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Mystery and myth: perspectives on Argentine politics and history

The Per'on Novel, by Tom'as Eloy Mart'inez. New York: Pantheon Books. 357 pp. $18.95. Juan Per'on (1895-1974) is undoubtedly the most legendary as well as mythified historical figure in contemporary Latin American history. It is difficult, if not impossible, for Argentines to feel neutral about Peronism - an intense political movement that continues to dominate public life in Argentina. His presidency covered the years from 1946 to 1955 and 1973-74.

Tom'as Eloy Mart'inez, a distinguished journalist and writer who teaches at the University of Maryland and writes in Buenos Aires, has produced an intricately complex and fascinating novel about this man.

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The theme is direct and straightforward: It tells the story of Juan Per'on as he prepares to return to Buenos Aires in 1973 after his 13-year exile in Madrid. The figure of Per'on, a decrepit and confused dictator who returns to a country he is no longer familiar with and a people he no longer controls, is the heart of this complex novel.

Yet the clever use of historical facts, newspaper accounts, personal memoirs of Per'on the leader, as well as the legend, brings out subtle complexities and sophisticated political analysis.

Eloy Mart'inez joins other Latin American masters who have used the figures of real dictators to give fictional shape to their literary discourses. Writers such as Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez in his ``Autumn of the Patriarch'' and Augusto Roa Bastos's ``I The Supreme'' have managed to intertwine truth and fiction in order to portray the legendary figure venerated by millions of Argentines.

The legendary ``Evita,'' Per'on's first wife, also appears through the voice of the aging and pathetic dictator: ``Fate is unfair. Eva was in Madrid only a week and was showered with honors. I stayed 13 years and all I have to show for it is a street they named after me.''

This paragraph exemplifies the tone of ``The Per'on Novel,'' a mixture of bizarre tenderness and the macabre memoirs of this leader, now fated to govern a nation fascinated and divided by its own violent history, a leader who dies a year after his return to Buenos Aires.

The last sentence of the novel exemplifies to some extent the real situation of Peronism and Juan Per'on: ``Resurrect, big man! What's to stop you?''

A best seller in Argentina, ``The Per'on Novel'' promises to capture the sensibilities of North American readers and, above all, to bring a vivid picture of the cultural politics of Latin America - a region where fiction, reality, myth, and legend merge - a region where figures such as Juan Per'on are able to exist in the literary imagination of its readers.

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Marjorie Agos'in teaches Spanish at Wellesley College.

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