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A Descamisada Diva

Four decades after her death, Eva Perón remains a powerful symbol of Argentina's profound cultural and political divisions.

Michael Greenberg

Santa Evita
Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated by Helen Lane
Knopf, $23

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón
Nicholas Fraser & Marysa Navarro
Norton, $11

Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman
J. M. Taylor
University of Chicago, $12.95

In My Own Words
Eva Perón
Translated by Laura Dail
Introduction by Joseph A. Page
The New Press, $8.95


There is a story by Bal-zac, "The Unknown Masterpiece," that tells of an elderly 17th-century painter who has devoted the last ten years of his life to the creation of a single canvas, the portrait of a woman. With monomaniacal intensity, he declares that his canvas will be "an exception to the history of art." Free from the constraints of painterly artifice and form, he explains, this will be "a real woman," with a depth of life "so true that you cannot distinguish it from the air which surrounds us." Finally he unveils his masterpiece. All that is there is a discordance of overly excited brushstrokes, too private to depict anything but the inner chaos of its creator.

In his murky, searchful book, Santa Evita, the Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez paints a portrait of Eva Duarte de Perón that comes dangerously close to erasing itself under the weight of a similar ambition. Given the surreal nature of Evita's short, remarkable life (she was thirty-three when she died in 1952, the First Lady of Argentina, wife of the populist president Juan Domingo Perón) it's hard to imagine how the result could have been any different. To most of the outside world Evita is the pop cartoon depicted in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's simplistic rock opera (now a movie). But to Argentines she endures as the focus of a national psycho-political complex. Those who are intrigued by the image of Madonna-as-Evita-decked out in a sumptuous Christian Dior suit, singing her heartfelt ballad to a worshipful horde dressed in rags-and wish to know more about this bizarre woman are in for a strange and fascinating ride.

Her persona is so enveloped in myth that the matter of who Evita was is eclipsed by the question of why she inspired what Martínez (in Helen Lane's English translation) terms a "sacred terror" in her country. Four decades after her death she is still the vessel for Argentina's tormented and conflicting visions of itself-what it desires to be, and what it fears it is. She was either saint or whore, revolutionary or fascist, castrator or nurturer; the "Lady of Hope" and "Mother of Innocents" to her followers, and the "sublimation of what is morally vile . . . monstrous, ophidian"1 to those who opposed her. Her brief, charged existence at the center of power wrenched open a national schism that the Argentine writer and statesman Sarmiento had described in 1845 with two words: civilization and barbarism.2 Roughly speaking, "civilization" was the port city of Buenos Aires, with its real wealth and ersatz European culture distortedly transplanted to the far reaches of the New World; "barbarism" was the vast land mass that stretched away from the port: desolate, hostile, indigenous, illiterate, and, every so often, armed. In the 19th century this schism prompted a dizzying series of uprisings and wars, and to this day it is evident in Argentines' unresolved delusions about themselves: on the one side, the pathological snobbism of the urban oligarchical class, so extreme that it negates the culture of the entire country, including the oligarchy itself; and on the other side the inchoate and constantly frustrated desire of the "barbarian," the majority, to assert its existence and partake of the country's enormous material wealth.

To Evita, who was born in the isolated pampa town of Los Toldos (which means "the tents," in memory of its status as an Indian encampment before the genocidal Indian wars), this snobbism and the closed society it bred was the catalyst for a primitive resentment that the country lived out with her on a fantastical scale. That she would migrate to the splendid port city and literally take it over, inviting the despised cabecitas negras ("little blackheads"), the "greasers" and descamisados (or "shirtless ones," as the Peronist hordes became known) into its center to acclaim her, represented to the porteños a fearsome resurrection of the barbarism that they had fought to keep at bay for two hundred years.

The indisputable facts of Evita's life prior to her taking up with Perón are few, partly because she suppressed so much of her past when she came to power. She was the last of five children that her mother, Juana Ibarguren, had during a long affair with a married estancia manager, Juan Duarte. Like her father, her mother, and like Perón himself she was the product of an illegitimate union. But Evita's illegitimacy bore a double stigma: she was the only one of her mother's children whom Duarte refused to recognize as his own. (Though this was a taboo subject, to her supporters it added to the fairy tale quality of her life. Her detractors, in turn, used it to explain her "castrating" rise to power: Her father's rejection of her, they reasoned, left Evita with an unquenchable need for revenge against society-and against men).

Her formal education lasted no more than six years. Her grade school teacher remembers little of her beyond "her enormous eyes." Another teacher recalls "her intense inner life, her great vulnerability," and "her porcelain complexion."3

This last feature was remarked upon throughout her life by almost everyone who met her. (The other thing people would notice, Peronists and anti-Peronists alike, was how devoid of sexuality she seemed). Her "captivating whiteness," as Martínez calls it, would become one of the salient aspects of her myth-and of her power. To those who adored her it was emblematic of her frailty, her glamour, and finally, her saintliness. To her enemies it was a confusing source of intimidation; while attracting them, Evita's fairness also suggested a sort of primeval racial betrayal. "The Black Book of the Second Tyranny"4-published by the junta after the 1955 coup that deposed the Peróns, in an effort to exorcise their memory from its virtually ungovernable domain-pays Evita unwitting homage: "That strange woman was different than almost every other white woman. She was vehement, dominating, and spectacular . . . [with] a passion and courage unnatural in a woman."5

In 1935, when she was fifteen, Eva left the pampa to pursue an acting career in Buenos Aires-penniless, without connections, and completely on her own. Her notebooks of the time reveal a child's touching attempt at some kind of refinement: what to do with her nails and hair, how to correctly hold a fork. But by all accounts she was a disastrous actress, a wooden presence on stage in the bit parts she managed to land. The hostility she encountered in the demimonde of Buenos Aires was blunt and pitiless. Martínez describes her during those years as a young woman who "had been snubbed and humiliated so many times that nothing surprised her anymore." She seemed "invulnerable to the pain of illness and sorrow . . . like one of those alley cats that will survive cold, hunger, the cruelty of human beings, and the rash mistakes of nature." There are stories of degrading sexual encounters, and of a botched abortion that nearly killed her. But by 1940 she had managed to become a regular on the radio soap operas that were enormously popular at the time. And by 1943 she was a local radio star. "Her plaintive, monotonous voice had the timbre needed to project the mood of the soaps," Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro note in their biography Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón. "Eva was good at conveying suffering. When she found the soaps she found her acting career."

The event at which she met Perón was, appropriately enough, a public one-a rally for the victims of the San Juan earthquake of 1944. The three words with which she introduced herself to him were painstakingly deciphered by Martínez from newsreel footage of the evening: Gracias por existir-thank you for existing. Perón, less romantically, described Evita that day as "a mass of nerves."6 They married hastily, a year later, in the midst of Perón's hectic presidential campaign.

The success of Perón's populism was built initially on the country's huge store of wealth from food exports during the war. In 1946, the year he was elected, Argentina was a creditor nation, in a position of economic fortitude rare in the history of Latin America.7 The government was owed two billion dollars by Great Britain alone. With this accumulation of foreign reserves, Perón nationalized basic industries, such as the railroad and the banking system, increased wages, and granted other worker benefits, including vacations and pensions. To this he added a vaguely inflammatory yet paternalistic rhetoric, with an implicit threat of violence toward the shadowy forces (read: the landed oligarchy, the Communists, the intelligentsia, and the middle class porteños who opposed him) who would vender la patria, sell the fatherland, and betray the poor and humble custodians (read: the barbarians) of Argentina's "true" national interests. In the context of Argentine history this mere recognition of the working class was revolutionary. All Perón had to do, it seemed, was hint at the existence of a plot that imperiled his government, and the descamisados would abandon their workplaces and swarm to the center of Buenos Aires, hundreds of thousands strong. By acclamation the caudillo would speak to his "pueblo" from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, thus renewing the intensely personal nature of their bond.

Within two or three years the economic basis of Perón's largesse was exhausted. After its initial reforms, the government's store of hard currency was depleted, and only the intangible element of Peronism remained: the illusion of power and political expression the descamisados were able to experience through their caudillo. In this respect, Evita was crucial to her husband's continued popularity. Her relationship with the descamisados was visceral and instinctive-deeper and seemingly less calculated, less political than Perón's. "I live in you, feel for you, think through you," she wrote in a letter to Perón that echoes the vivid and somewhat desperate tone of her public pronouncements. Aided by a suffocating propaganda machine (that Evita, behind the scenes, had a major hand in directing), she declared her love for Perón and for the descamisados in the same breath, melding them into one and effectively raising the emotional pitch of Peronism to a new, more urgent level.

There was something violent about these declarations. "The vastness of her love included everything. . . . It embraced her husband . . . it encompassed him . . . it devoured him," wrote the Army Intelligence officer Moori Koenig in one of his reports, according to Martínez. But that same "love," in turn, allowed the descamisados to devour Evita. For despite the ostentation of her jewels and Parisian gowns, and her absurd, invented queenliness, she too was a descamisada who had come to Buenos Aires with nothing, like them. She was the humble one without humility whose fierceness was forged in the same crucible as theirs: the deprivations of poverty, of sexual hostility, of the outsider trying to break in. This was true both for the embittered European immigrant who had recently come to Argentina for opportunities that proved difficult to find, and for the dark, Indian-blooded migrant from the interior. Evita had negotiated the cynical underbelly of the real Buenos Aires-the Buenos Aires of hucksters and stowaways, of rootlessness and whores-to gain a regality that disenfranchised Argentines, who understood the obstacles to her success, could admire. For this reason, the virulent attacks on her by anti-Peronists only served to inflame the national schism and enlarge the Evita mystique in people's minds; they addressed, albeit negatively, the same aspects of Evita that her followers embraced.

In July 1948, the Maria Duarte de Perón Foundation was created with the sanctioning signatures of Perón and the Minister of Justice. Conceived by Evita as an answer to the traditional philanthropy of the oligarchy-La Sociedad de Beneficencia-which had snubbed the First Lady and which she had shut down in retaliation, the Foundation was extravagantly funded with bequeathals from Congress, gambling taxes, union dues, and sizable donations from Peronist members of the industrial bourgeoisie who were profiting from the consumer expansion brought on by Perón's reforms.

Evita's control over the Foundation was absolute: she administered its charity personally like some ancient, folkloric queen. Her philanthropy was aggressive, theatrical, and grotesque at times, as when she would hand out a pair of dentures to some toothless supplicant with the words, "In Perón's Argentina the workers smile with none of the inferiority complex of the downtrodden."

Daily the spectacle repeated itself: the poor by the thousands queued up in front of the Foundation and in its hallways waiting to see her. A New York Times reporter described the rooms, overflowing with children: "They squirm and giggle, scramble on the floor and wail." Evita arrives amid a murmur. She steps "briskly" into "a red-damasked room" decorated

with pictures of the Peróns and Christ. Four secretaries surround the table. The synchronization is like that of an operating room. One shoves a pencil into her hand, another readies a pad of clothing tickets, a third holds up a phone . . . The first supplicant is a shapeless woman with a toil-worn face. The First Lady turns her brown eyes to her. "I live in one room," the woman says. "I want a house to live in."

"How many children do you have?"

"Eight."

The presidenta murmurs to one of her secretaries. "We can provide a wooden house," she begins. The woman asks questions. Evita is dictating. "Clothing for nine . . . a large bed." She turns for a brief aside to a visiting ambassador. Then she takes the slip from the secretary's pad and signs E.P. The woman shuffles out, with the slip."8

What was remarkable about this spectacle was the degree to which Evita began to live her new role. She eschewed the glamour and couture of her previous incarnation in favor of black uniform-like suits emblematic of her work's austerity. And she didn't content herself with the bestowal of gifts. "I saw her kiss those who were suffering from TB or cancer," said an observer. "I saw her embrace people who were in rags and cover herself with lice."9

Other witnesses confirm these claims. Fraser and Navarro quote a Catholic poet who watched Evita at work at the Foundation and saw her "touch the most terrible things with a Christian attitude that amazed me . . . placing her fingers into [people's] suppurating wounds. There was a girl whose lip was half eaten away with syphilis and when I saw that Evita was about to kiss her and tried to stop her, she said to me, 'Do you know what it will mean when I kiss her?'" The poet goes on to credit Evita with curing him of his "literary perception of the poor," allowing him "to become a Christian in the profoundest sense."

This identification with Christ, with the imagery of holiness, reached its apotheosis with Evita's much-vaunted "renunciation" of the vice presidential nomination on her husband's ticket during the 1951 campaign for re-election. While it was extolled in the official press as a pure act of self-denial-Evita renouncing the spoils of power in favor of her higher calling as "Spiritual Head of the Nation"-she had in fact coveted the nomination and worked hard to maneuver herself into a position to receive it. It was Perón, uneasy about her increasing popularity and autonomy, and under pressure from members of the military and factions in his own party loath to see power institutionalized in her hands, who forced Evita to back down.

The scene, enacted in public before more than a million supporters, came dangerously close to backfiring for Perón.What had been carefully staged as the popular acclamation of Perón's candidacy, turned into a spontaneous demonstration for Evita to accept the vice presidency. Perón himself was forced into silence by shouts for his wife. The throng demanded her acceptance and would not leave the plaza until she granted it. Perón's voice could be heard, behind the podium, impatiently ordering that "this show" be stopped. For the first time his ability to manage the descamisados was in doubt. Only Evita could disperse the crowd, and she finally did, with the vague assertion that she would "do what the people wished." Nine days later, under intense pressure from all sides, she went on the radio to announce her "irrevocable decision to renounce the honor" which she had been offered.

As it happened, this "renunciation" coincided almost exactly with the diagnosis of Evita's uterine cancer-already in an advanced and incurable stage. She was thirty-two and had eleven months to live, during which time her illness became a national obsession of monumental, even psychotic, proportions. A kind of transubstantiation took place between Evita and those who despised or adored her. She was no longer a person, but a powerful agglomeration of contradictory meanings that her country, en masse, assigned her. Martínez describes some of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acts performed by the poor to beg God for a miracle to save her. A typical example was the family that crawled around the Plaza de Mayo until they wore their knees to the bone.

On the other side of the coin, the psychiatrist Marie Langer noted several instances of guilt and hypochondria among her patients. Her patients had confessed to Langer their wish to see Evita die, and now that it was happening they feared a kind of "biblical punishment . . . brought on by their hatred."10 Mothers in the posh Barrio Norte were warned not to take their children to the doctor because Evita needed daily infusions of "young, fresh blood" which was secretly collected and driven to the Residence in Foundation vans.11

To the growing cult of "evitistas" her cancer seemed to clinch the argument for her sainthood. She not only gave to the poor, the argument went, but like Christ she embraced their wounds, taking on their pain as if it were her own. Evita encouraged this interpretation; to understand the people, she said from her sickbed, one must "become one body with them, so that every pain, every sorrow and worry, all the joys of the people is as if it were ours. This is what I did . . . in my life."12 Unseduced by the sumptuous trappings of power, the argument continues, she renounced the glories of the world, like Christ or Saint Francis. And, in classic macho fashion, she stood up to the oligarchical forces who would keep half the country for themselves and give the rest away to foreign interests, like Joan of Arc. Then she mortified her flesh with a grueling work schedule, giving up her health on behalf of her devotion to the poor. The patient suffering of illness had been the major element of female sanctity in the Catholic Church for more than seven hundred years. Evita suffered patiently, not asking for the people's help in her time of need, but rather assuring them of her undiminished fervor.

Indeed, her very last harangues hit a new pitch of messianic shrillness. "Beware of that day when I will go down with the working people," she cried in her final appearance on the balcony of the Casa Rosada. "I will go down with the women of the people, I will go down with the descamisados . . . and I will leave nothing standing that is not for Perón." In the scripture-like collection of final messages published as In My Own Words, she writes: "Fanaticism turns life into a permanent and heroic process of dying. It is the only way that life can defeat death." She goes on to call for "one single class"-though she disavows the Communist class struggle as never-ending, since "new oligarchs" would invariably be created by the "mediocres" among the revolutionaries who "in the name of ambition" would take the place of the old. And she ends with the exhortation: "Every exploiter is the people's enemy. Justice demands that they be destroyed!" Decades after her death, these "messages" would fuel the invention of yet another Evita: the leftist revolutionary who, had she lived, would have brought social justice to Argentina by violent means.

Perón, by all accounts, was stunned by the outpouring of grief that attended his wife's death. Her body lay in state for twelve days, and even then many thousands were unable to get in to see her. "A number of mourners," Martínez notes, "had to be dragged away because they attempted to commit suicide at the feet of the corpse by slitting their throats or swallowing capsules of poison." When the coffin was finally sealed and carried on a catafalque down the Avenida de Mayo, it took seventeen thousand soldiers to hold back the crowds.

Reluctant to bury what had become the central symbol of his movement, Perón ordered Evita's body embalmed. It was to be laid inside a grand monument to the descamisados. But the government was deposed before the monument was built, and the handiwork of Eva's embalmer (he called her "my Pieta") was never displayed.

Without the emotional energies of Evita or the public drama of her relentless barrage, the essential rhetoric of Peronism was incomplete and the limitations of its reforms became more transparent. Aware of the loss, Perón himself tried to take over her duties at the Foundation. But he grew impatient with charity and its demanding contact with the poor. Letters continued to arrive for Evita, and the government answered them with her signature forged under the words: "I'm in Heaven with the angels. I tell them about the descamisados. I speak with God every day." But this fantasy was too much for most Argentines to swallow.

After the 1955 coup, Perón fled the country in a gunboat, without protest. But Evita, preserved with mixtures of formol, thymol, various "solidifying substances," and a hard layer of transparent plastic, remained in Buenos Aires. She lay on a glass slab in the union headquarters, where her embalmer doted on the corpse which emitted, according to Martínez, "a delicate aroma of lavender and almonds."

This corpse is the morbid focus of Santa Evita, the most disturbing-and revealing-of these four books about Evita. Having originally set out to write Evita's biography, Martínez discovered that only a novel could get to "the truth of her life." His book, he insists, is a reconstruction of fact, and there is no reason not to believe him; much of it is based on interviews and original research. He turned to fiction, he says, because Evita had become a fiction, no longer "what she said and did" but "what people say she did."

Interspersed with vignettes from Evita's life and detours into his own troubled state of mind, Martínez weaves the story of Argentina's agony over Evita's corpse. To the junta, the existence of her body, and the puzzle of what to do with it, was more threatening than the activities of the exiled "tyrant." (Perón would soon take up with a stripper in Panama and marry her, his third wife.)13 The new president, a devout Catholic, had resolved not to commit the sin of "profaning her body," and Colonel Moori Koenig of the Army Intelligence Service was ordered to secretly bury Evita "in Christian ground."

From this point the story lurches toward madness. Moori Koenig is being watched by a Peronist Commando of Vengeance. He receives death threats at home and, despite the strictest precautions of secrecy, wherever he hides the body the Commando seems able to find it. "Whoever has that woman has the country in the palm of his hand," says Moori. The president concurs: "We are all that corpse. It's the country."

Afraid that if he buries her she will be discovered by "Argentina's enemies" and paraded through the streets till the barbarians and beggars take arms, Moori Koenig shunts her around Buenos Aires, enveloped in a mood of paranoia, patriotism, superstition, and erotic shame. He hides her in a trunk, in a movie theater, in a colleague's attic. But Moori's colleague, an army Major, also falls under the spell of "the mare,"14 locking himself in his attic with Evita for hours at a time, compulsively watching over her, masturbating on her naked corpse. When she is taken away from him, he cries, "Evita, where have you gone?"

That cry, in its various forms, seems to haunt every facet of the country. "Preserved," "beautiful," "aromatic," "luminous," and no bigger than "a twelve year old girl," Evita in the hands of her enemies is more dangerous dead than when she was alive. "Every time a corpse enters the picture in this country, history goes mad," laments the president, referring to the battles waged over the remains of "The First Tyrant," Manuel de Rosas.15 Finally, in 1957, the junta smuggles Evita's body out of the country, burying her under a false name in a cemetery in Milan.

Martínez relates all this in a prose by turns poignant and vague, incomprehensible and revealing. Like Moori Koenig, like the Commando of Vengeance, like the deviate Major, the descamisados, and the junta itself, his narrator is trying to possess Evita, a task that brings him to the edge of madness .

Like the rest of Argentina, Martínez's narrator speaks of Evita in mystical terms:

"[I]f I approached her, she withdrew from me. I knew what she wanted to tell and what my narrative was going to be. But once I turned the page, Evita disappeared from my sight and I was left clutching nothing but air. . . . I didn't know if she was alive or dead, if her beauty was sailing ahead or behind. . . . Evita, I kept saying, Evita, hoping that the name would bear a revelation within it. . . ."

At one point he finds himself depressed, unable to go on. At another point he falls ill with an acute case of hypertension. The narrator realizes that to understand Evita he must understand Argentina, and to understand Argentina he must understand himself. "This novel," he writes, "must bear a likeness to me, to the remains of myth that I kept hunting for along the way, to the I who was She, to the loves and hates of that we, to what my country was and to what it wanted to be but could not be."

But the hunt, as this quotation suggests, is submerged under the weight of his subjectivity, so that reading Santa Evita is, finally, like listening to someone else's dream. V. S. Naipual wrote of the difficulty of accurately rendering Argentina in fiction.16 Motives are too ineffable and hidden; the country's psycho-political complexities demand explanations that defeat the novel's form. In Santa Evita Martínez cites a novel, The Test, written by Julio Cortazar in 1950 when Evita was at the height of her power. In this novel "a brutish multitude appears in the Plaza de Mayo to worship a bone. People await heaven knows what miracle [and] have their hearts broke by a woman dressed in white." This kind of wilder, metaphoric approach comes closer to touching the root of the "sacred terror" that Evita inspired. Martínez's switch from biography to fiction is daring, but not daring enough-he remains too much the journalist to take the story into the subconscious realm that it requires. And while Santa Evita was a bestseller in Argentina, where readers had no trouble relating to thecompulsions that drive it, non-Argentines who approach the book may find themselves faced with a set of impenetrable assumptions.

The paradox is that more objective accounts can't fully convey Evita either. In one case we get the studied portrait that the old painter in Balzac's story found lacking, in the other a canvas that only the old painter himself understands.

Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro's Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón is an example of the former. Originally published in 1980 and recently re-issued, it is generally considered to be the most reliable biography available in English. The authors work hard to give us a factual account of Evita's life, and their background material on Argentina is intelligent and informed. But they are forced to devote much of the book to weeding out the most probable truths from the competing apocrypha of texts that surround her. In the process, the essential mysteries of Argentina's obsession with Evita are lost.

J. M. Taylor tries a different tack in her study Eva Perón: The Myths of a Woman, first published in 1979. An anthropologist by training, Taylor sidesteps the impediments of straight biography by exploring the significance of the Evita myths themselves, linking the demonic and saintly versions of Evita to each other, then showing how these reflect the distorted meanings people ascribe to powerful women in societies where no structure exists for such power. Taylor's is an interesting approach and in many ways a wise one. But the book's academic quality tends to obscure the heart of the story. It doesn't leave us with Evita, but with a feminine archetype: imprecise, spiritual, and unreal.

Finally, there is Evita's own, unhelpful last tract, Mi mensaje, posthumously discovered and now published in English for the first time under the title In My Own Words. The English title is questionable since some of the text was dictated by Evita under the influence of advanced cancer and large doses of morphine, and may have been doctored by at least one faction of her supporters. Furthermore, the text's verse-like line breaks and its apocalyptic tone seem designed to make it appear like one of the lost books of the apostles.

Evita has now been dead for almost forty-five years; her body, after many peregrinations, was finally buried in La Recoleta, the cemetery of the oligarchical ancestors whom she despised. To young Argentines who experienced the devastations of the Dirty War in the late seventies and early eighties through their parents, the magical evocations of her name are gone. That war was partly about who Evita really was and which sector of Argentina had the greatest right to claim her. Politically the question is moot now, but the schism that it reawakened has not disappeared.

"If I don't try to know her . . . I'm never going to know myself," Martínez writes at the end of Santa Evita. I'm not sure what he found out. But the agony of his search is a poignant example of the complex and elusive madness that she aroused.

Originally published in the December 1996/ January 1997 issue of Boston Review



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