Emilia Dupuy is haunted by the memory of her missing husband, Simon Cardoso. During what seemed like a routine mapping expedition in Argentina for the couple (both of whom were cartographers), Simon vanished without a trace. A thread of hope is preserved in Emilia thirty years after his disappearance in spite of testimonies stating that he was detained, tortured, and murdered. Simon became one of the many “disappeared” that characterized Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, and Emilia became one of the individuals left behind in her own personal purgatory, marked by uncertainty with regards not only to the whereabouts of her husband, but the direction of her own life and her place within her family. Tomas Eloy Martinez carefully constructs this tale of one woman’s struggle in Purgatory by mingling poignant emotion with gut-wrenching fact and allows the reader to effortlessly move between present-time New Jersey into the corrupt Argentina of yester-year characterized by propaganda-induced authority.
The true power of Martinez’s storytelling lies in is his ability to make his protagonist’s personal struggle secondary to the oppression of the Dirty War—he uses his artistic skill to enfold the reader not only into Emilia’s story but into the time itself, whisking the audience through 30 years in the blink of an eye. In hopes of finding her husband, Emilia fruitlessly following a series of ultimately inaccurate clues pointing to Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and finally the United States. The true angst in the story floods not from the pursuit itself but from the slow realization that these clues seem loosely linked to Emilia’s own father: Dr. Dupuy, a propagandist for the oppressive government regime itself. The irony almost makes the narrative humorous—Dupuy’s ideals enforce the statement “God, family, country,” but it seems increasingly clear to the audience and to Emilia that her father instigated Simon’s disappearance, and possibly his torture and murder, in order to further his own agenda and to keep Emilia among others from discovering the truth behind the government’s atrocities.
As the novel progresses, the reader begins to question what is real and what is invented—both within the story and looking at the novel from a historical standpoint. There are some interesting parallels between Martinez himself and the author depicted in Purgatory who is relaying Emilia’s story—both are exiled writers from Argentina, and the character’s books share titles and topics with those published with Martinez himself. The events surrounding Dr. Dupuy’s villainous character are outlandish in a way that adds comic relief to the tense storyline in spite of being very serious and mirroring real-life events, which further blurs the line between truth and fiction. One moment he has Emilia move home to care for his ailing wife and the next he is sending his daughter reeling, which only perpetuates public rumors that she is insane, in search of her lost husband to get rid of her lest she learn too much about what is really happening in the government. Prior to his wife’s death he traipses around publicly with a successful woman, and the moment his mistress’ reputation wanes, she is mysteriously found dead (supposedly by suicide). For some reason Dupuy is compelled to secretively obtain treatment for his wife’s cancer. He forces a man to marry his favored daughter Chela and boosts his new son-in-law into riches for the sake of his daughter’s wellbeing, but the moment his reputation is questioned, he arranges it so his daughter becomes one of the disappeared alongside her husband and forsakes his relationship with his daughter entirely. Although Dupuy’s role seems very small at first, it gradually snowballs until the reader is struck by his importance not only in Emilia’s love story, but in post-Dirty War Argentina.
One significant scene captures Dupuy bartering with Orson Welles, who receives a cameo in the book. Dr. Dupuy begs Welles to create a film in which Argentina is shown as a “peace-loving country” where everyone is happy. This comes on the tails of a campaign in which two actors were sent across the country dressed as Mary and Joseph in something of a religious parody, trying to prove that the people would help and support them, but showing the exact opposite when most people not only rejected them but mocked and insulted them. Dupuy (who Welles refers to as Charlie) wants Welles to create an uproar, a national panic, that attributes the disappearances of many individuals to UFOs. Welles’s response is not only a refusal—it is a disclosure to the audience:
“Art is illusion, Charlie, reality is illusion. Things only exist when we see them; in fact, you might say they are created by your senses. But what happens when this thing that doesn’t exist looks up and stares back at you? It ceases to be a something, it reveals its existence, rebels, it is a something with density, with intensity. You cannot make that someone disappear because you might disappear too. Human beings are not illusions, Charlie. They are stories, memories, we are God’s imaginings just as God is our imagining. Erase a single point on that infinite line and you erase the whole line and we might all tumble into that black hole. Be careful, Charlie.”
With these words, Welles unveils the true nature of the disappearances and warns Dupuy that the government’s tenuous grasp on power is further weakening, and that a propagandist campaign can only go so far to reinforce power. Argentina is on the verge of tumbling into that black hole of purgatory, just as Emilia and many others whose loved ones’ disappeared already have, existing on a false sense of hope and security when certainty is absent. By the time the reader has to fully consider the idea that Emilia has unexpectedly been reunited with her husband, who has not aged after 30 years, the unrealistic magical air of the novel (largely established by Dupuy’s fantastical character) allows the reader again to question what is real and even permits events that are too fantastical to believe to waver on the edge of possibility—the reader is bound to ask, “is it likely that Emilia has, in fact, found the ghost of her husband?” While Emilia was characterized as the one who was crazy all along for not believing that her husband was dead when testimonies existed that proved otherwise, it seems feasible that those testimonies were also a creation intended to keep questioning at bay.
Overall, there is a beautifully created sense of horror that surfaces because, the more the reader knows about the corruption in the government, the less inclined he or she is to believe that Emilia, our protagonist, is insane in light of the insanity the government is attempting to hide. Overall, Tomas Eloy Martinez creates a historical thriller in which the characters and the audience alike must struggle to separate fact from fiction lest they get lost without a map in their own personal Purgatory.