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The Corpse at the Iron Gate

She was illegitimate; she was poor; and she lived for the first ten years of her life in a one-room house, which still stands. When she was fifteen she went to Buenos Aires to become an actress. Her speech was bad; she had a country girl’s taste in clothes; her breasts were very small, her calves were heavy, and her ankles thickish. But within three months she had got her first job. And thereafter she charmed her way up. When she was twenty-five she met Perón; the following year they married.

Her commonness, her beauty, her success: they contribute to her sainthood. And her sexiness. “Todos me acosan sexualmente,” she once said with irritation, in her actress days. “Everybody makes a pass at me.” She was the macho‘s ideal victim-woman—don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio? But very soon she was beyond sex, and pure again. At twenty-nine she was dying from cancer of the uterus, and hemorrhaging through the vagina; and her plumpish body began to waste away. Toward the end she weighed 80 pounds. One day she looked at some old official photographs of herself and began to cry. Another day she saw herself in a long mirror and said, “When I think of the trouble I went to to keep my legs slim! Ahora que me veo estas piernitas me asusto. Now it frightens me to look at these matchsticks.”

But politically she never weakened. The Peronist revolution was going bad. Argentina’s accumulated wartime wealth was running low; the colonial economy, unregenerated, plundered, mismanaged, was beginning to founder; the peso was falling; the workers, to whom so much had been given, were not always loyal. But she still cherished her especial pain that “there were people who were rich.” Close to death, she told a gathering of provincial governors, “We mustn’t pay too much attention to people who talk to us of prudence. We must be fanatical.” The army was growing restive. She was willing to take them on. She wanted to arm the trade unions; and she did buy, through Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, 5,000 automatic pistols and 1,500 machine-guns, which, when they arrived, Perón, more prudent, gave to the police.

And all the time her private tragedy was being turned into the public passion play of the dictatorship. For her, who had turned Peronism into a religion, sainthood had long been decreed; and there is a story that for fifteen days before her death the man who was to embalm her was with her, to ensure that nothing was done that might damage the body. As soon as she died the embalming contract was signed. Was it for $100,000 or $300,000? The reports are confused. Dr. Ara, the Spanish embalmer—“a master,” Perón called him—had first to make the body ready for a fifteen-day lying-in-state. The actual embalming took six months. The process remains secret. Dr. Ara, according to a Buenos Aires newspaper, has devoted two chapters of his memoirs (which are to be published only after his death) to the embalming of Eva Perón; color pictures of the corpse are also promised. Reports suggest that the blood was first replaced by alcohol, and then by heated glycerine (Perón himself says “paraffin and other special matter”), which was pumped in through the heel and an ear.

I went three times to look at Evita,” Perón wrote in 1956, after his overthrow, and when the embalmed body had disappeared. “The doors…were like the gates of eternity.” He had the impression that she was only sleeping. The first time he went he wanted to touch her, but he feared that at the touch of his warm hand the body would turn to dust. Ara said, “Don’t worry. She’s as whole (intacta) now as when she was alive.”

And now, twenty years later, her embalmed wasted body, once lost, now found, and no bigger, they say, than that of a twelve-year-old girl, only the blonde hair as rich as in the time of health, waits with Perón at the Iron Gate.

It came as a surprise, this villa miseria or shantytown just beside the brown river in the Palermo district, not far from the great park, Buenos Aires’s equivalent of the Bois de Boulogne, where people go riding. A shantytown, with unpaved streets and black runnels of filth, but the buildings were of brick, with sometimes an upper story: a settled place, more than fifteen years old, with shops and signs. Seventy thousand people lived there, nearly all Indians, blank and slightly imbecilic in appearance, from the north and from Bolivia and Paraguay; so that suddenly you were reminded that you were not in Paris or Europe but South America. The priest in charge was one of the “Priests for the Third World.” He wore a black leather jacket and his little concrete shed of a church, oversimple, rocked with some amplified Argentine song. It had been whispered to me that the priest came of a very good family; and perhaps the change of company had made him vain. He was of course a Peronist, and he said that all his Indians were Peronist. “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism. I can talk to you for five years about Peronism, but you will never understand.”

But couldn’t we try? He said Peronism wasn’t concerned with economic growth; they rejected the consumer society. But hadn’t he just been complaining about the unemployment in the interior, the result of government folly, that was sending two Indians into his shantytown for every one that left? He said he wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano; some people were concerned only with GNP. And, leaving us, he bore down, all smiles, on some approaching Indians. The river wind was damp, the concrete shed unheated, and I wanted to leave. But the man with me was uneasy. He said we should at least wait and tell the father I wasn’t an American. We did so. And the father, abashed, explained that Peronism was really concerned with the development of the human spirit. Such a development had taken place in Cuba and China; in those countries they had turned their backs on the industrial society.

These lawyers had been represented to me as a group working for “civil rights.” They were young, stylishly dressed, and they were meeting that morning to draft a petition against torture. The top-floor flat was scruffy and bare; visitors were scrutinized through the peep-hole; everybody whispered; and there was a lot of cigarette smoke. Intrigue, danger. But one of the lawyers was diverted by my invitation to lunch, and at lunch—he was a hearty and expensive eater—he made it clear that the torture they were protesting against wasn’t to be confused with the torture in Perón’s time.

He said: “When justice is the justice of the people men sometimes commit excesses. But in the final analysis the important thing is that justice should be done in the name of the people.” Who were the enemies of the people? His response was tabulated and swift. “American imperialism. And its native allies. The oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, Zionism, and the ‘sepoy’ left. By sepoys we mean the Communist Party and socialism in general.” It seemed a comprehensive list. Who were the Peronists? “Peronism is a revolutionary national movement. There is a great difference between a movement and a party. We are not Stalinists, and a Peronist is anyone who calls himself a Peronist and acts like a Peronist.”

The lawyer, for all his anti-Jewish feeling, was a Jew; and he came of an anti-Peronist middle-class family. In 1970 he had met Perón in Madrid, and he had been dazzled; his voice shook when he quoted Perón’s words. He had said to Perón, “General, why don’t you declare war on the regime and then put yourself at the head of all the true Peronists?” Perón replied: “I am the conductor of a national movement. I have to conduct the whole movement, in its totality.”

There are no internal enemies,” the trade union leader said, with a smile. But at the same time he thought that torture would continue in Argentina. “A world without torture is an ideal world.” And there was torture and torture. “Depende de quién sea torturado. It depends on who is tortured. An evildoer, that’s all right. But a man who’s trying to save the country—that’s something else. Torture isn’t only the electric prod, you know. Poverty is torture, frustration is torture.” He was urbane; I had been told he was the most intellectual of the Peronist trade union leaders. He had been punctual; his office was uncluttered and neat; on his desk, below glass, there was a large photograph of the young Perón.

The first Peronist revolution was based on the myth of wealth, of a land waiting to be plundered. Now the wealth has gone. And Peronism is like part of the poverty. It is protest, despair, faith, machismo, magic, espiritismo, revenge. It is everything and nothing. Remove Perón, and hysteria will be uncontrollable. Remove the armed forces, sterile guardians of law and order, and Peronism, triumphant, will disintegrate into a hundred scattered fights, every man identifying his own enemy.

Violence, in the hands of the people, isn’t violence: it is justice.” This statement of Perón’s was printed on the front page of a recent issue of Fe, a Peronist paper. So, in sinister mimicry, the south twists the revolutionary jargon of the north. Where jargon turns living issues into abstractions (“Torture will disappear in Argentina,” the Trotskyite said, “only with a workers’ government and the downfall of the bourgeoisie”), and where jargon ends by competing with jargon, people don’t have causes. They only have enemies; only the enemies are real. It has been the South American nightmare since the break-up of the Spanish Empire.

Was Eva Perón blonde or brunette? Was she born in 1919 or 1922? Was she born in the little town of Los Toldos, or in Junín, 40 kilometers away? Well, she was a brunette who dyed her hair blonde; she was born in 1919 but said 1922 (and had her birth record destroyed in 1945); she spent the first ten years of her life in Los Toldos but ever afterward disclaimed the town. No one will know why. Don’t go to her autobiography, La Razón de mi Vida, which used to be prescribed reading in Argentine schools. That doesn’t contain a fact or a date; and it was written by a Spaniard, who later complained that the book he wrote had been much altered by the Peronist authorities.

So the truth begins to disappear; it is not relevant to the legend. Masses are held in Eva Perón’s memory, and students now turn up in numbers; but her life is not the subject of inquiry. Unmarked, seldom visited (though a woman remembers that once some television people came), the one-room house in brown brick in Los Toldos crumbles. The elderly garage-owner next door (two vehicles in his garage, one an engineless Model T), to whom the house now belongs, uses it as a storeroom. Grass sprouts from the flat roof, and the corrugated-iron roof collapses over the patio at the back.

Only one biography of Eva Perón has been attempted in Argentina. It was to be in two volumes, but the publisher went bankrupt and the second volume hasn’t appeared. Had she lived, Eva Perón would now be only fifty-three. There are hundreds of people alive who knew her. But in two months I found it hard to get beyond what was well known. Memories have been edited; people deal in panegyric or hate, and the people who hate refuse to talk about her. The anguish of those early years at Los Toldos has been successfully suppressed. The Eva Perón story has been lost; there is now only the legend.

One evening, after his classes at the Catholic University, and while the police sirens screamed outside, Borges told me,

We had a sense that the whole thing should have been forgotten. Had the newspapers been silent there would have been no Peronism today—the Peronistas were at first ashamed of themselves. If I were facing a public audience I would never use his name. I would say el prófugo, the fugitive, el dictador. The way in poetry one avoids certain words—if I used his name in a poem the whole thing would fall to pieces.

It is the Argentine attitude: suppress, ignore. Many of the records of the Peronist era have been destroyed. If today the middle-class young are Peronists, and students sing the old song of the dictatorship—

Perón, Perón, qué grande sos!
Mi general, cuánto valés!

(Perón, Perón, how great you are! How good and strong, my general!)

—if the dictatorship, even in its excesses, is respectable again, it isn’t because the past has been investigated and the record modified. It is only that many people have revised their attitudes toward the established legend. They have changed their minds.

There is no history in Argentina. There are no archives, there are only graffiti and polemics and school lessons. Schoolchildren in white dustcoats are regularly taken round the Cabildo building in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to see the relics of the War of Independence. The event is glorious; it stands in isolation; it is not related, in the textbooks or in the popular mind, to what immediately followed: the loss of law, the seeking out of the enemy, endless civil wars, gangster rule.

Borges said on another evening, “The history of Argentina is the history of its separateness from Spain.” How did Perón fit into that? “Perón represented the scum of the earth.” But he surely also stood for something that was Argentine? “Unfortunately, I have to admit that he’s an Argentine—an Argentine of today.” Borges is a criollo, someone whose ancestors came to Argentina before the great immigrant rush, before the country became what it is; and for the contemplation of his country’s history Borges substitutes ancestor worship. Like many Argentines, he has an idea of Argentina; anything that doesn’t fit into this is to be rejected. And Borges is Argentina’s greatest man.

An attitude to history, an attitude to the land. Magic is important in Argentina; the country is full of witches and magicians and thaumaturges and mediums. But the visitor must ignore this side of Argentine life because, he is told, it isn’t real. The country is full of estancias; but the visitor musn’t go to that estancia because it isn’t typical. But it exists, it works. Yes, but it isn’t real. Nor is that real, nor that, nor that. So the whole country is talked away; and the visitor finds himself directed to the equivalent of a Gaucho curio shop. It isn’t the Argentina that anyone inhabits, least of all one’s guides; but that is real, that is Argentina. “Basically we all love the country,” an Anglo-Argentine said. “But we would like it to be in our own image. And many of us are now suffering for our fantasies.” A collective refusal to see, an absence of inquiry, an inability to come to terms with the land: an artificial, fragmented colonial society, made deficient and bogus by its myths.

To be Argentine was not to be South American. It was to be European; and many Argentines became European, of Europe. The land that was the source of their wealth became no more than their base. For these Argentine-Europeans Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata became resort towns, with a seasonal life. Between the wars there was a stable Argentine community of 100,000 in Paris; the peso was the peso then.

Many people think,” Borges said, “that quite the best thing that could have happened here would have been an English victory [in 1806-7, when the British twice raided Buenos Aires]. At the same time I wonder whether being a colony does any good—so provincial and dull.”

But to be European in Argentina was to be colonial in the most damaging way. It was to be parasitic. It was to claim—as the white communities of the Caribbean colonies claimed—the achievements and authority of Europe as one’s own. It was to ask less of oneself (in Trinidad, when I was a child, it was thought that the white and the rich needed no education). It was to accept, out of a false security, a second-rateness for one’s own society.

And there was the wealth of Argentina: the British railways taking the wheat and the meat from all the corners of the pampa to the port of Buenos Aires, for shipment to England. There was no pioneer or nationmaking myth of hard work and reward. The land was empty and very flat and very rich; it was inexhaustible; and it was infinitely forgiving. Dios arregla de noche la macana que los Argentinos hacen de día: God puts right at night the mess the Argentines make by day.

To be Argentine was to inhabit a magical, debilitating world. Wealth and Europeanness concealed the colonial realities of an agricultural society which had needed little talent and had produced little, which had needed no great men and had produced none. “Nothing happened here,” Norman di Giovanni said with irritation one day. And everyone, from Borges down, says, “Buenos Aires is a small town.” Eight million people: a monstrous plebeian sprawl, mean, repetitive, and meaningless: but only a small town, eaten up by colonial doubt and malice. When the real world is felt to be outside, everyone at home is inadequate and fraudulent. A waiter in Mendoza said, “Argentines don’t work. We can’t do anything big. Everything we do is small and petty.” An artist said, “There are very few professionals here. By that I mean people who know what to do with themselves. No one knows why he is doing any particular job. For that reason if you are doing what I do, then you are my enemy.”

Camelero, chanta: These are everyday Argentine words. A camelero is a line-shooter, a man who really has nothing to sell. The man who promised to take me to an estancia, and in his private airplane, was only doing camelo. The chanta is the man who will sell everything, the man without principles, the hollow man. Almost everybody, from the president down, is dismissed by somebody as a chanta.

The other word that recurs is mediocre. Argentines detest the mediocre and fear to be thought mediocre. It was one of Eva Perón’s words of abuse. For her the Argentine aristocracy was always mediocre. And she was right. In a few years she shattered the myth of Argentina as an aristocratic colonial land. And no other myth, no other idea of the land, has been found to take its place.

Letters

Is Argentina Doomed? November 30, 1972

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