One enjoys an almost god- like stature while weilding power, and subsequently a writer comes along and writes a novel on the dictator- forcing him to live through not so much the god- like side of the story but much more intensely the other side of the Janus face- the one that is dark and clumsy and often remains under a cloak during the lifetime of the dictator.
In the poem The Novelist Auden writes on how the novelist must live through the existences of his characters:
Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.
They can dash forward like hussars: but he
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn.
For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
Stalin had Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle that captured the pyschological portrait of the man, and we have had Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriach based on the archetypal Latin American dictator and more recently Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat on the Dominican Republic’s Trujilo.
Tomás Eloy Martínez, author of Santa Evita and more recently, The Tango Singer, traces the life of the Argentinian strongman and founder of Peronism and the Peronist Party, Juan Perón, and layer by layer unravels a man who is little more than a scheming demagogue.
In his recent brilliant work Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Richard Gott makes the following observation:
The history of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s was so dominated by the eruption of military dictatorships of the right that it is easy to forget the existence of another tradition. For on many occasions, in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century, radical officers have appeared with the interests of the people at heart, ready to do battle on their behalf with local landlords or foreign capitalists.
It is to one of these eclectic traditions that Perón belonged. His inspiration came from the National Socialism of Hitler in Germany but more than that of Mussolini in Italy- that is a form of national socialism without the concentration camps.
Martínez does well to dig out this and other such influences on the mind of the military captain Perón who went on to become the President of the republic via a military coup and whom was himself overthrown subsequently in another one. While the formative years of Perón are well dwelt on, and so are the moments soon after his return in 1971, the actual years of his rule and the long 18 years of his exile do not get the same attention.
Still the novel is a fascinating read and Martínez’s mastery of his subject and on the craft of the novel are evident, making for a pleasant reading. It has certainly been my best read from Latin America in the last few months.