“Purgatory” by Tomas Eloy Martinez (2009) – 270 pages – Translated by Frank Wynne
“The threat of exile and death were the features of daily life under the military regime in Argentina, a more-or-less democratic country that considered itself safe from 20th-century totalitarian horrors and became the proof that no society is immune to them…No country is immune from the totalitarian horrors that beset Argentina from 1976 to 1982.”
“Purgatory”, the last novel written by Tomas Eloy Martinez before he died in 2010, is the novel he was meant to write. Martinez was exiled from his homeland of Argentina in 1975 when the military junta was still plotting its takeover of the Argentine government. He did not return to Argentina until 2008 to write this final novel, “Purgatory”.
Up to 30,000 people in Argentina were killed or disappeared in the atrocities committed by the military junta during the six years that it ruled. Their stated goal was to remove the leftist threat in Argentina by getting rid of Communists, socialists, and other leftists in Argentina, while actually getting rid of anyone who disagreed with the junta’s dictatorial rule. The military junta had the tacit support of the United States government whose Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of the military takeover, “”Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement… because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.” In support of the death squads, defacto leader of the military junta Jorge Videla said, “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure”,
It was during the rule of this junta that ‘disappeared’ was first used as an active verb as in “The death squad ‘disappeared’ those persons.”
Back then, people let themselves be numbed by sentimentality to forget the death that was all around them. The flying saucers, the soap operas, football, patriotism…”
“Purgatory” is the story of Emilia and Simon, a happily married young couple in Buenos Aires. Emilia’s father is the propaganda chief of the ruling military junta who have just taken power in Argentina in 1976. The family invites the leader of the junta, The Eel, to their house for dinner, and Simon, the son-in-law, says a couple of intemperate things which embarrass Emilia’s father and anger The Eel. A few days later Emilia and Simon travel by car to the south of Argentina to do their work as map makers. At one of the checkpoints, Simon is removed from the car. Although Emilia later soon hears from someone that Simon has been tortured and murdered, she can not accept that fact. She spends the next thirty years travelling to various places in the western hemisphere on rumors that Simon has been seen. This is the novel’s back story.
The novel actually begins with Emilia living in New Jersey thirty years later, when she thinks she sees someone who looks exactly like Simon did thirty years ago.
My reaction to this novel, “Purgatory”, was two-fold. I was much interested in the ‘hard’ part of the story, the part that was based on historical fact involving the military junta and the leftists.. I was mostly unfamiliar with the story of Argentina during those years, and that part of the story deeply engaged me. The ‘soft’ part of the story, the romantic magical dream-like part of the story interested me much less. I rarely have much use for dreams or magical sequences in fiction; I’m much more drawn to the hard here and now, although I did much appreciate the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Previously I have read one other Tomas Eloy Martinez novel, “Santa Evita”. I still consider that novel his justifiable masterpiece. By all means read that novel. Although at times I was deeply absorbed in “Purgatory”, I would not rank it quite as highly as “Santa Evita”.
As so often is the case with dictators, the military junta in Argentina later started an unnecessary war with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands (the Malvinas) in 1982 which Argentina lost, soon leading to the end of the dictatorial military junta in Argentina.
“Purgatory” was selected for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award longlist.