Emilias husband Simòn disappeared in Argentina, like so many unfortunate souls did during the Dirty War. Tomás Eloy Martínez’s book Purgatory tells the story of how Emilia is looking for her husband, even though there are several witnesses who saw Simón’s dead body. Emilia finally sees her husband again, after 30 years, in New Jersey.
The book has an intriguing beginning. I enjoy the parts about the present, the relationship is so uncomplicated even after 30 years apart. Then the story starts taking different turns. It goes back and forth between now and then. It tells the story of how Emilia and Simón met, about their interesting life as cartographers, how dysfunctional Emilia’s family was, the World Cup in 1978, and it all comes back to Emilia’s life today in the United States.
It is sometimes hard to follow where you are right now in the story, but it comes back to you quite quickly. Unfortunately the story has some small elements from magical realism, which is typical to many Latin American author’s style, but it is the literary style I don’t really enjoy. It is not as bad as it could be though, and once you understand what it’s all about, most things make sense.
I would definitely have enjoyed this book a lot if it would have been written in the style which was used in the beginning of the story. The Dirty War had and have such a big impact on Argentinians and Argentina as a whole, and it is, and should be, an important part of Argentine literature.
The characters in the story are all flawed, like the rest of us. Some are even a bit insane. One exists only in another person’s mind. A person’s past can have such a devastating impact, and destroy the future. When someone is so obsessed about finding a person, who in reality is dead, it alienates everything else from your life: friends, family and reality. Is it love, or just a pure obsession that drives a person like Emilia?
However surreal this book might seem from time to time, I doubt it can be as surreal as it must have been living in Argentina during the years when people simply “disappeared”. Having a dad as part of the elite in the dictatorship does probably make it easier for you to make yourself “disappear” to another country. You can run, but can can you really hide from your past?