Monday, February 08, 2010

The Peron Novel – by Tomas Eloy Martinez

This is the fictionalised versión of the life of Juan Domingo Peron who was President of Argentina 1946-55 and later in 1973-74. After overthrown by rightist military generals in 1955, Peron was in exile in Madrid for 18 years and returned in 1973 to become President of the country and died a year later. The story starts with Peron preparing to leave Madrid in 1973 and return to Buenos Aires and be reanointed as President of the country. But the 18 years of exile and 78 years of age had taken its toll on his body and mind. He is no longer sure about himself, his ideology, friends, followers and even about Argentina in general. He is in a progressive state of mental decay and is uncertain and confused in his understanding and decision making. At the same time, his followers are also equally confused since they had lost touch with the leader for a long period which was painful for the country and themselves . Even the mention of the word Peron, Eva or peronism was prohibited and was punishable with jail sentence in the anti-Peronist military rule. Understandly, the Peronists were clueless as to how Peron would relead the country which had undergone so much of traumatic changes.

Peron is manipulated by his fawning secretary Lopez who has a game plan for the post-Peron time. He is preparing Isabella the third wife of Peron to take over after the death of Peron. Knowing that he has very little life left in him, Peron is preparing his memoirs to claim his place in the history of Argentina. This exercise makes him recollect his past starting from his childhood. He recalls his career as an army officer, marriages and involvement in politics leading to his Presidency of the country. In the memoirs, Peron edits his life story with omissions and commissions to make him appear as heroic and admirable.

Peron was not just one of those Presidents of Argentina. He has left an indelible mark on Argentine politics and modern history. Peronism has become a force to reckon with in the politics of the country. Peron´s second wife Evita has also contributed to the mythology of Peronism. The current President Christina and her husband who was President from 2003 to 2007 as well as Menem who was President from 1989 to 1999 are Peronists. Peronism has come to stay as a leftist and populist ideology with belief in a strong government as protector of the masses and control of the market. While Peron was the undisputed supreme leader of Peronism at that time, Peronism has now broken into several factions and is divided.

One can see the origin and evolution of the Peronist ideology from Peron´s remiscenses. As an army officer, Peron believed in strong leadership leaning towards authoritarianism. He is influenced and inspired by Mussolini during his posting as military attache in Italy. He is impressed by Mussolini´s nationalism, populism and militarism which became ingredients of Peron´s brand of ideology later. Although his political ideolgy became controversial, Peron had
contributed to development of the country in industry, infrastructure and social justice.

Tomas Eloy Martinez, the Argentin author of this novel passed away last month. I have developed admiration for him after reading two of his other novels, Santa Evita and The Tango Singer. Martinez was also a victim of military dictatorship and was exiled to Venezuela from where he migrated to US and became a professor at Rutgers University. Before his exile, he had worked as a journalist and had interacted with and interviewed Peron. With his personal knowledge and experience, Martinez has given an accurate description of Peron highlighting the various facets of the personality of this enigmatic leader. Martinez has done extensive research on the life of Peron and has published two other books. He has cleverly mixed facts with fiction in the style of magical realism. It is difficult to know where reality ends and imagination starts. Combining his real-life knowledge with his magical realism skills, Martinez has made the novel more powerful, leaving a strong impact on the readers. The book is useful to understand not only Peron but also the contemporary politics and society of Argentina which are haunted by the past.

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