The Truth in Fiction
Tomás Eloy Martinez, the Argentine best-selling author of Santa Evita and The Peron Novel, has lived in the United States since 1982.
Politicians at the beginning of the 20th-century were more literate, more interested in literature and in the effects of literature on people than they are now. Power in our time, especially in Latin America during the dictatorships, was mostly illiterate. And power is deaf if it can’t read! If it can’t read, it can’t hear. It’s impossible, right? But sometimes power also simulates illiteracy. It was very difficult to influence the dictatorships in Argentina or in Chile. It is very difficult to influence George Bush today because Bush represents illiteracy. Illiteracy not simply in a way of not paying attention to literature, or to ideas, or to the exchange of ideas. Illiteracy is a way of even underestimating the power of literature as a tool for power’s purposes!
In the past literature was the servant of power. Power wrote history. According to a definition by the English philosopher Colin Wood, things that happen in history but are not written also don’t exist. The only exception to this are the milestones of human evolution, like the invention of fire or the wheel that were not recorded because nobody remembers when they happened, yet they are manifest in our daily lives today.
But apart from that the most important ideas are those that are written in history, the things that humanity remembers as history.
Power was very interested in writing history. In Latin America, in Spain and in Great Britain, power tried to exhort influence on authors. This is visible in the Golden Age of literature because all the great works were put under the protection of a nobleman. But after that, during the 1960s or the 1970s, literature discovered what I call a "dual narrative version." The version of the official history is opposed by another version, a fictional version of history that is sometimes truer than the official history.
The legendary Argentine writer Domingo Sarmiento, in his classic book Facundo, imposed an imaginary version of history through the idea that the real Facundo is the Facundo of his book, who is totally different from the historical Facundo. But the Facundo of his book is the one who prevails in the imagination of the nation now. I found this very interesting. Taking that idea from Sarmiento I wrote The Peron Novel, and I think I had some success because the Peron that people are thinking of in my country today is the Peron of my novel, not the Peron of history.
In The Peron Novel there is some reality. But Santa Evita—about Eva Peron—is an invention completely. I tried to switch the idea of new journalism. The new journalists report real facts in a literary way. In Santa Evita I invent facts as if the facts were written by journalists. I used expressions like "I saw," "I was a witness," "I read" and so on. I wrote another book called The Life of the General, which was more about the real story of Evita and Juan Peron and that is quite different. The story of the corpse (in Santa Evita) is more imaginary. Only a few things are based on real facts. Just the general facts of Evita: She was born illegitimate, she went to Buenos Aires when she was 15 or 17, she married Peron, she died of cancer. I tried to develop a technique I call "true fiction" which has roots in an older literary tradition. Madame Bovary, War and Peace are classic examples of novels using characters from historical reality. It’s a literary strategy.
Evita’s story is a story of failure. Therefore it’s not an epic, but a myth. Argentina is used to myths of failure: Che Guevara, or Carlos Gardel, or Evita Peron, people who lived in a hurry and died prematurely.
I’m writing a novel now about everyday life during the dictatorship. I don’t focus on the concentration camps or the torture or the despicable crimes committed during that time. I only deal with the everyday life. I was in exile and lived out of my country during the entire dictatorship. So now I try to recover my past through history and memory. Like in my previous books, I’m inspired by historical events, which I present through a personal perspective. For example, I am writing this new novel through the point of view of the people who approved the dictatorship. It was more challenging for me to deal with the multiplied horror of that period through the perspective of those who supported it. I find it very challenging.
NATIONALISM AND WRITERS: Both Sarmiento and Borges are very important writers. Sarmiento for the 19th-century; Borges for the 20th. Borges condemned nationalism. I agree that nationalism, as a political idea, is very disagreeable. I don’t accept it because automatically it makes someone think of the Nazis. Nationalism is a very narrow vision of reality. Sarmiento opposed nationalism as well, but, of course, he was more like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. As a writer sometimes you have to tell the things you are living in your country. But that’s different from nationalism. Borges wrote about the people from the provinces of Buenos Aires, which in some way was very nationalistic, but also part of his work was dealing with national problems. His most well-known essay, The Argentine Writer and the Tradition, is in my opinion the most influential that Borges ever wrote. The story of your nation as a narration transforms the nation into a tale. But that’s different from nationalism. Peron personified nationalism, but I don’t think that The Peron Novel is a nationalistic novel.
CORALITO AND 9/11: 9/11 and the "coralito" [the banks seizing citizens’ deposits as the economy collapsed—ed] happened at the same time. A very strange coincidence. We were shocked in Argentina by 9/11, but the reality in Argentina was so hard that we forgot all about the Twin Towers almost immediately. It was the worst year in Argentina after the dictatorship. Of course, then we had Carlos Menem for 15 years, which made me very embarrassed about my country. The origins of the new disaster were rooted in Menem’s years. Under Menem the promise of prosperity deceived. A lot of people made money because Menem favored business but he did not favor the national industry, which eventually collapsed. He was a very corrupt man. He knew what was coming but he played his game to the end. The parity of the peso to the dollar—Menem’s so-called achievement—was a clear fiction. Then the scandal of coralito exposed that fiction in the harshest way. The country went bankrupt and people were literally robbed of their savings. They put dollars in their savings and they got devaluated pesos one month later. From one to one with the dollar, the peso ended up four to one in 2002! (Today it is down to 2.5.)
I remember having lunch in Buenos Aires right before the crash with some very influential people, including the then president de la Rua and minister of economy Cavallo, and I got the impression that these people were mad. They were changing their minds over economic policy every 15 minutes over lunch! I felt like I was in the middle of a nightmare.
Things are getting better now compared to the nightmare of the past, especially the Menem era and the de la Rua years. I have the impression that the new government (led by leftist Nestor Kirchner) now is trying to repair things and not to construct something new. They don’t have a vision of the future, like you can see in Brazil or in Chile. The Argentine politicians in power right now are not thinking "what kind of Argentina will we construct?" but rather "what kind of problems will we repair so the entire system will not collapse?" Education is getting better but it’s early to say, and health is in bad shape.
My latest novel, The Tango Singer, is about the tango culture. Tango is more alive than ever in Argentina, more alive than religion. Religion is a formality in Argentina. The conservative newspaper La Nacion is still in tune with religion and, of course, people in the provinces are still attached to religion. But most people in Buenos Aires have gone past that point. There’s frustration about religion. The Catholic Church did not protect people during the dictatorship, and that is something that Argentines do not forget. So I’m not surprised the general attitude in Buenos Aires is secular.
PRINT IDEAS: It is a known fact that newspapers are selling half of what they used to 20 years ago. The people who have power and influence in society read newspapers and books, of course. Thankfully there are still many books and newspapers so the play for discussion is stronger than television, which is the banalization of the ideas, a place not to discuss ideas but a place to reproduce reality in a sensational way.