21 Jul The Perón Novel, When Myth Becomes a Man
General Juan Domingo Perón would have appreciated the paradox.
In life, he achieved mythical status. As the central character in Tomas Eloy Martinez’s brilliant “The Perón Novel,” a chilling tale of power, decline, and madness, he becomes human again. Perón — “the Leader, the General, the Deposed Dictator, the Macho, You- Know-Who, the Escaped Tyrant, the Nation’s First Worker, Eva Peron’s Widower, the Exile, the One Who Had A Piano In Caracas. God knows what other things he might be tomorrow” — dominated political life in Argentina for almost 30 years.
Elected president in 1946 after a bloodless coup and several months of palace intrigue, his populist programs and strong pro-labor policies earned him the support of the working class, up to then ignored in Argentine politics. But by 1952, the beginning of his second term in office, changes in the world economy began to erode the bases of the Peronist rule.
Also, the labor and Peronist party bureaucracy had become a new class with interests of its own. In 1955, with the economy in trouble and his labor base developing profound cracks, Perón was deposed by a military coup. The Peronist party and its symbols, even the name Perón, were proscribed. But the cycle of brutal military dictatorships and weak, ineffective civilian administrations that followed only contributed to the Perón myth.
From exile, Perón encouraged the left wing of the movement, including the armed factions, but protected the right wing and the bureaucracy entrenched in the labor unions. It was a “pendulum strategy” that did little to fortify the party but ensured his role as final arbiter. “I sensed,” says Martínez in his cameo as journalist, “that he always guessed how the other person saw him and immediately projected the anticipated image.”
As a philosophy, Peronism was anything you wanted it to be. For some it was a promise of a “socialist fatherland,” for others it meant a step toward a neo-Fascist state. Both sides quoted Perón. It was a deadly game of deception and self-deception. Elected president for an unprecedented third time, Perón died while in office only months later, and Isabel, his widow and vice president, took office. Her regime disintegrated in a mixture of incompetence, greed and violence. On the night of March 24, 1976, she was deposed by yet another military coup.
Framing it within the day of Perón’s return from exile and the bloody, climactic reception festivities in Argentina, Martínez offers a tale that not only retraces Perón’s life, including glimpses of the world that shaped his views, but also follows the members of his court in exile and the lives of several of his followers in Argentina.
Martínez creates a fascinating illusion. His fantasy sounds like journalism. His reporting takes on a hallucinatory quality. There are no Garcia Marquez-style flights of fancy or endearing characters. Tenderness, here, is unnecessary baggage. Poetry occurs by accident, sparks in the dark and dies.
The grotesque cast surrounding Perón includes José López Rega, Peron’s personal secretary, former police corporal, practitioner of the occult and self-styled Rasputin; Isabel, Perón’s third wife, a cabaret dancer who stumbles upon history; and the tragic Hector J. Cámpora, a dentist turned politician turned Peron’s servant turned president. Dominating the scene from her place in the attic is the embalmed body of Eva Perón, “Evita,” the General’s mythical second wife.
Other characters move around Peron on elliptical courses: A couple of leftist Peronist followers who had “bet on Lenin and the grand prize turned out to be Kerensky;” Isabel’s godfather, a semi-illiterate “evangelical director”; a paramilitary gang member obsessed with dreams of the Virgin Mary.
All their lives overlap and interlock in improbable sequences.
Argentina is little more than an abstraction.
Perón faces his decline without illusions. Not even about power. “I couldn’t give it up even if I wanted to. The power is part of me, like these legs,” he says. He has made himself larger than life, yet “nothing had ever belonged to him, least of all himself.” Now, as Martínez says after meeting him, years before his final trip, “at last . . . He’s nobody. He’s hardly even Perón.”
When death comes, it’s only a formality.
This review first appeared in The Boston Globe, April, 1988