Monday, March 5, 2012

Purgatory, by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Bloomsbury USA, 2011
originally published as Purgatorio, 2008
translated by Frank Wynne
270 pp
(trade paper ed.)

My many thanks to the publisher for sending me this novel.   Bloomsbury publishes so many fine works in translation -- keep them coming!

The author of Purgatory, Tomas Eloy Martínez,  died in 2010 at the age of 75, leaving behind him an amazing legacy of fifteen books and an esteemed career in journalism.   If there is anyone qualified to write about Argentina's Dirty War (1976-83) , it is Martinez. He himself went into exile after a series of reports he did for a newspaper in Buenos Aires led to blacklisting, death threats, and according to an interview conducted in 2007, armed gunmen surrounding the restaurant in which he was eating.  In Purgatory, Martinez explores not only the desaparecidos, but also examines the question of those left behind when  their families, friends, loved ones and neighbors just vanished.  It is a sad but compelling novel, one that you won't forget long after the book is put back on its shelf. Hopefully, it may also inspire you to read other books about this dark time in Argentina's history.

 The last time Emilia Cardoso saw her husband Simón was thirty years ago during a map-making assignment in a patch of desert in Argentina.   She and Simon were employed as cartographers while on assignment from the Automobile Club, and they were tasked to  map a desolate stretch of road outside of Tucuman. Their journey took them as far as Huacra, and it was there where Emilia's life-long purgatory began.  After coming upon a group of people hiding from the military police out in the desert, some dying of thirst,  they make it their own mission to offer help, and in doing so, Simón and Emilia were taken into custody themselves.  Their captors separated the two and then took them away;  Emilia was rescued by her father, Dr. Dupuy, who helps  the military government as publisher of a magazine for influential people called La Republica.  Although she searched and waited, waited and searched, she never found Simón again.  He had become one of the thousands of desaparecidos, victims of Argentina's dirty war: 

"...  a mystery, he has no substance, he is neither alive nor dead, he does not exist. He is a 'disappeared.' "

Oddly enough, Simón has now turned up in a New Jersey diner, where Emilia is living and working, continuing her career in maps.   He hasn't aged a bit since Emilia last saw him, while she has gone on with her life, aging normally, although her life has been anything but typical. 

The novel continues in alternating narratives, those of Emilia and a writer in exile  who befriends her after recovering from a serious illness.  He is determined to tell her story, which  is related here largely through flashbacks  leading back to the very beginning where her story begins, during the time of Argentina's dirty war.   It was a time when reality was covered up by government propagandists, when "propaganda manufactured illusions of happiness in the wasteland of misery," and Emilia's father, Dr. Dupuy, helped make this possible, often through a smoke-and-mirrors approach to the truth.  Any real truth was considered lies, the weapon of subversives who wanted to tarnish Argentina's national image and crush the national spirit.  Even when  information is passed on to Emilia that Simon had been killed by the military, her father told her it was the work of subversives trying to get to him and his family.  But Emilia never gives up looking for Simon; she takes mapmaking jobs to support herself during her search, moves from place to place  where sightings have been reported, and eventually she comes to realize that she can no longer go on this way, ultimately taking a job in New Jersey.

 But all of this time Emilia has been living  in her own Purgatory, " a wait whose end we cannot know."  She has only one remotely close friend, she never remarries, she has trouble fitting in, she never stops hoping, never accepts that Simon might possibly be dead and lives in a constant state of denial.  In this sense, Emilia has become a living ghost in a way -- as she notes after her chance meeting with Simon, "Without him, I don't exist."   And this is the same fate as many of those thousands of people who had "disappeared with no apparent reason," -- indeed, as the fictional author notes,

"Emilia's not the only person to hope that someone she loves will come back from the dead; there are thousands like her, clinging to an illusion."

And at the heart of this story are all of those thousands of people whose lives are on perpetual hold waiting for some word even now, decades later.

You don't need to have a background in Argentina's history to understand and appreciate this novel; it can't hurt, but Martinez manages to get the critical points of the period across to his readers without going into a lot of historical detail. 

I don't suppose this book will be to everyone's taste, but if you are at all familiar with or interested in the desaparecidos or  Argentina's Dirty War, you will probably really like this novel.  While the blurb says "ghost story," you have to look at that phrase in terms of metaphor rather than hoping that there's something paranormal to come out of this book, so if that's what caught your eye, well, you're reading the wrong story.  Purgatory is a wonderful, moving story of a woman who has been through a great deal of loss; it is also the story of the spirit of love that never dies, while at the same time , since it cannot really speak to what actually happened to the thousands of disappeared, it is the story of  the ones left behind.  And clever Martinez also manages to put his readers in a state of uncertainty as they wonder about Simón's return and as they wait to discover what will ultimately become of Emilia.   It is a lovely book and I definitely recommend it.


  1. I was born and brought up in Argentina but left many years ago. This book broke my heart and you have reviewed it beautifully. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much! The madness that was the Dirty War is well reflected in this novel in so many ways -- and it was a difficult read emotionally for me as well. I loved it.


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