Monday, February 05, 2007

Interview with Tomás Eloy Martínez

The novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez believes his career as one of Argentina's most prominent journalists imperilled him yet saved his life. Blacklisted by a paramilitary group in the 1970s for his job on a Buenos Aires newspaper, he ignored death threats, including a letter bomb at his home, until gunmen surrounded a fashionable restaurant where he was eating lunch. It chilled his blood, he recalls, "but I wanted people to have pictures of my killers". When he rang his paper to send a photographer, the receptionist said: "Why so modest? I'll send them all." Martínez is convinced that the bevy of cameras scared off the death squad.

He fled to Paris, taking refuge in the residence of Mexico's then ambassador, the novelist Carlos Fuentes. It was 1975, the year after the death in office of Argentina's populist dictator Juan Perón, and shortly before his reigning widow, his third wife Isabel, was overthrown by the military junta in 1976, ushering in the terror and disappearances known as the "dirty war". During 10 years of exile, Martínez moved from France to Venezuela and, in 1982, to the United States, where he became director of Latin American studies at Rutgers university in New Jersey. He is writer-in-residence there.

His imagination, however, remains rooted in his homeland. While he denounced the junta in Venezuelan newspapers, his three early novels were banned in Argentina, and republished there only after the return to democracy in 1983. The Perón Novel (1985), which riled the Peronistas, was a political satire centred on the dictator's return in 1973 from 18 years of exile, while its prequel, Santa Evita (1995), artfully deconstructed the myth of Perón's second wife, Eva Duarte - Evita. A peasant-turned-B-movie actor, Eva bewitched the president and the crowds alike. She died of cancer in 1952, aged only 33. The novel, which traces a macabre struggle over her embalmed corpse, was a bestseller in Argentina for more than a year, and has been translated into more than 30 languages.
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