"Purgatory" by Tomás Eloy Martínez [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne
Why This Book Should Win: In part because Martínez died just a couple years ago, and has never gotten the recognition here that he deserves.
Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.
There’s a fair bit I can say about Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory. It is a political novel, a study of madness, a ghost story, a meditation on a rich culture that has spawned disastrously violent regimes: it is in many ways a culmination of Martinez’s life’s work. But I spend most of my time these days selling people books in twenty second blurbs that have to hook them on the spot, so a long explication of Purgatory_’s strengths isn’t really up my alley. So let’s start over and try this: _Purgatory is a startlingly addictive character study focusing on a woman’s search for her husband against the backdrop of a country gone mad.
OK, that probably needs a bit more explanation.
Briefly, Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy and her search for her husband, Simon, who disappeared not long after their marriage. More accurately, Simon is disappeared by the Argentine junta during the military’s rule in the late 1970s and early ’80s. After spending decades chasing phantoms of him—despite eyewitness testimony and the reality of life under the junta, Emilia refuses to accept that Simon is dead—she settles in New Jersey to await Simon’s return. The novel begins thirty years after Simon’s disappearance in a chain restaurant where, looking up from her booth, Emilia sees Simon sitting just a few feet away and he hasn’t aged a day since she saw him last.
The events of the junta’s reign are well documented; the history is laid out. But Martínez takes those events and the ways in which an insane political system attempted to remake an entire nation and creates a beautifully personal history in Emilia’s life following her husband’s disappearance. The novel skips about in time, addressing the events of the day and Emilia’s place in them almost thematically, building her personality and the circumstances that bring her to the novel’s opening lines.
What Martínez achieves is a triumph of memory over historical events. By presenting Emilia’s history as a chaotic overlapping of occurrences he allows the personal perspective to take precedence over the factual occurrence. The carefully demarcated line of causation that explains the grand historical movement of peoples and countries from one moment to the next is cast aside in favor of the fragments, the coral that each individual generates. In unmooring this period of history Martinez brings its profound effects into starker relief. And by creating Emilia he makes the pain and misery forced upon his native country a more personal reality for the reader.
I might need to pare that down a bit to get it under twenty seconds.