The Art of Dying

May Bookshelf

Is an art like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
-- Sylvia Plath

illustration by Penny Van Horn

I'm not sure if comparing Evita with Elvis is more offensive to his memory or hers, yet I cannot resist the risk. Both were born of uncertain circumstances yet bloomed inexplicably into full-fledged stardom, shaping their corner of the universe. Untimely and gruesome deaths did nothing to squelch their charisma or power; instead they each grow ever larger as years pass, like butterflies from another planet casting mammoth shadows. Elvis has Graceland and Paul Simon and a guitar-shaped swimming pool. Evita has had only her body, circling the globe, on ship, beneath ground, and her body doubles, perfect dolls that grow more beautiful each day. It is the journey of this body that Argentine journalist and writer Tomás Eloy Martínez takes up in this his second novel, Santa Evita (Random House, $14 paper). An outgrowth of his first book, The Perón Novel, the story resembles a journalist's compendium of research about a most fantastic series of events. Yet Martínez felt the tale was "so incredible, so unbelievable that it had to be written in the novel style."

When Eva Duarte de Perón, adored wife of the Argentine dictator and defender of the poor, died in 1952 of cancer, her body was embalmed and put on display à la Lenin, so that the poor could continue to worship her. But in 1955 when Perón's government was overthrown, military leaders saw Evita as a powerful symbol to her descamisados, the "shirtless ones," as a threat, and so the journey of her body began. Here enters one of the novel's central characters, Colonel Koenig, who is entrusted with seeing that the body and its multiple copies are safely dispersed to various secret locations that will not be discovered by the eager Perónists. But "...stretched out on glass, Evita's body refused to obey orders and behaved according to her own funereal logic." In short, after several foul-ups and backup plans, the colonel falls in love, eventually following the body to Italy and Germany, forsaking his own marriage for his obsession with protecting the dead woman's body from both her admirers and his own government.

Besides the ever-present disappearing body, the other main character of the novel is that of the narrator -- the voice searching for his story: "Once I began trying to narrate Evita I noted that, if I approached her, she withdrew." The colonel's widow warns the narrator that anyone who tries to unravel the story will fall into danger as happened to her husband, who drank himself to oblivion. Nonetheless, the narrator/Martínez attempts to track the various bizarre experiences Evita's body has inspired or involved. A mother comes to say good-bye to her daughter and even she is unable to tell which of the perfect bodies, clad in white tunics, belongs to her daughter. Hidden behind a movie house screen, the body temporarily becomes the life-size play doll of the projectionist's daughter. Stowed away in the attic of an army major, the body proves so alluring that he ignores the pleas of his pregnant wife and finally ends up shooting her. Watching the moon walk on TV, the colonel is convinced that the astronauts digging up moon rocks are actually burying his dear Evita's body. Through interviews, false starts (such as part of a screenplay included in the book), official and personal documents, and various research trips, the narrator forges ahead into the mire of conflicting tales to discover nothing definite or earth-shattering, except that " novels what is true is also false. Authors rebuild at night the same myths they've destroyed in the morning."

The legend of Evita's popularity makes this tale more compelling -- and just a little reminiscent of Madonna's own strange hold on the popular imagination. According to the novel, in the two months before she died, the Vatican received 40,000 letters attributing miracles to Evita and urging the Pope to canonize her (which he eventually did). At the height of her fame, half the girls born in the provinces were named Eva or some variation; adolescent girls dyed their hair blond and wore it back in a bun. Her generosity was famous: According to the novel's account, in the first six months of 1951 Evita gave away 25,000 houses and three million packages containing medicine, clothing, or toys. There is no doubt that she captured the imaginations of the disenfranchised -- sick, old, poor, and young. One girl wrote Evita 2,000 letters in a single year, each identical, asking merely to be kept in her thoughts. (When a rumor began that Evita was being considered for second-in-command but had been denied because she was a woman, the girl began a hunger strike and was consumed by a hurricane. The girl's action spawned copy-cat record-breaking feats such as endless tangos and billiard games, all aimed at the notion that if one could attract even momentary notice by Evita, one would be protected by her extraordinary power.)

It is this Evita that no doubt attracted Madonna to her current film role, that and some swell songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But for the real story of how an uneducated, plain woman attracted the attentions of a world leader and then remade herself into one of the most charismatic figures of this century, reading Santa Evita is the place to begin. Though the book may not provide the usual rewards of a novel, such as a single fluid narrative or a rewarding ending, the story offers up plenty of interesting characters, bizarre vignettes, and a compelling, sad tale of a wandering soul.

In 1974, after Perón had briefly returned to power only to die in office, Eva Perón's body was brought back to Argentina by the president's second wife who succeeded him in power. Two years later, when she was overthrown, Evita's body was buried in the Duarte family tomb in Buenes Aires under three plates of steel, finally putting to an end some 20 years of wandering... assuming, that is, it was indeed the right Evita. -- Robin Bradford

Perhaps you've heard the rumor: the novel is dead. In our postmodern world, we simply haven't the time or the stomach for that quaint vestige of earlier times. Of course, genre fiction will continue to flourish, hack writers will continue to churn out pulp. But serious, literary novels such as those of Henry James, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens have gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage -- one might tool around in one for a lark, but no one in their right mind would consider it a legitimate means of transportation.

To those who pontificate such tripe, I proffer a gem, Le Divorce by Diane Johnson (Dutton, $23.95 hard). The story begins on the day that Isabel Walker, an intelligent young Californian hovering precariously close to the edge of slackerdom, arrives in Paris for an extended visit to her pregnant stepsister, Roxy. Isabel is astonished to discover that just prior to her arrival, Roxy's French husband, Charles-Henri, has left her for another woman. To complicate matters further, Roxy's in-laws, the Persands, instigate a sort of custody battle over a painting that has been in Roxy's family for years but that she gave to Charles-Henri as a wedding gift. Although the legal fight is bitter, the Persands and Roxy maintain a superficially amicable relationship through the entire affair, a fact that puzzles Isabel.

Soon, the rest of the Walker clan arrives from Santa Barbara, rushing to the emotional and legal aid of their daughter. The result of all these plot intricacies is a finely wrought framework for Johnson's prose, the fresh, unassuming style of which makes the novel an absolute joy to read.

It is nearly impossible not to compare Johnson's sparkling wit to that of her illustrious predecessor, Jane Austen. There is, in fact, a great deal of similarity between the two authors, beyond the fact that they both employ as their main characters clever young ingenues from upper-middle class families. What makes both writers great is their incredible perceptiveness. They astonish and delight the reader with insights able to paint a picture of an entire community in a few broad brush strokes or with one deft phrase characterize a complicated character more completely than a lesser writer could in several chapters. Johnson tells us, for instance, "The French are odd at the table. Usually they are very elaborate in the way they pass the dishes, the men giving each dish to the lady next to him before he serves himself, and the platter traveling thus twice around the table, to every woman before any man is served. I suppose no man has ever tasted his food hot. Secure in their social privilege, the men are stately in their politeness, seeming to say by their forbearance that they can endure eating cold food."

On the other hand, the character of Isabel's ultra-California, lawyer brother is revealed in his rantings about the hotly contested painting: "It's mine and Isabel's, what the fuck do I care about French law, it's goddamned mine." Can't you just see him screaming into his cell phone?

And so in Le Divorce we have a novel that Austen herself might have written had she been alive two centuries later, after both the industrial and sexual revolutions had changed (if not obliterated) the rules of the game forever. It seems the literary novel is not dead after all.

-- Leah Welborn

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