(Editor’s note: The last time most Americans heard much about Argentina, it was in relation to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s fiction about hiking the Appalachian Trail, when in fact he was visiting a mistress in Buenos Aires. But even that Republican’s scandalous adventures weren’t as dramatic as the plot of The Big Wake-Up, Mark Coggins’ fifth novel, due out in bookstores this week. The novel’s synopsis reads this way: “When San Francisco private August Riordan engages in a flirtation with a beautiful university student from Buenos Aires, he witnesses her death in a tragic shooting and is drawn into the mad hunt for [former Argentine first lady Eva Perón’s] remains. He needs all of his wits, his network of friends and associates, and an unexpected legacy from the dead father he has never known to help him survive the deadly intrigue between powerful Argentine movers and shakers, ex-military men, and a mysterious woman named Isis who is an expert in ancient techniques of mummification.” Below, Coggins tells us about his new novel’s inspiration.)
The genesis of The Big Wake-Up came from a tour I took of Buenos Aires’ famous La Recoleta Cemetery on Christmas morning in December 2007. My wife and I decided to spend the holidays in Argentina, and we had arrived the evening before. That morning I was eager to get out the door and into the capital city to do things, but I had been warned that there was in fact very little to do on a Christmas day in Buenos Aires.
All government offices, museums, and most restaurants were closed. The one tourist attraction that remained open was La Recoleta. And quite an attraction it is--assuming you can get past the fact that it’s populated with dead people. An immense place covering more than 13 acres, the cemetery is laid out like a city with paved walks subdividing blocks and blocks of house-like mausoleums, statues, and monuments, some of which date from the 1800s. If the architecture isn’t enough of a draw by itself, there are the residents. La Recoleta is the final resting place for innumerable Argentine presidents, scientists, military leaders, and captains of industry. It is also home to Maria Eva Duarte de Perón: Evita, to those of you who’ve seen the play or the movie. (Left: The Duarte tomb.)
My guide that morning was Robert Wright. He’s a tour guide, guidebook researcher, and writer in Europe for travel authority Rick Steves, and at that time was making his home in Buenos Aires. Wright has a special interest in La Recoleta and has spent considerable time and energy documenting it for his blog and the comprehensive map he has made of the burial grounds.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from his tour, but I found it an intriguing mix of Argentine history, politics, art, and architecture. It was from Wright that I first heard the story of Evita Perón’s incredible “afterlife” following an early death from cervical cancer in 1952. I learned how her body was specially preserved like those of Vladimir Lenin or Mao Zedong; how it fell into the hands of the military dictatorship that overthrew her husband, Juan Perón; and how the military leaders decided to bury her under a false name in Milan, Italy, to avoid having her grave become a shrine and a rallying point for government opposition.
I also visited the last resting place of one of those leaders: Pedro Eugenio Aramburu. In 1970, he was kidnapped and executed by a Peronist guerrilla group seeking the return of Perón to power--and the return of Evita’s body (right) to Argentina. Aramburu was buried in La Recoleta, but the same Peronist group pried open his crypt and seized his corpse, holding it hostage until Evita’s body came home to a secured underground vault in Recoleta, just a couple hundred yards from his desecrated grave. When Aramburu’s remains were finally released, authorities thought it prudent to pour concrete over his coffin before closing the lid to the crypt to ensure that he was never disturbed again. I saw the hardened concrete oozing from the seams.
Returning to the United States in the new year, I decided that the story of Evita’s afterlife would provide an excellent foundation for my next novel, so I abandoned plans to write about the (fictional) discovery and theft of an unknown Jack Kerouac manuscript (The Dead Beat Scroll). I found a book called Santa Evita, by Tomás Eloy Martínez, that provided more bizarre details about the efforts of the military to hide her body, such as the fact that there were duplicates made of it to mislead the Peronist groups searching for it, that strange misfortunes seemed to befall the men guarding her before she was buried in Italy, and that some of her guards may have engaged in necrophilia.
In spite of all the research into the specifics of Evita’s afterlife in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, I set The Big Wake-Up in present-day San Francisco. I didn’t attempt a fictional dramatization of historical events. What I did attempt to do was answer the following question: What if Evita was actually buried in the Bay Area (and the body in La Recoleta is a duplicate)?
That scenario--and the implications of it for groups in modern Argentina--is what my private eye protagonist, August Riordan, and his sidekick, Chris Duckworth, struggle to come to grips with. And although I’ve eschewed re-creation of past events, as you can see from the excellent cover artist Owen Smith did for The Big Wake-Up, I’m not above duplicating a little old-fashioned grave robbery.