Sunday, March 4, 2012

Navigating time across the abyss of loss (Books - Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez)

I have often wondered what it is about living in South America that leads writers to adopt the form of magical realism. Having read Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez, recently translated into English by Frank Wynne and published by Bloomsbury USA, I think that I understand.

Since the 1930s, Argentina experienced more than 30 political coup d'etats. In 1975, a military junta seized power from Juan Peron. From 1976 until 1983, in government-instigated acts of terrorism, an estimated 15,000 persons were
"disappeared" - some say the number could be double that. Martinez's inventive and tender elegy commemorates the loss of the widow of one such victim.

Emilia, the daughter of the military regime's propagandist, is a cartographer. She falls in love with another cartographer, Simon, who is disappeared when they map a remote sector of their country that serves as a dumping ground for persons whom the government would like to discard - the destitute, victims of medical experimentation and torture. Emilia follows any trail she can catch of Simon, from Venezuela to Mexico to the United States, where in the book's present time frame she lives in New Jersey until

Simon Cardoso had been dead thirty years when his wife, Emilia Dupuy, spotted him at lunchtime in the lounge bar in Trudy Tuesday. He was in one of the booths at the back chatting to two people she didn't recognise. Emilia thought she had stepped into the wrong place and her first impulse was to turn round, get out of there, go back to the reality she had come from.
It is an arresting opening paragraph if there ever was one. Out of her haze of loss, Emilia tries to hang on to the elusive specter of her husband as Martinez riffs beautifully on the notion of transience and what we can do to record and remember.
I thought about all the things that disappear without our even noticing, because we know only what exists, we know nothing of those things that never come into existence... I thought about the Mozart symphonies silenced by his untimely death, about the song running through John Lennon's mind that December night when he was murdered. If we could recover the unwritten books, the lost music, if we could set out in search of what never existed and find it, then we should have conquered death.
The novel features three records: Emilia's maps attempt to pin down the reality of space in order to navigate it - to know where we are. Her father attempts to salvage the justifiably sullied image of the violent, self-serving regime of which he was a part by re-writing its narrative. Simultaneously the author of the book we are reading, Tomas Eloy Martinez, professor of Latin American studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, attempts to record the fantastical story of Emilia's loss and recovery of Simon. His is an exercise in pinning down time as Emilia did with space, only less concretely, evoking Emila's experience of it. On the one hand, he relates the details of her personal back story simultaneously with the political back story of Argentina, as revealed through Emilia's paranoid father. That's the realism part. Simultaneously he evokes the instability of Emilia's everyday world of loss and uncertainty, an instability that mirrors that of Argentina. Martinez's story has a mythic feel. It is one of romance and of specters who live on the edge of life and death - it attempts to draw not a conventional map of space but one that helps us navigate time across the abyss of loss. That's the magical part - a story as filled with unreality as her actual story and that of her fellow Argentinians has been.

Martinez propels this narrative forward with urgency and suspense while Purgatory is at once romantic, literary, political, philosophical, and fantastical. An intelligent and entertaining read, thank you Bloomsbury USA for the copy.

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