“Of all the professions, journalism is the one that allows the least amount of space for absolute truths.” Those were the words of Argentine journalist and novelist Tomas Eloy Martinez, who died January 30th, and it's how Off-Ramp literary commentator Marc Haefele begins his remembrance of a journalist who made a difference.
Martinez has had five of his books published in English, but he’s not as well known as his compadres, like Manuel Puig, who wrote “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” or Julio Cortazar, who wrote “Hopscotch.” But historically, he was more important than either. He was the literary conscience of his nation, during and after the torture-based dictatorships of the last century.
Martinez was born in 1934. He started writing fiction when he was 10, after his parents forbid him to read. He became a journalist but fled Argentina in 1975 because the government wanted to kill him.
While editing a major news journal in Caracas, Martinez returned to fiction and wrote his two most famous novels — about the Perons, Juan and Evita. The first, “The Peron Novel,” mustered the armaments of fiction to delineate a dictator Martinez considered beyond factual description. The second novel was: “Santa Evita.” A bestseller all over Latin America, it was translated into dozens of languages—including English. Unlike the musical “Evita,” it was ferociously unsentimental, dealing largely with the peculiar adventures of her embalmed corpse. But his book was so credible that the imaginary phrase that Martinez had her say to Peron on their first meeting: “Thank you for existing,” was engraved on the Eva Peron Museum. Martinez once said, “Journalism in inherently unfaithful to reality.” Only his brand of fiction—enormous research enhanced by vast imagination—could convey the huge tragedies of his motherland.
But it wasn’t until “Purgatorio,” his final novel, that he could focus his searchlight on the hideous dictatorship that controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1982, in which the ruling junta disappeared 30,000 people. “Purgatorio” is set in suburban New Jersey, where he spent his last years teaching Latin American Studies at Rutgers. But in the book, Martinez makes himself secondary to the character of Emilia Depuy. She’s the daughter of a junta member and her disappeared husband shows up 30 years later. Emilia’s turmoil evokes all of Argentina’s denial of its national tragedy.
Into Emilia’s story is woven the author’s own history -- including treatment of the long-advancing cancer that killed him at the age of 75 -- and his deep love of the little New Jersey town where Tomas Eloy Martinez lived his exile.
For Offramp, this is Marc Haefele.