgettable (and forgotten) stage plays and movies. Did she see his future in him, and her own future along with it? Did he see in her the energy and the common touch he needed? Or did they just start an affair that was overtaken by history? Did she say to him at their first meeting, as she or her ghostwriter claims in her autobiography (My Mission in Life, 1951): ‘If, as you say, the cause of the people is your own cause, however great the sacrifice I will never leave your side until I die’? Or did she say, as Tomás Eloy Martínez suggested in his The Perón Novel (1985) and suggests again in his Santa Evita (published in Spanish in 1995): ‘Thanks for existing’? The fact that there is a current popular song of that title may give us pause – even if songwriters do sometimes read novels. Whatever she said on this occasion, though, it’s hard to imagine a composer and librettist so roundly failing to rise to it. Over an anodyne Latin beat and to a tune that sounds like treacle, the sort of stuff that gives muzak a bad name, Evita sings: ‘I’d be good for you/I’d be surprisingly good for you.’

In My Own Words is an English translation of Mi Mensaje, a book purportedly dictated by Eva Perón shortly before she died, of uterine cancer, in 1952. Like many other items in the Evita story, including the corpse itself, this book disappeared in 1955, and was discovered again and published only in 1987. Unless of course it was written, by one sort of ghost-writer or another, in or around 1987. Joseph Paige, the author of a 1983 biography of Perón, argues in his cautious Introduction to In My Own Words that it is not a ‘complete fabrication’, and that ‘the text reflects much of the real Eva Perón.’ Paige is anxious to clear this person of as many charges as he can: she wasn’t necessarily a Nazi sympathiser, only married to one; she may have seemed to give the Fascist salute in postwar Italy, but really she was only waving in her usual manner; she didn’t sleep her way to the top, she was probably taken advantage of by unscrupulous producers. But then he thinks the portrait in the stage musical is hostile, showing her as ‘hard as nails’ and ‘a power-hungry vixen’. I wonder what he would regard as a sympathetic portrait. He describes his own view of Eva Perón as ‘romantic’, holding ‘that she was a poor, uneducated, instinctive, emotionally volatile woman who put up a valiant struggle against class and gender bias; was artfully manipulated by her husband; yet grew into a political role she performed memorably within the limits of her capabilities and the space allotted to her.’

Since the text of this book is all rambling slogans and jargon, it is hard to see how it could reflect the reality of anyone. Did Eva Perón actually say these things, become this colossal abstraction, because she had so thoroughly internalised the lingo? Or did someone ascribe it to her, as what her public character required? How would we know? In My Own Words is an ideally inappropriate title; there is no person here, only hollowed-out mythology. A pretty unattractive mythology, though, even empty. ‘I like fanatics and all of history’s fanaticisms ... Fanaticism turns life into a permanent and heroic process of dying; but that is the only way that life can defeat death.’ When Eva talks of not wanting to kill all the oligarchs (one of her favourite words) ‘as the Communists do’, her reason is neither moral nor humanitarian. ‘No. Because that would be a never-ending thing, for once the current ones disappeared, we would have to start with our men who turned into oligarchy in the name of ambition, honours, money, or power.’ When she writes of erasing ‘from the history of humankind’ those who don’t accept the priority of the people’s happiness, it’s pretty plain she is not just talking about correcting the history books. Eva Perón was instrumental in gaining the vote for women in Argentina (in 1947); she founded hospitals and schools, gave away houses, sewing-machines, dentures; she literally embraced the people, and she was tireless in her devotion to her own charitable acts. These are not negligible achievements, but they are not, most of them, incompatible with tyranny either. There is a refusal of humanity even in the project’s humanist gestures, and the one moment in the book where I felt something like a person beginning to stir behind the clichés is also a weird moment of denial. Eva says she doesn’t want to die because ‘Perón and the poor need me.’ She insists she is not thinking of herself (‘Not for myself, as I have already lived all that I had to live’), but surely there is a human cry behind the stilted virtue. She doesn’t want to die because ... she doesn’t want to die, and the fact that her own picture of herself won’t allow her even to say this becomes part of the strangled story. This does look like Eva Perón dying, and not just death visiting one of our representatives. Being a myth may be even harder than being a saint.

But then of course Eva Perón may not have said ‘Perón and the poor need me’ at all, in which case the semblance of life belongs to a simulacrum. With this thought we enter the world of Eloy Martínez’s wonderful novel Santa Evita. This is a book about Eva Perón’s death and dying, and it reconstructs (or pretends to reconstruct) missing patches of her life. Our narrator, who makes no attempt to distinguish himself from the author, scrutinises old films, old magazines, tracks down or stumbles into the most minor-seeming participants in Eva’s career, her hairdresser, a bandleader, a girlfriend’s boyfriend. He imagines for us her last conversations, her leaving home with the singer Magaldi, the background to her proposed and then renounced candidacy for the post of Vice-President. But the bulk of the book, and the weight of its intelligence and irony and magnetic craziness, is devoted not to Eva’s life but to her afterlife. Her literal afterlife: that is, the adventures of her body, in fact, in rumour and in fiction. ‘How, Evita,’ Eloy Martínez asks, ‘have you been able to die so much, morir tanto?’ A wonderful question. One answer, found on another page, is that ‘the past always returns, passions return. No one can ever get rid of what he or she has lost.’

The corpse’s travails begin with its embalming, and Eloy Martínez creates dialogue for Dr Pedro Ara, the Spanish luminary who did the job, which is only marginally more extravagant than the dialogue Ara gives himself (he wrote a book which was published in 1974, soon after his death). In the novel the doctor says: ‘What do physicists do when they wish to interrupt the natural flow of things? Something very simple: they multiply them.’ Thus begins the story of the three copies of Eva’s embalmed body, reproductions so perfect that no one could tell the difference. ‘Oblivion must be countered by many memories,’ the fictional Ara says to Eva’s fictional mother, ‘and real stories must be covered up by false stories. Alive, your daughter had no equal, but once dead, what difference does it make? Once dead, she can be infinite.’ This is a paraphrase of Eva’s own (probably apocryphal) promise that she would ‘return and be millions’, although this is no doubt not the mode she had in mind. In the novel, when Perón is ousted by a coup, the copies are sent to different parts of Europe and Argentina, and the real corpse is dragged around Buenos Aires for months: kept in a truck, hidden in a cinema behind the screen (a woman who was then a little girl remembers what was playing the day they delivered the box: The Road to Bali, Rear Window and Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion), taken to a major’s house, shifted to a colonel’s office. These movements are top secret, but wherever the body goes, candles and flowers appear, sometimes with a note from a group calling themselves the Commando of Vengeance. There are accidents too, gruesome, magical, insane. The problem, particularly poignant for an Argentinian writer and his readers, is that of arranging a disappearance, where disappearance is not a euphemism for death, but beginning to look like an impossibility, a simple task which has turned to nightmare. Here is how Eloy Martínez imagines the conversation of the junta who tumbled Perón.

   ‘That woman it even more dangerous dead than she was alive ... The ignorant worship her like a saint. They think she can come back to life any day now and turn Argentina into a dictatorship of beggars.’

   ‘How, if she is only a corpse?’ the Colonel managed to ask.

   ‘Every time a corpse enters the picture in this country, history goes mad. Take care of that woman, Colonel.’

   ‘I don’t quite understand, General. What do you mean, “take care of” her? Under ordinary circumstances, I’d know what to do. But that woman is dead already.’

   The Vice-President gave him an icy smile.

   ‘Make her disappear,’ he said. ‘Finish her off. Turn her into a dead woman like any other.’

The novel recounts, among other things, the Colonel’s complete failure to do anything of the kind, and his collapse into madness during the attempt. The casual ‘under ordinary circumstances’ is a good instance of the writer’s grim and stealthy wit.

In the middle of the book Eloy Martínez lists and comments on the elements of the Evita myth as he sees them:

1. She rose like a meteor. 2. She died young. 3. She was the Robin Hood of the Forties. 4. Perón loved her madly. 5. For many people, touching Evita was touching the stars. 6. What could be called ‘the story of the gifts’. 7. The unfinished monument.

The story of the gifts is the legend ‘every Peronist family’ has:

The grandfather hadn’t seen the ocean, the grandmother didn’t know what sheets or curtains were, the uncle needed a truck to deliver cases of soda, the cousin wanted an artificial leg, the mother didn’t have the wherewithal to buy a bridal trousseau, the neighbour with tuberculosis couldn’t afford a bed in a sanitorium in the Córdoba Mountains. And one morning Evita appeared. In the set design of the stories, everything happens one morning.

Eloy Martínez continues the chapter with a review of the incarnations of Evita on stage and in print, ending with a glimpse of himself in a run-down theatre in New Jersey, listening to a black singer called Janice Brown perform numbers from the musical Evita, or driving the local roads listening to Sinéad O’Connor on the radio – she, too, is Evita, asking some place called Aryentina not to cry for her. But then in the next chapter, probably the strongest and darkest in the book, Eloy Martínez deserts the dizzying irony of these multiplying fictions for sombre realism and produces a portrait of the charitable Evita at work, attending to the poor, charming the needy and brutally excommunicating someone she thinks has misbehaved. The point of view here is that of a cinema projectionist called Astorga. He is queuing up because Evita has promised him a house, but his despair mounts as he grasps the size of the problem.

There was talk of children with rickets who were wasting away in ditches dug at the foot of garbage heaps, of hands severed by knife-sharp train tracks, of raving madmen who lived chained up in squalid hovels with zinc roofs, of kidneys that had failed, of perforated duodenal ulcers, and of hernias about to rupture. And what if those sorrows are unending? Astorga said to himself. What if the end of those sorrows is longer in coming than the end of Evita? What if it turns out that Evita isn’t God, like everyone thinks?

Eloy Martínez is using fiction not to defeat or deny history but to get at the history which is entangled in myth. His sources are dubious, he says, ‘but only in the sense that this is true of reality and language as well’. There is a deadpan joke here, I take it, as well as an interesting argument; some of his sources must be not only fictionalised but fully fictional to start with. If novelists are liars, Eloy Martínez is suggesting, then historians are innocents, and only some kind of cross-over or combination will allow us to understand fantastic histories. This is not the simple licence of the softer reaches of magical realism, or the sneaking romance of the non-fiction novel. It is the attempt to use the imagination to reach what is otherwise unavailable, and the question it asks is not only what is true but what might be true; and more important still, what counts as true for us, what are the grounds on which we believe and disbelieve the promises of reality.