cover image Santa Evita

Santa Evita

Tomas Eloy Martinez. Knopf Publishing Group, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44704-7

Where fiction ends and fact begins is one of the intriguing puzzles of this perverse and enigmatic but highly readable ""novel"" about the afterlife of Eva Peron, the small-time actress who turned her marriage to an Argentine dictator into a mythical career as the soul of that erratic and unhappy nation. Martinez (The Peron Novel, 1988) casts himself as a sort of investigative journalist digging out the strange tale of Evita's corpse; but what he does with the material is far from journalistic, embracing instead a sense of mournful comedy. There seems little doubt that, under General Peron's orders, Evita's body (she died of a particularly painful and malignant cancer in her early 30s, at the height of her hysterical adulation by Argentina's ""shirtless ones"") was beautifully embalmed by a skillful Spanish embalmer. He seems also to have made several copies of his masterwork; most of the action of the novel revolves around the attempts by Colonel Moori Koenig of Military Intelligence to identify the real corpse, then to dispose of it in such a way that Peronistas, who see it as a symbol of all they cherished about the eventually discredited regime, can't make symbolic use of it. In the process, he and his men become obsessed by the body's magically hypnotic qualities, and their lives are unalterably changed. It is all a long way from the easy sentimentality of the Broadway musical, but further evidence of the extraordinary grip that remarkable yet banal woman still seems to exert over the Argentine imagination. No American reader can expect fully to share that degree of involvement with the subject, but this is nonetheless a captivating study of how magic and politics sometimes surrealistically merge. 75,000 first printing; simultaneous Spanish version by Vintage Espanol. (Sept.)