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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Tomás Eloy Martínez

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To purchase Purgatory

Title: Purgatory
Author: Tomás Eloy Martínez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 270 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Purgatory - US
Purgatorio - US (Spanish)
Purgatory - UK
Purgatory - Canada
Purgatory - India
Purgatoire - France
Purgatorio - Deutschland
Purgatorio - España
  • Spanish title: Purgatorio
  • Translated by Frank Wynne

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Our Assessment:

A- : effective take on the Argentinian 'disappeared'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B+ 9/11/2011 .
FAZ . 2/10/2010 Jakob Strobel Y Serra
The Guardian A 13/1/2012 Alberto Manguel
NZZ A+ 9/3/2011 Karl-Markus Gauß
El País . 21/3/2009 Carlos Fuentes

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sometimes Eloy Martínez lingers too long on a scene, and the sex is more fun for the characters than for the reader. But Purgatory is a compassionate novel about the power of chimeras -- of what we choose to see, of what we can bear to see -- and the way grief clots when it is unresolved." - The Economist

  • "Dieses Buch tut weh. Es macht keinen Mut, spendet keinen Trost, kennt kein Glück, jedenfalls keines, das man selbst gerne hätte. Stattdessen dreht es sich mit obsessivem Furor um ein einziges Thema: um das Verschwinden von Menschen, um diesen Verlust, der den Schmerz der Ungewissheit wie ein Gift in die Seelen der Zurückgebliebenen tropft." - Jakob Strobel Y Serra, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Through Emilia's quest, the narrator echoes the ongoing questioning of an entire country: how was this possible ? How can we continue to exist today when all this took place yesterday, in our presence ? How can we turn disappearances into appearances, into factual reality, into the recognition of our own shameful history ? How can we tell the ghosts of the living from the ghosts of the dead ? (...) The posthumous publication of Purgatory shows a writer at the height of his craft, and is a fitting conclusion to the work of one of Latin America's most remarkable novelists." - Alberto Manguel, The Guardian

  • "Bei allem Ernst, mit dem sich der Autor seiner Figur und ihres Schicksals annimmt, scheut er sich nicht, die dokumentarische Ebene zu verlassen und ein literarisches Vexierspiel von stupender Kunstfertigkeit zu entfalten. (...) Wenn die meisten argentinischen Bücher, über die bei der Frankfurter Buchmesse 2010 gesprochen wurde, vergessen sein werden, wird dieser Roman noch Zeugnis geben" - Karl-Markus Gauß, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Busquemos entonces, en la novela, la realidad de lo que la historia olvidó. Y porque la historia ha sido lo que es, la literatura nos ofrece lo que la historia no siempre ha sido." - Carlos Fuentes, El País

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy, whose husband, Simón Cardoso, disappeared early during Argentina's 'Dirty War'. The novel opens thirty years later with a striking scene in which Emilia, now living in New Jersey, sees Simón at a local lounge bar -- except that the Simón she sees still looks exactly as he had thirty years earlier, completely unchanged and untouched by time.
       Is it him ? Is it a figment of her febrile imagination, finally pushed over the edge after all these years -- or finally ready to create a reality she can live with ? Even where the answers seem rather obvious, Martínez constructs and presents a story that grows in resonance and ultimately is a devastating portrait of a nation gone mad -- and of those who have not been able to escape the horrible events of that time.
       Emilia and Simón were both cartographers, and it was on a map-making assignment for the Automobile Club that Simón disappeared. The novel looks back to episodes from the past, including this last trip together in Argentina, as well as Emilia's decades-spanning dedicated search for her husband, hunting down any small lead.
       All the while she remained certain that:

If I can put myself on the same map as him, sooner or later we're bound to meet.
       Emilia's father was Orestes Dupuy, someone closely connected to the regime -- an ardent supporter of and propagandist for the hard-line, take-no-prisoners approach -- and the holder of considerable power and influence. An arrogant man, he expected his family to live up to his expectations and demands -- but was also willing to make easy sacrifices when it suited him, or his position demanded it. When his wife began to lose her mind, for example, he had few qualms about shoving her off into a care facility. Dupuy helped his other son-in-law, the husband of Emilia's sister, Chela to considerable success and riches, but when the young man's Ponzi scheme began to unravel Dupuy made sure first that he could save face. But he didn't sacrifice that son-in-law -- though he told him that he and Chela and their son: "are going to disappear, but not yet." (In that case the disappearance was one the son-in-law actually had some say in -- and led only to a safe off-shore hideaway, where the family could live in peace and then eventually move to the United States.)
       As to his other son-in-law, it's pretty clear -- and Emilia hears it often enough -- that Dupuy had him disappeared, that it was his doing that led to Simón's undoing.
       Purgatory is a novel of that seemingly endless state of uncertainty -- is he alive or is he dead ? what happened to him ? how ? why ? --, as well as the inability to let go: Emilia can not be sure whether Simón simply fled to take up another life for some reason, or whether he was killed, and erased from existence. Even where it's obvious, given the times and circumstances and what was happening all around, Emilia doesn't want to have to believe that Simón was killed (or that her father was behind it); the truth is too devastating and too much to bear.
       Several sections of Purgatory are narrated by a first-person narrator bearing a close resemblance to author Martínez -- a long-time exile from Argentina, a teacher at Rutgers, author of the same books, etc. He meets Emilia several times in near present-day New Jersey, and learns both about her finding Simón, and of her life up to this time.
       He says:
     I met her because I'm interested in cartographers, who are very much like novelists in their determination to modify reality.
       Out of these different perspectives, and through the lives of Emilia, the monstrous Depuy, and the others, as well as of observer Martínez, a very effective portrait of the horror of the Argentine experience -- and its long-lingering aftereffects -- comes together.
       Martínez offers many inspired scenes, from Emilia's certainty that she has finally been reunited with Simón after thirty years to an Argentina where the wildest stories are considered plausible (while the ugly truth is not spoken of) to a nicely imagined meeting between Dupuy and Orson Welles, whom Dupuy wants to hire to make a propaganda film about Argentina.
       This is a wonderful, uncompromising picture of a country in a state of delusion, where terror -- often arbitrary -- leads to a pliant mass that dares not question even the most outlandish claims and where supposed glories -- the football (soccer) World Cup comes to town in 1978, for example -- are simply artificial distractions that can't change the underlying hollowness and falsehood the country is built on. Martínez presents a society entirely built on lies -- and rather effectively so, as almost everyone goes along with them. The figure of near-complete power, Dupuy, -- who nevertheless also manages to extricate himself from being implicated in the horrors when democracy (and sanity) slowly return -- is willing to treat his own family members as pawns, sending Emilia off on wild goose chases so as to keep her from being a nuisance to his own ambitions, for example.
       While parts of Purgatory are uneven -- Martínez's stabs at sex, for example, really don't come off very well -- overall this is a very creative and richly imagined work of considerable power, and certainly among the best of the many novels about the desaparecidos.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 January 2012

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Purgatory: Reviews: Tomás Eloy Martínez: Other books by Tomás Eloy Martínez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tomás Eloy Martínez was born in Argentina in 1934 and died in 2010.

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© 2012 the complete review

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