A love story with a fist at its centre

Sat, Dec 3, 2011, 00:00

FICTION: PurgatoryBy Tomás Eloy Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne Bloomsbury, 273pp. £16.99

IT SEEMS like a simple love story suspended in vicious tragedy, which imprisons a young woman when her husband is arrested and disappears forever – or does he?

Nothing is quite as it seems in this dazzling maze of a narrative by the Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez, author of The Tango Singer(2004).

Martínez, who was shortlisted for the inaugural International Man Booker Prize, in 2005, died early last year. He was an opponent of the Perónist regime, and from 1976 until 1982 he lived in exile in Venezuela. Purgatory, his final novel, is arranged in five almost self-contained acts, all shifting gracefully and ironically between realism and the surreal. No matter how strange and alluring it becomes, the narrative never conceals the horrors Argentina suffered under the rule of the generals. Yet Martínez has written a romance, not a polemic. That said, it is a love story with a fist at its centre.

It opens with a bald fact: “Simon Cardoso had been dead thirty years when his wife, Emilia Dupuy spotted him at lunchtime in the lounge bar in Trudy Tuesday.” She is understandably shocked. Since his disappearance after they had both been arrested and she had been released, Emilia has spent her life looking for him. Both are political innocents. They are also cartographers, and this image of maps runs through the narrative. The conceit proves apt, often inspired. Emilia is doomed to a life of searching, and her skill at drawing maps provides little help. Memories of her love for Simon torment her as much as they sustain her. There was never a body.

But there are many rumours; she hears accounts of how he died, while also being informed of various sightings. For her there is no rest, and she moves from place to place, determined to find him.

Emilia is a sympathetic heroine: distressed, possibly insane – what matter? From time to time we hear her describing her experiences to a friend, a novelist who may well be Martínez. He, too, has his own woes, including a serious illness.

When Emilia first sees Simon after all those years of grief, she is struck by how young he looks – the same as he was when he was taken – but also she is aware of how old she now is. For her, time has not stopped. Her situation had been difficult from the very beginning. Her father, Dr Dupuy, is the regime’s master propagandist, a creature modelled on Joseph Goebbels. As indifferent to his family as he is to everyone else, he is a convincingly sinister characterisation that manages to avoid the cliches. The Nazi motif is constant. Nothing stands in Dupuy’s way, and it is obvious that he had something to do with the fate of a man he never wanted as a son-in-law.

Dr Dupuy’s version of everything is a blatant distortion of the truth.

In Emilia, Martínez offers an interesting study of a person who has systemically idealised what was in fact a very awkward relationship.

As the years pass she becomes an isolated individual who lives in her head and brandishes coupons at shop assistants. We see her most fully through the eyes of the narrator, the novelist who, as a fellow Argentine living in the US, befriends her. He is her unofficial confessor, and Martínez succeeds in making the narrator appear genuinely intrigued rather than merely voyeuristic.

It is impossible not to feel Emilia’s bewilderment and her wary analysis of the general insanity. Frank Wynne’s translation evokes the fatalistic mood: “At the time, thousands of people disappeared for no apparent reason. Ambassadors disappeared, the lovers of captains and admirals, the owners of businesses . . . Workers disappeared from their factory gates: farmers from their fields . . . dead men from the graves in which they had been buried only the day before.” Even so, she continues to believe her husband is alive.

This is an unusual work in that it begins well and gets better and better. Martínez is not above sly humour, and he extracts abundant grotesque humour from Dr Dupuy’s scheme to commission Orson Welles to direct a propagandist documentary about Argentina to publicise the 1978 World Cup. Welles is more than a match for him, and begins speaking about the illusion of film, the sheer magic. Dupuy reckons he has his man. But Welles, “call me Orsten” – is depicted as shrewd and rather magnificent: “I’ll bring my magic to this documentary, you pay me with your magic.” For once Dr Dupuy is confused and admits, “I still don’t understand, Orsten.” Welles replies, “I make the film for you for free, with the best World Cup anyone’s ever seen, and you and your generals will make the disappeared appear.”

Late in the novel the narrator realises that the more he delves into Emilia’s life, “the more I realise that from beginning to end it is an unbroken chain of losses, disappearances and senseless searches. She spent years chasing after nothing . . . But aren’t we all like that?” Such a reflection adds a philosophical dimension to the fact that Emilia is a metaphor for Argentina.

One small quibble is to do with the repetition of the fear that the mirrors in her mother’s dressing room held for Emilia both as a child and as an adult. It should have been dealt with in the original edition. It is a minor stylistic lapse in a bravura performance from a courageous artist whose wit always tempered his anger. Purgatoryfollows Emilia through her private hell in Martínez’s personal love song to his country.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Timesand author of Ordinary Dogs(Faber)