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Tomas Eloy Martinez, author of novels about Perons, dies at 75

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010; B05

Tomás Eloy Martínez, 75, an Argentine journalist and novelist who wrote two international bestsellers about former Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón and his glamorous, beloved-by-the-masses wife, Eva Perón, died Jan. 31 at his home in Buenos Aires. He had a brain tumor.

Forced to flee Argentina in 1975 because of his work as a journalist, Mr. Martínez spent much of his adult life in the United States. He taught at the University of Maryland during the 1980s and since 1995 had been a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he was director of what is now the Center for Latin American Studies.

Along with Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, Mr. Martínez was one of Latin America's most accomplished writers. He blended surrealistic elements of fiction with investigative reporting to shed light on Argentina's turbulent history under Perón, who was first elected in 1946.

In "The Perón Novel" (1985), Mr. Martínez created a portrait of the political leader as he is preparing to return to power in 1973 after 18 years in exile. The book, in which Mr. Martinez appears as a character, recounts how Argentina slid into chaos and violence as Perón lost grip on authority. Peppered with newspaper articles and interviews but presented as fiction, the book blurs the line between imagination and the facts of the past.

"History is written by those in power," Mr. Martínez told an interviewer in 1998. "If those in power have the right to imagine a history that is false, why then shouldn't novelists attempt with their imaginations to discover the truth?"

He delved further into the stranger-than-fiction truth of his country's past in "Santa Evita," published in 1995 in Argentina and in the United States the following year. The novel explores Argentina's obsession with Eva Perón by tracing the journey of her embalmed corpse in the years after she died in 1952 from cancer at age 33.

In Mr. Martínez's spooky tale, some of which is rooted in fact, he says the corpse was displayed and hidden, copied in wax, stolen, buried and disinterred for more than 20 years before reaching its final resting place in Buenos Aires in 1976.

Widely acclaimed and translated into more than 30 languages, "Santa Evita" sold more than a million copies worldwide and was on the Argentine bestseller list for more than a year.

"Finally, this is the novel I always wanted to read," García Márquez was reported to have said after reading "Santa Evita."

Its popularity in the United States was boosted by the film version of the Broadway musical "Evita," which starred Madonna and was released shortly after Mr. Martínez's novel hit American bookstores. The book's success was little consolation for its author, who wondered whether the Material Girl's performance would overtake the myth of Evita.

"I don't want readers to see Madonna in the pages of my book," he told the New York Times in 1997.

Tomás Eloy Martínez was born July 16, 1934, in Tucuman, a rural province in northern Argentina. He graduated in 1957 from the National University of Tucuman and later received a master's degree at the University of Paris.

He began his career as a film critic at La Nacion, a Buenos Aires newspaper. In 1962, he became the editor of a weekly literary magazine; five years later, he put a then-little-known García Marquez, who had just completed "One Hundred Years of Solitude," on its cover. The two writers became friends, and Mr. Martínez later taught at a journalism institute that García Marquez established in his native Colombia.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Martínez interviewed the exiled Peron in Madrid. They recorded hours of conversation, which became the basis for "The Perón Novel."

By the early 1970s, Mr. Martínez was a well-known journalist who openly criticized the Argentine government's right-wing extremists. While eating at a fashionable Buenos Aires restaurant, he was served a note saying that he would be killed after his meal. Outside, a paramilitary death squad had gathered.

Mr. Martínez called his newspaper, which sent its own squad of reporters and photographers. The media attention deterred the attack, and Mr. Martínez fled to Venezuela. He returned briefly to Argentina in 1983, then came to the United States with a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

He had lived in New Jersey for much of the past 20 years but maintained an apartment in Buenos Aires that he visited frequently. As a professor at Rutgers, he continued to write novels, a regular column for La Nacion and articles for other publications.

Survivors include four children from his first marriage, to Lilian von Ziegler, Tomas Martínez of Antofagasta, Chile, and Gonzalo, Ezequiel and Paula Martínez, all of Buenos Aires; two children from a relationship with Blanca Goncalves, Blas and Javier Martínez, both of Buenos Aires; a daughter from his second marriage, to Susana Rotker, Sol-Ana Martínez, of Ridgewood, N.Y.; three siblings; and 12 grandchildren.

Mr. Martínez's third wife was Argentine journalist Gabriela Esquivada.

He met Rotker while in exile in Caracas. She died in 2000 when she and Mr. Martínez were struck by a car while crossing a street.

"In life, there is always a memory, that no matter how minimal and fleeting, turns you into another human being," he wrote in "The Flight of the Queen," a 2002 novel about a love affair that paralleled his relationship with Rotker. "There is no way to shed memory the way you take off a shirt."

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