"And when the wandering is over, when you go back to the home you left behind, you think you're closing the circle, but visiting the museum you realise that the whole journey has been a one-way trip, always leaving. No one returns from exile (217)."
Emilia Dupuy lives in exile in New Jersey, away from her native Argentina. She's been a cartographer all of her adult life, and understands the metaphorical and changeable nature of maps. The daughter of a wealthy and influential man, she has spent years searching for her husband, who was disappeared shortly after they were married; her father was probably behind the disappearance. In 1970s Argentina, thousands of people were disappeared at the hands of the government, and Eloy Martínez has penned a book that explores the human side of a desaparecido without becoming overtly political - it bears noting that Eloy Martínez himself was Argentinean, and living in exile in New Jersey. The book alternates between Emilia's voice and that of an exiled Argentinean professor, who easily could have been the author.
Emilia refuses to believe her husband is dead, despite witnesses who saw his battered body with a gunshot wound between the eyes. She lives in search of him, until one day she realizes she needs to stay in one place so he can find her. The title of the book is Purgatory, and it is fitting at many levels. Emilia lives in a type of Purgatory, an interstitial place that seems to have no resolution: she is married but has no husband; she lives in exile, in that common state of immigrants who no longer really fit anywhere. She draws her maps to try to find Simón, her husband, on them, but she knows maps can lie very easily. The back cover of the book describes as, in part, a ghost story - and ghosts also inhabit an intermediate state of purgatory. As an additional insult, many no longer believe in purgatory, so the belief itself is disappearing. A game of mirrors, of people and objects on maps that vanish, of unfulfilled love, and of hope in a novel that borders on magical realism without ever quite entering the genre.
And then, one day, Emilia sees her husband in a bar in New Jersey, but this is not the Simón who would be 60 years old, but the 33 year-old who disappeared.
This is a compelling book with multiple levels of meaning. It can be read with no knowledge of Argentina's Dirty War and enjoyed, but knowing even a little 1970s Argentina history will help reveal many of the nuances. Eloy Martínez writing is gifted at revealing the complexities of human emotion; this is perhaps most obvious when the voice switches from Emilia's emotional tone to the professor's much more analytical one. Although they are both lonely exiled people, they approach life very differently. This is not a book to rush through, but one to savor.
If I had to find a problem with the book, it would be the translation. Frank Wynne Is a very well-known and excellent translator, and he captures the essence of the book marvelously. The problem was that I could feel the Spanish trying to shine through, and it made me not want to read the book in English. My advice would be that if you are a Spanish speaker, get the untranslated version. If not, enjoy Purgatory knowing that the translation somehow was able to keep the Spanish tone throughout the novel.