By Tomas Eloy Martinez
Translation by Frank Wynne
Bloomsbury USA, 273 pgs
Submitted by Bloomsbury USA
Everyone in this novel is loco, at least one taco short of a combo plate. Personally, I have a soft spot for Latino cultures, our neighbors to the south, and Mexico is breaking my heart. I would rather vacation in Peru than in Germany so please don't think I'm prejudiced. Still and all, everyone in this book is insane: the general, the doctor, the mapmaker, the mother, the wife and etc.
Emilia Dupuy's husband Simon Cardoso disappeared in Argentina and has been missing and presumed (or known, depending on who you're talking to) dead for 30 years when she spies him in a restaurant in New Jersey. He has not aged or changed in 30 years, exactly the same. They go back to her place and spend the weekend together. Or maybe they spend the rest of their lives together. Or maybe they don't go back to her place. Maybe Simon is a ghost, or maybe he doesn't exist in any form on any plane.
During the seventies and eighties Argentina suffered from a military dictatorship that had lots in common with the Third Reich and Franco's Spain. Thousands of people were "disappeared." Emilia's father was the chief propagandist for the the general and his regime. In the book the dictator general is referred to as "the Eel" and the appellation is pitch perfect. Simon mouths off one night during dinner and this appears to be the catalyst for everything that comes after.
Emilia and Simon are cartographers and are sent to a remote region to map and are captured by the army, suspected of being subversives. They are separated and interrogated. Emilia is released. What happens after that is murky to say the least. Is Simon released? tortured? executed? There are witnesses who say they witnessed Simon's death or saw his body. Emilia gets anonymous messages claiming he is alive and living in Caracas or Mexico. She spends the rest of her life, as far as we can tell (for not much is actually known), searching for him.
I have had a difficult time deciding what the rating for this book should be. I very much enjoyed the parts in Argentina and the intermittently comedic treatment of the totalitarian regime. I found Emilia's search tedious at times. Mostly this book made me feel impatient. You don't know whether you're coming or going, which way is up? I realize that this is probably what the author intended but geez. It reminded me of the "the big lie" philosophy of the Nazis. Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?
The author of Purgatory was born in Argentina and was forced to live in exile during the military dictatorship. He has written other internationally acclaimed novels such as The Peron Novel and Santa Evita. Senor Martinez was professor of Latin American studies at Rutgers University until his death in 2010. A quote from page 221 about what is lost with death: "If we could recover the unwritten books, the lost music, if we could set out in search of what never existed and find it, then we should have conquered death."