SANTA EVITA
                         By Tomás Eloy Martínez
                               Translated by Helen Lane
                         384 pages Reprint edition (August 1997)
                         Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679768149

                                                                           By Anthony Milne

"IF THOSE in power have the right to imagine a history that is false, why shouldn't novelists attempt with their imaginations to discover the truth?" asks Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez. In his part of the world, he declares, "documents often were falsified by Governments". This was true during the Falklands war between Argentina and Britain, when a "completely false history based on propaganda was generated as a pretext to pursue a war". It was true too during Argentina's "dirty war", when thousands of citizens the government didn't like simply disappeared.

Martínez has met the challenge of imagining the truth and stepped into the limelight with his novel Santa Evita. In the last two years the book has sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and been translated into 36 languages.

According to Caleb Bach, writing in the magazine Americas, published by the OAS in Washington, Martínez's book, a "spectacular critical and commercial success", tracks the "bizarre peregrination of the corpse of Eva Duarte de Perón", first wife of late Argentine President Juan Perón. It is a "magical mix of fact and fiction" which reveals the historical and psychological realities of Argentina".

Martínez is a veteran journalist who was born and brought up in Tucumán in Argentina and has spent important periods of his creative life in exile. Perón's rise to power in the Forties and rule in the Fifties, as well as his return from exile and resumption of the presidency in 1973, has been Martínez's particular obsession. His first novel, La Novela Perón (The Perón Novel) appeared in 1985 and dealt with Perón's earlier career, shared with wife Evita.

Martínez wrote the book in Washington DC on a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Center, drawing on years of research and using journalistic techniques. He imagines what the distorted truth of the Perón era was. The later Santa Evita too is a "meditation on truth". The technique of mixing fact and fiction, Martínez says, was inspired by his fellow-Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges, now dead. "My novel would not have appeared but for Borges," he admits. "But then he has influenced the breadth of modern literature."

Martínez traces the genesis of Santa Evita to a documentary film he saw at the National Archives in Washington. "I was looking at footage of an artistic festival on January 22, 1944, at Luna Park Stadium in Buenos Aires," Martínez explains. "That's where Evita first met the Colonel. She managed to seat herself next to Perón. At one point she leans over and says something, but there is no sound and you can't read her lips, so I asked myself what she could have said."

He imagined an exchange in which Evita says, "Coronel". Somewhat distracted Perón responds, "Qué hija?". Evita then says, "Gracias por existir" ("Thank you for existing"). The imaginary phrase has appeared in another novel and two biographies of Evita.

MARTÍNEZ was born in Tucumán in 1934. His uncle was a major stockholder in La Gaceta, the biggest newspaper outside of Buenos Aires. Martínez's family hoped he would one day head the paper, but he dreamt of literature. He wrote his first story "by chance" at the age of seven. Having spent far too long one afternoon at a travelling circus, he was punished by being banned from going to movies and reading books. He collected postage stamps and, to pass the time, wrote a "fantastic adventure that occurred when I entered a stamp from Mozambique which bore the image of a jungle full of monkeys". His parents were so impressed the ban was lifted.

As a teenager he had stories published in La Gaceta and won a poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He also wrote headlines at the paper for foreign stories and proofread. Martínez entered the University of Tucumán to study law, but didn't do well and his father gave permission for a transfer to the School of Letters. He took a degree in Spanish and Latin American literature, then went on to the University of Paris to take his Masters. Back in Argentina he got a job as film critic for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación and wrote his first book, Structure in Argentine Cinema. Favouring European film, his reviews annoyed local distributors for Hollywood films, who removed their advertisements from the paper. Martínez was asked to leave.

He then taught at the Universities of La Plata and Córdoba and wrote seven film scripts with Uruguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos. Martínez returned to journalism, editing the literary publication Primera Plana from 1962-69. In 1965 he created an evening television programme for television called Telenoche. In 1967 he invited Gabriel García Márquez, then unknown, to Argentina after the publication of the Colombian writer's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He published a cover story about Márquez in Primera Plano.

IN 1969 Martínez went to Paris as correspondent for Editorial Abril and the following year was asked by the Argentine magazine Panorama to interview former President Perón, then in exile in Madrid. Perón agreed to tell him his life story. By then Evita had died, Perón was remarried to María Estela Martínez, known as "Isabel", who succeeded Perón after his second stint as president in the 1970s. In the attic of their home in the Madrid suburb of Puerta de Hierro was Evita's embalmed body. Present during the interviews until Martínez objected, was Perón's secretary, José Luis Rega, steeped in the occult and known as the "Sorcerer". There was a confrontation and Perón asked Rega to leave. Rega didn't forget this. After Perón returned to Argentina, Martínez poked fun at Rega in an article and was forced into exile in Paris. Afterwards he moved to Caracas where he worked as a journalist. From 1984-87, after the fellowship that allowed him the write The Perón Novel, Martínez taught Latin American literature at the University of Maryland. He then got a Guggenheim Fellowship, visited Argentina and Mexico in the early 1990s, and set about writing Santa Evita in an apartment in Highland Park, New Jersey.

Living in exile provides both advantages and disadvantages. "I miss the conversations in the cafés with friends and the intellectual passion of the people," Martínez says. "But here in New Jersey I have the peace necessary to write." He sees things more clearly from a distance. "At home we are always preoccupied by minuscule problems like which minister is going to fall tomorrow instead of the big things that really matter." Now he's at work on another novel but doesn't like to talk about it. "It's bad luck to tell about a novel that isn't written".

(Anthony Milne <>  was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1951, educated there at St Mary's College, and subsequently in Canada and at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. He has worked as a journalist with Trinidad Express newspapers since July 1981, covering politics, parliament and just about everything else under the sun.)