THE STORY OF Eva Peron would make a fine play, I can hear someone saying, perhaps a musical; it could then be reduced to a book and make a bundle. That seems to be what happened to the saga of Maria Eva Ibarguren Duarte de Peron, the luminous second wife of Argentine legend and dictator Juan Peron.
Let us hope that John Barnes' one demensional portrait, an obvious hasty hype for the British musical Evita, does no more than whet the puboic appetite for a genuine biography of this fascinating woman.
If is Barnes' thesis that Evita, was the substance and Perion the shadow during their turbulent time together on Argentina's sprawling stage. Like Peron, Barnes argues, she came out of rural poverty to work her will upon an entire nation and chose peron as her vehicle. "She . . . knew herself well enough to realise that her interest in him would last only as long as he remained the powerful figure that he was," Barnes writes of the pair 1944, when Eva was 25. "So, very simply, she decided to keep his love by seeing to it that he stayed in power."
One might think Peron himself deserves a bit of the credit for mesmerizing that tragic country for the past 35 years, but he seems in Barnes' hands to be little better than a deep-voiced nincompoop.
After Peron's fellow officers tried to oust him in 1944, we see him "wandering around the building, bidding emotional farewells," while Eva works ferociously to rally his supporters. Arrested, he is "stumbling, bemused" and she is a human dynamo that gets him out of jail and on his way to the presidency with a mammonth rally that Argentina yet remembers.
Barnes falls his readers by presenting such controversial versions of events as though they were gospel, retold in the breathless form of a bad historical novel. He mentions - but only chapters later and then in passing - that wildly contradictory versions exist, and gives no source or reason for his choice. There is "some credence" to the view, he admits, that Eva was not a raging tiger who organized Peron's release from jail but instead was reduced by his arrest to pleading hysterically with friends for help in getting out of the country. Surely we are entitled to a bit more effort in reconciling these two accounts.
There are several curious omissions. Peron's early officer training in Mussolini's Italy obviously explains much of later behavior, but Peron is instead depicted as obsessed only with avoiding his hero's inglorious end. Although Barnes makes it sound as though Eva's shady past were common knowledge, in fact it wa sonly rumored and her life was romantically reconstructed for public consumption during her heyday. The way that was accomplished and the relation between the official life story (which Barnes never describes) and the adultion she evoked would have been a useful illustration of Eva's media mastery.
Peron's ability to cement labor, business and government into an unprecedented - and unrepeated - cooperative patriotism goes totally unreported, although it was at the root of both his massive mystique and the colossal economic shipwreck that finally brought him down. In Barnes' view, Eva gets the full credit for the Robin Hood aspect of Peron's regime, the redistribution of wealth of Argentina's urban poor that later gave a generation raised on his myth the mistaken notion that he was a leftist and a populist worthy of defense with bombs.
In fact, Barnes convoluted style repeatedly allows the anti-Peronists to materialize joltingly out of thin air just when Eva seems to be knocking them dead in every field.
It was she, we are told, who seized upon the ridiculing gibe that Peron's followers were only "descamisados," the shirtless ones, and made the word into a banner. She alone handed out millions of pesos in pay raises and charity, she alone kept in touch with the humble masses while he diddled with diplomats, she alone was swift and vicious in retaiting for slights and insults, building a dictatorship while Peron was easy-going and a bit of a chump.
Barnes does evoke the ecstasy that greeted the hospitals, schools, orphanages and clinics Eva built. But it is a bit mystifying after all this success why the army suddenly revolted in 1949, why 100 newspapers were critical enough to be closed down, and why a wave of strikes materialized among the fat and happy workers.
When Evita finally died of cancer in 1952, Peron was as good as finished, Barnes tells us. "She had ruled the Casa Rosada (the Argentine White House/ and the country with a fierce passion . . . without her, [peron] became in no time at all an old fashioned run-of-the-mill Latin American dictator, relying on the violence of his followers to curb his enemies while he indulged in the pastimes he had been forced to abandon from the day he met Evita." The doddering incompetent spent most of his time with his 13-year-old mistress and was out on his ear by 1955.
It is all a bit much. Peron's personal magnetism and consummate political skill are legend in Argentina, even, not to say especially, among his enemies. Clandestine recordings of his speeches still mesmerize any listener. There never was much substance to his policies but he had an uncanny knack for keeping most sides and coalitions from becoming restive. Barnes- revisionism may only be viewed as an attempt to justify the theatrical Evita that she herself probably envisioned. A legend, a near-boddess she was, but Peron must bear the responsibility for what his rule did to his country, and not Evita Duarte.