Known for novels such as Santa Evita and The Perón Novel (La Novela de Perón) and winner of awards such as the 2003 Rodolfo Walsh Award for his career in journalism, and the 2002 Alfaguara Prize with El vuelo de la Reina (‘The Flight of the Queen’), Tomás Eloy Martínez was also one of eighteen authors who made it on to the judges’ list of contenders for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in February 2005. He rubbed shoulders with authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera and Ian Mc Ewan. He still finds a window in his busy agenda as Head of the Latin American Studies Programme at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he has been living for many years, to patiently answer my questions.
Born in Tucumán, Argentina, in 1934, Tomás confesses that story-telling is his passion. He would indeed like to be able to write poetry but after a few early and failed attempts he confines himself to weaving his poems from time to time into the fabric of his fiction.
A well-respected professor of the postgraduate programme, he mentions how lucky he feels to be able to teach what he loves: “I have delivered seminars that compare the theories of cinema and literary narrative,” he says, “or about Borges as a realist writer, or about the first Crónicas de Indias (‘Indian Chronicles’).” He asserts that it would be difficult for him as well as for his students to understand Latin American culture without grasping those subjects first.
During his exile in Venezuela in the late seventies and early eighties, he experimented with the production of several screenplays. I ask him what he thinks about the man in the street being influenced by the treatment that filmmakers give to historical subjects, and he explains how “film and literature, when they are truly art, enrich the human being in a fuller way than plain and simple education do”.
In the period between the publication of his two great novels about Evita and Perón, he wrote another novel, La Mano del Amo (The Hand of the Master), as he once mentioned, to leave the subject slightly aside and to avoid making one novel of the two. In La Mano del Amo, he talks about happiness, the search for it, death, family and the confrontation between power and artistic talent. He introduces a Muslim family, the Alamino, in the middle chapters as a representation of what was then for him “the best of the human condition, as opposed to the formality and stiffness of the Carmona family, the main characters”.
The many immigrants from Syria and Lebanon to his province, Tucumán, at the beginning of the 20th century, were the source of inspiration for the Alamino, or Al Amein. But what in its moment was written with a positive message emphasizing Carmona’s prejudices, can be interpreted in a very different way today, in a society where violence and cultural and religious clashes spearhead the headlines of the international media.
“The malice would be on the side of the potential reader, then,” he states, ‘not on the writer’s. A writer does not know what will be politically correct next year. If that were the case everything in literature should be changed alongside with the apparition of new ideologies. Good writers do not write books to flatter people’s good feelings.”
One of his books, the third edition of La Pasión Según Trelew (Passion According to Trelew), in which he narrates the killing of sixteen guerrillas who tried to run away from Rawson Prison on 22nd August 1972 and the events following the massacre, was burnt by the military dictatorship in the square of Tercer Cuerpo del Ejército in the Argentinean city of Córdoba.
“At the time of the events I felt that if they burnt the book it was because it raised some fears between the dictators. That sheer bonfire justified my writing. I felt shame that that sort of disgraces could happen in my Country. Even today I wonder how many of us became accessories to those barbaric acts, and why.”
Like many of us, Tomás wonders about the controversial question: How should Perón go down in History, as hero or as villain? He says that he wrote a novel in order to find out: The Perón Novel (La Novela de Perón), one of the most widely read books about the President. He researched the happenings of the time thoroughly, had the chance to meet its main character on several occasions during his exile in Caracas where, between 1966 and 1972, he could interview Perón many times. Despite all of his enquiries, even after the publication of a series of biographical articles that scholars and historians consider to be the memories closest to reality, he was, like many others, left with a big question mark:
“I suggest he may be both, like every human being.”