He explains how reflecting on the story-telling technique used in Facundo, by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, one of the biggest literature works in Argentina in the 19th century, I encouraged him to write the book in the way he did. In an interview with Jorge Halpering (Clarin, 3rd May 1998), Tomás Eloy Martínez explains how Facundo, by Sarmiento, written as a political pamphlet, was constructed with the shape of a novel but thought of as a political denunciation and still considered literature. “I had published some canonical memories in the Buenos Aires media,” he explains, “which were accepted by all historians as the unmistakable truth. These were some memories that Perón had touched up, so that he could use them as business cards throughout History. What prevented me, as novelist, to build a storyline that would shed some light on what I understood by the truth about the character called Perón?”
He used to compare Argentina with the Sleeping Beauty: “A Country that needs to be woken up by the love of someone,” he says. “An old Argentinean illusion is that, if it was great once (and it was, during the three first decades of the 20th century), there are no reasons why that should not happen again. That is a lost illusion, but there is still faith in it. I also have faith sometimes.”
“Argentina is the body of a woman that has been embalmed,” he said to Miguel Wiñazki in Noticias, in 1995. And it is with this sentence that we think of the relationship between the Country and its immortal ‘mother’. Argentina’s Sleeping Beauty was undoubtedly Eva, the main character of his novel Santa Evita, a story where the action focuses not so much on the person of Perón’s wife, but on the long pilgrimage that her body suffered after her demise.
It is in that fashion, admiring and criticizing, remembering and living the reality of his own Country, that the life of an exiled man goes by. Tomás lives outside of Argentina but within its spirit. In his interview with Jorge Halpering for Clarín, he said that he is not interested in politics in general, but in very particular aspects of it. His writing is convincing, real, critical and daring. He focuses on fiction, in his own version of reality. He offers us a fictional account, a novel in its literary sense, not a historical description of events. He emphasizes that “every reality is historical, but not every piece of history is real.”
I ask him about what the limit is for the manipulation of the historical reality into fiction, and he shoots me back my own question, eruditely mentioning Tolstoy and Victor Hugo: “What historical reality are you talking about? I don’t think there is any historical manipulation in Tolstoy’s Napoleon in War and peace or in Victor Hugo’s in his Les Miserables, neither is there in the Julien Sorel [character in The Red and t
he Black] of Stendhal, who is based, as is well known, on a real person. Writing novels is the freest act of the human spirit and it is up to the reader to discern novels from history books.”
The 2006 Buenos Aires Book Fair management have asked him to deliver the opening speech. This year’s slogan is precisely ‘Books make History’. I ask him for a foretaste of the speech, and although he is clear that he has not yet worked on it, he tells me: “I may say that books are like water: people may impose bolts and dikes on them, but they always succeed at making their way in. Adversity would seem to make them stronger. Even during the worst moments, ideas that later become words have gotten around censorship and gags to scream out the obvious truths and continue being incorruptible and unsubmissive, even when everybody around them shuts up, submits and falls into corruption. The most diverse arms to shut them up have been tried: they have been repressed with imprisonment, with traps, with the stake, with the false voluntary confessions like those of Galileo in front of the Inquisition and Isak Babel in front of Stalin; bribery has been attempted, as well as the seduction of prizes and honours, not to mention the hospice, death threats and exile, without ever succeeding to force those ideas turned into words, or verbs, to bury or tame their truths.”
He leaves me with the aftertaste of his ideas and as I think his words over, he enjoys a few weeks in his native Argentina, where he hopes to get an update on the political and economical situation. He says that his Country suffers from huge structural poverty and endless mismanaged wealth, and I wonder whether his opinion will be the same when he returns from this visit, after a year’s absence.
In the meantime, I dive into the magic of the bleached hair of his Santa Evita, of the wonderful voice of his Carmona, of his own truths about an Argentina of revolutions, injustice, magnificence, passion and beauty, and I feel privileged to have shared in these moments of my own history, the ideas turned into words of one of the most important figures of the current Argentinean literary panorama.
Tomás Eloy Martínez’s latest novel, The Tango Singer will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2006
Tags: writers and politics