On a certain level, Purgatory is a metaphorical ghost story—a meditation on loss, invisibility, and vanishing. But this being Tomas Eloy Martínez, the author of Santa Evita, The Perón Novel, and The Tango Singer, it is also about a very real, historical form of disappearance: the many thousands of desaparecidos erased by Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. The late Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato, who oversaw a 1984 report on this era titled “Nevermore,” described his investigation as a “slow descent into hell.” For Martínez, the past is lived in a cruel state of limbo, a purgatorial fog of denial and unknowing.
The novel’s protagonist, Emilia Dupuy, has long since moved on from her life in Argentina, where thirty years ago she and her husband, Simón Cardoso, were young cartographers on a fresh assignment to map the country’s hinterlands. But what was Argentina exactly in the mid-’70s? What was real and what was imagined? What was true and what was a lie? In the buildup to its hosting of the 1978 World Cup, the military junta wanted the world to believe it was a free and democratic nation, under assault from within by a small band of communist militants. And yet we learn:
At the time, thousands of people disappeared for no apparent reason…. Workers disappeared from their factory gates; farmers from their fields, leaving tractors running; dead men from the graves in which they had been buried only the day before. Children disappeared from their mother’s wombs and mothers from their children’s memories . . .. And it was not only people who disappeared; rivers, lakes, train stations, half-built cities vanished into the air as thought they had never existed.
So when Simón is taken into custody one night far from Buenos Aires, things only become murkier. Where has he been taken? Is he still alive (as anonymous informers assert, placing him in cities as disparate as Rio, Caracas, and Bogotá)? Or has he been tortured and executed, as several witnesses later claim? Here, in essence, is the central paradox—or ring of hell—that haunts this book: “A desaparecido is a mystery, he has no substance, he is neither alive nor dead, he does not exist. He is ‘disappeared.’”
Inevitably, Emilia’s hope for news of her lost husband proves futile—until, that is, she believes she sees him at a local restaurant in suburban New Jersey where she’s now living. Is she dreaming, delusional, or has she, indeed, brushed up against some sort of ghost of the past? Martínez, who died in 2010 after completing this book, remains elusive on this count, offering only ambiguous, thinly sketched visions of Emilia’s phantom encounters. And yet Martínez himself—or rather an exiled Argentine writer at Rutgers much like Martínez—narrates some of the more gripping sections of the book, intrigued by Emilia’s story and the sad, unresolved plight of so many compatriots like her. “The more I delve into Emilia’s life,” he discovers, “the more I realize that from beginning to end it is an unbroken chain of losses, disappearances and senseless searches. She spent years chasing after nothing, after people who no longer existed, remembering things that had never happened. But aren’t we all like that?”