Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
It’s hard to believe that dictators, like authors, have not mined George Orwell’s 1984 for tips on how brutal, repressive governments should behave. Time and again literature and reality confront us with monstrous authoritarian regimes whose actions rot the very concepts of truth and freedom, echoing the classic novel. Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez blends historical fact and fiction to provide an excellent example of how chilling the effects of a corrupt, military dictatorship can be.
The story begins when Emilia Dupuy discovers her long dead husband, Simón, in an American bar. Simón and Emilia had been arrested in 1970’s Argentina, the former never to be seen again. From the start, something is obviously amiss. Her husband was one of the Disappeared, a euphemism used to describe citizens secretly executed by the state, but Emilia consumes nearly three decades fruitlessly searching for him. When Simón reappears, he has not aged, and acts unnaturally.
Chapters alternate between third person descriptions of the husband and wife in the present day, and first person sections by an unnamed narrator remembering life during Argentina’s National Reorganization Process and discussing events during this time with Emilia, his friend/acquaintance.
Unlike most novels I have read with similar subject matter, Purgatory’s protagonist doesn’t recognize the dictatorship’s corrosive manipulation of language, its contempt for truth. Winston Smith saw all of the lies used to control Oceania, but Emilia’s sense of reality has been completely subverted.
Purgatory is well crafted and honestly frightening at times, especially since the novel is based on historical events, describing not horrors that might happen but ones that have been committed. It is a compelling if not necessarily cathartic read.