Evita or Madonna: whom will history remember?
Interview with Tomas Eloy Martinez
NPQ: In the
old days, US imperialism meant appropriating Latin American resources
such as copper or rubber. In these days, Hollywood is appropriating
much more - the very myths of your national culture. No matter what
Argentineans may think, from here on out won't the world know Evita
as Madonna? Won't they see Argentine history as the film scenario
rather than the real events? You may finally have the body of Evita
there at La Recoleta cemetery, but we have the image here in Hollywood.
TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ:
Conquering Latin America was for North American imperialism, a question
of force: the enslaving force of armies, of technology, of an aggressive
diplomacy. Conquering the myths of Latin America will not be as
easy.That conquest will not be won with money. It is a battle to
prevail over the imagination of the people, which is not won through
advertising saturation but through talent. There is an excellent
example of what I'm talking about. In 1845, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento
published a famous pamphlet, Facundo: Civilization or Barbarie?
The book was a biography that denounced the savagery of Facundo
Quiroga, a provincial caudillo. Many of Sarmiento's descriptions
and historical examples contradicted the documented truth. The Argentines
continue thinking that the authentic Facundo Quiroga is Sarmiento's,
not the one described in the official records, because the character
was narrated so forcefully, with such conviction and with such a
richness of tone that the real Facundo was abolished by the imaginary
Facundo. The same could happen with Madonna's Evita if Alan Parker's
film creates a better and more moving mythical image than the image
of Evita already installed within the culture of the Argentine people.
This appropriation attempt by Hollywood has been heavy, almost overwhelming;
for some months, the chignon hairstyle, the makeup, the outfits
that Peronist iconography popularized to the point of nausea four
decades ago today all bear the face of Madonna. At the end of 1996,
the most famous of Eva Peron's prophecies - "I will return
and I will be a million" -could be rewritten as "I will
return and I will be Madonna." But if Evita is not a great
film, all of these assaults from Hollywood will only be a trend,
and within a few years, Madonna's transfiguration will be forgotten
and will again give way to the real Evita. Latin American myths
are more resistant than they seem to be. Not even the mass exodus
of the Cuban raft people or the rapid decomposition and isolation
of Fidel Castro's regime have eroded the triumphal myth of Che Guevara,
which remains alive in the dreams of thousands of young people in
Latin America, Africa and Europe.Che as well as Evita symbolize
certain naive, but effective, beliefs: the hope for a better world;
a life sacrificed on the altar of the disinherited, the humiliated,
the poor of the earth. They are myths which somehow reproduce the
image of Christ. And I doubt that all the money in Hollywood is
enough to modify that situation. Evita's body remains invisible
in the cemetery of La Recoleta and from there silently continues
her battle against Madonna's body. Unless Alan Parker's movie is
brilliant -something like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca or The
Star Wars Trilogy - I think that Evita Peron, the body and its myth,
will win this battle.
NPQ: When I
asked this question of President Menem - who at first opposed Madonna
playing the role - he responded by saying that many fine Argentine
actresses were also portraying Evita in various performances.
That may be true. But aren't terms-of-trade stacked against Argentina?
The faces of those local actresses will never see the light of history.
They will be buried under the avalanche of celluloid and home videos
of the Madonna version. Frank Zappa once said he thought Michael
Jackson's warblings would be seen in the future as the classical
music of this period - perhaps not by talent but due to the sheer
volume of plastic albums and CD platinum circulating around the
planet. Even after a nuclear holocaust, you'll still find plenty
in the ruins.
myth of the real Eva Peron will begin after the fires of the film
have died down. Her image is already installed in history with such
force and with as many lights and shadows as that of Henry the VIII,
Marie Antoinette or JFK. The immortality of great personages begins
when they become a metaphor with which people can identify. Evita
is already several metaphors: she is the Robin Hood of the 20th
century, she is the Cinderella of the tango and the Sleeping Beauty
of Latin America. Broadway musicals and Hollywood films enrich those
meanings, they don't erase them. President Menem's opinion on the
aptitude of Argentine actresses to embody Evita seems to me to be
a confirmation of the optimism which has always characterized the
president. At the same time, the question that you ask is pessimistic
to the point of exaggeration. You say the faces of those local actresses
will never see the light of history. I would not be so final. Don't
forget that Evita was precisely one of those actresses. When she
arrived in Buenos Aires in 1934 and when she met Peron, 10 years
later, she was an actress without any talent, who mispronounced
words, and who was completely lacking in education. Her enemies
- and Jorge Luis Borges was one of the most rancorous - believed
that very thing; that she was unworthy of passing into history.
Upon marrying Peron, Evita discovered the character of her life
-herself - and acted it out brilliantly. Half a century later she
continues to shine in the floodlights of history with such power
that Hollywood is investing almost $100 million to present her life.
It doesn't seem to me that for an Argentine actress, she did that
NPQ: Some have
suggested that since Argentina's experiment with free trade is going
sour, perhaps it is time for a little of the old protectionism.
Might this also be true in the realm of culture? After all, even
the French speak of the right of nations to invoke the "cultural
exception" when it comes to resisting Hollywood dominance.
There are rumors that the Madonna version of Evita may be
banned in Argentina as a betrayal of the nation's heritage. Would
you support that?
don't believe in guardians or in protection by the state or in public
authority when it comes to culture. The wider the embrace and the
desire of a culture to imbibe voices from outside, the greater its
possibilities to enrich itself. Hollywood has had a positive influence
on the intellectual formation of our countries, on our imagination
and on our mythology. I see no reason to fight against that. Some
of the best Latin-American narratives of the last half-century are
the fruit of the intensity and creative intelligence with which
our creators absorbed and modified the lessons of Hollywood. Manuel
Puig is a good example. He took from Hollywood the materia prima
of his fiction and later sold it back to Hollywood as a manufactured
product. That is the case with The Kiss of the Spider Woman. If
I believe that, I couldn't be in agreement at all with any form
of Argentine censorship against Alan Parker and Madonna's Evita.
When President Menem opposed the project, I wrote several articles
for my country's newspapers refuting the prejudices of the fanatic
nationalistic Argentines. I have always believed in the freedom
to create and I have always opposed all forms of censorship. I have
no reason to change my opinion now.
TOMAS ELOY MARTINEZ
is the acclaimed Argentine author of Santa Evita and The Peron novel.
New Perspectives Quarterly.'97