IN ONE SCENE of this novel, the eleven-year-old Rosa kneels in a village chapel before the image of La Lloradora, the Virgin Who Weeps. In her dream the night before this dazzling image had appeared before her in a jewel-spangled gown of white lace "with loops as thick as those on top of wedding cakes" and a scarlet sash with gold letters spelling Esperanza at her waist. In Rosa's dream, La Lloradora had lifted the golden crown from her head and held it out to Rosa to wear. Shocked by the profanity of her dream, she now dares look no higher than at the waxen hand holding a pearl rosary "as though it were nothing but a fancy necklace, a strand of such gorgeous expensive pearls as her husband would give his rich spoiled wife in a movie where the bedroom was all white satin with flowers in a big glass bowl, and the husband was in love with somebody else." Enverdad, in truth, as Lois Gould would say, the child Rosa who is to grow into the fictional Eva Peron, does not seem to know whether her dream meant she would grow into a movie star in the form of La Lloradora, or La Lloradora in the shape of a movie star. Before the question can be resolved, the village priest enters the chapel, rapes the child and leaves her pregnant.
Even if she, or the reader, had been given more time to reflect it would have been a difficult question to answer. In Pradera, the fictional South American republic created by Gould in place of Argentina, it is not easy to separate religion from cinema, or cinema from politics. The confusion resembles those chaotic fiestas in which statues of saints and monsters, beasts and skeletons jig and whirl together with dancers and infants dressed as angels, the festivity teetering on the brink of nightmare. Even the priest can hardly tell one from the other; he demands of the child "Where is the sweet smile of la reina? He? Lloradorita -- my little Virgen who weeps?" He seems unsure who it is he is raping -- the child, the Virgin, or a red-lipped movie queen.
In such a setting, anything is possible. The land is so vast and rich it can supply endless wealth to the predatory foreigners and their native henchmen, while leaving the people poor, conscious only of the silence of the gods and the emptiness of the belly. "When it grew too empty, there were quick ways to fill the eye and the mind of the simple people. Fiestas and fierce rum; the padres of the church and the policia to keep order . . . and life also held Esperanza, the hope of tomorrow."
But what kind of esperanza can there be in a land so abundant in wealth, greed, corruption and despair? Only the kind the mother perceived when she says of the eleven-year-old child who has just miscarried and nearly died, "Of all my children, Rosa has a gift for esperanza." Yes, the esperanza of a desperate girl who gazes at the screen at the local Olimpia and longs for the red lips, the jewelled throat and the lovers she sees there. Much later, a knowing friend tells her he knows what it is she wants: "To be immortal. Such as the saints, the great estrellas of the cinema."
It is this desperate esperanza that makes her run away from home when she is 14, to become an actress, the lover of a famous actress, the mistress of a military officer, then a radio star. "Her first role was to be Cleopatra; after that, Queen Isabella, Carlotta, and, for Navidad, the Virgen Maria." At last she comes to the notice of Colonel Montero -- "dark, handsome, like his pictures. Tall, massively built" -- and there is a bizarre scene in which he sits alone in a darkened room, masturbating to the sound of her voice singing him a love song on the radio. She is launched upon "a wonderful historia of her own."
The more wonderful it grows, the more jewels she accumulates, the more golden her hair turns, the more desperate is the situation in the county. Although she never forgets the La Lloradora figure with the jewel tears, and journeys through the country in a silver train, handing out sweets to the poor who crowd the stations, it does not seem to be enough any more. This is no new discovery for the people; it has been made so often before that fatigue has set in: "The train would move on and the peones would go home to their mud houses, in their hands a coin of silver or a package of sweets, and a bright photograph of two smiling faces which one might place on the table, or fasten to the wall beside the crucifijo of Jesus or the imagen of the Virgen. In a mud house, one draws comfort from a new article of faith.
Rosa/Eva understood perfectly the people from whom she has sprung and might have maintained her magical relationship with them. As Borges pointed out in El Simulacro, the Perons "acted out, for the credulous love of the lower middle classes, a crass mythology." But others' ambitions crowded in, she lost Montero's trust and was betrayed into the care of the outrageous Dr. Cebellos, the silken-voiced doctor in a black suit, famed for his skill at embalming the wealthy dead so that a corpse can look like a saint or a movie star.
This is history written not as fiction but as cinema. Lois Gould's concept of the central characters as modern myths of los cines is valid, but the interpretation becomes invalidated by the lush, overwrought prose in which it is rendered. She writes of "landscapes the color of overripe avocadoes" and it is not an inaccurate description of her own prose which wears cinematic make-up too heavy for daylight and employs smooth, silken strings of cliches: "His hands linger a moment on her skin. She leans back against him, yielding with a soft sigh," and "He is still a bull of a man, his beard more black than white, but in the dim light his face looks old, old." This is the language of breathless film scenarios, not political history. Its effect on the reader is like eating a soft-centered chocolate cream -- too richly sweet and sickening. One longs for a more bitter tang than is lent by an occasional ironic shrug by a cynic at a society ball. Even when she writes of the nightmare embalmer or a village wake at which the dead child is painted and displayed above the revelry like the statue of an angelito, she can muster only the sweet corruption inside the chocolate world of power but not the harshness, the bitterness or the outrage that is surely required. The story of the Perons as told by her is only as terrible as a Hollywood spectacle -- in 3-D and technicolor, set to mindless, pounding music -- and it was surely more than that, much more.