...has died. The Argentine journalist, who for a number of years headed the Latin American studies department at Rutgers, was also a novelist whose books played with reality, Santa Evita perhaps the emblem of the genre. What genre, I'm not certain, but Tomas did it masterfully. The story of an investigative reporter on the hunt to find Eva Peron's body, the book is carefully footnoted to the point that it's nearly impossible to distinguish what came out of the author's mind and what the reader can actually google.
I have two photos of Tomas, neither very good, taken at book club at our house in 2006. The backstory: as previously reported, I often take the train back and forth to New York. As some measure of my particular karma, I often meet a writer on that journey. As karmas go, this is a good one.
But sometimes I'm very tired on these trips and don't want to talk to anyone at all. Such was the case early one Sunday evening in 2006 when I was a little late getting on the train. There were only a few seats available and I chose the one where I anticipated the least interaction--a couple sitting opposite each other, both with their laptops running. I sat down next to the woman (Gabriela Esquivada, far right in photo), we exchanged smiles, and I settled in for a rest.
A few minutes later, Gabriela asked if she could get by, then offered to get me a coffee for disturbing me...and we were off and running. She introduced me to her husband, who was deep in concentration, watching some sort of thriller, as I recall...and then she explained who he was, one of the great Latin American writers, and soon all of us were talking. (It was from Tomas that I later learned that Carlos Fuentes loves bluefish, a phrase that will eventually make it into an essay about such train encounters, drafted so far only in my head.)
But why were they coming to Boston? Tomas turned the right side of his head toward me, a very large and red scar searing down the side, just behind his ear. Glioblastoma, he said, and he was being treated here in Boston.
We struck up a friendship and a month or so later, Tomas and Gabriela, also an Argentine journalist and editor, came to book club. I wrote a note about the evening for my friends on Zoetrope (see below). About two years ago, we lost touch. I was sad to see the news this morning but amazed that he lived for so long with this terrible disease.
From my notes:
Tomas Eloy Martinez came to our book club last night to discuss Santa Evita. So far, Tomas has written seven novels, I believe, and a whole lot of journalism down the years, but has not had as much exposure in the US as abroad, at 71 not as familiar as other Lat American writers, Carlos Fuentes, for example, whom he’s known since he was 18 (Fuentes is 10 years older). One of Tomas’s books, unpublished in the US, The Flight of the Queen has sold 500k sales globally, many translations, best foreign book in China (dunno year), and on. I found this interview with him in Three Monkeys Online and it squares with what I’ve been learning from him, worth reading.
Tomas and Gabriela Esquivada-Martinez, his wife, have been here in Boston for past couple of months where Tomas is being treated for brain tumor. I met them in early March on the train from NY to Boston ten days after his surgery; they were traveling to Boston from their home in Highland Park, NJ, where he’s been heading Lat Amer studies dept at Rutgers. Mission: his first round of chemo and radiation. When I picked them up last night, I expected him to look haggard and ill. He looks great. His incision is healing and he spoke well and clearly for many hours.
Tomas focused on the line between fiction and fact, blurry, saying that the woman writing the intro to the anthology of his work being pub’d in Venezuela (hope I’ve got this right) finds the theme of his work to be “doubt.” I agree, caveat being that I’ve only read one of his books…but it is impossible to know, reading it, whether it is fact or fiction. How could this be a novel, I kept asking myself, but Tomas told us last night that only the last three pages are true. He entered the “black hole” of nine missing months in Eva Peron’s history and from it spun this book. Very dark, no redeeming characters, except perhaps the “I” who appears late in the book, relatively speaking, and is never fully revealed.
My book club has been meeting for 15 or so years, monthly, 190 books to date, primarily classics. This evening was in its own category and I encourage everyone to read Tomas’s work.