2011 Books in Translation

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Purgatory Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Five words from the blurb: Argentina, history, political, disappearances, love

Tomás Eloy Martínez was one of the most important authors in the Spanish speaking world. He was born in Argentina in 1934 and became a journalist, challenging authority at every opportunity. His provocative journalism forced him into exile during the military dictatorship and he moved to Venezuela, where he wrote several novels. Purgatory was completed shortly before he died from cancer in 2010. It is said to be his most autobiographical work, covering much of Argentina’s recent history. I accepted a review copy of this book because he sounded like such an interesting author, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work for me.

Purgatory has a fantastic opening line:

Simón Cardoso had been dead thirty years when his wife, Emilia Dupuy, spotted him at lunchtime in the lounge bar in Trudy Tuesday.

Human rights groups estimate that 30,000 Argentinians were captured, tortured and killed between 1976 and 1983. This book focused on Simón Cardoso, a cartographer who disappeared during this time period, and the mystery surrounding what happened to him.

Purgatory was very easy to read. The simplicity of the text made it possible to underestimate the talent that this author possesses. Profound statements were sprinkled throughout the novel and there were many passages that could easily stand up against the best writing in the world, but unfortunately I don’t think the book worked very well as a novel. There were many long, dry sections in which little happened. It could be argued that these reflected the endless waiting endured by those who didn’t know if their loved ones were alive or dead, but as a reader I was bored.

This Guardian article indicates that the author wanted to write:

without descriptions of atrocities, without depictions of rape and torture – rather a recreation of what it felt like “to breathe in the contaminated air”

He has definitely achieved this, but I’m afraid I prefer my novels to be more powerful. The absence of violence lead to a very quiet novel that was too subtle for me.

I also think that a lot of the satire went over my head. I only have a limited understanding of the political situation in Argentina and so I’m sure that I missed references to specific people/events.

This is clearly an important book, but it was too subtle for me and I’d only recommend it to those with a strong knowledge of Argentina.


Have you read anything written by Tomás Eloy Martínez?

Do any of his earlier books have a stronger narrative drive?


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