Category Archives: History

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

The first part of this review previously appeared in the San Francisco Book Review last December 8, 2011. 

 

Even readers who have consumed a steady diet of South American literature since the boom era may find immense pleasure in reading Tomás Eloy Martínez’s last novel. It’s a gut-wrenching tour de force. Purgatory revolves around Emilia Dupuy and her husband Simón, two newlywed cartographers who are torn apart by the Argentinean military regime of the 1970s. Either by malice or accident, Simón joins the ranks of the “desaparecidos,” one of the many thousands who disappeared during this turbulent era.

Now living in New Jersey and exhausted by years of searching for Simón, Emilia is surprised to find her husband at a local cafe, looking exactly as he did on the day he disappeared. Is this encounter real or is Emilia being haunted by her memories and desires? Martínez gives no easy answers to the central mystery, preferring to peel back, layer after layer, each moment that leads to Emilia and Simón’s separation and reunion. The novel travels back and forth between the past and the present, with casual cameos from a Nazi pseudo-scientist, Spanish royalty, and even Orson Welles.

Disguised as a spectral romance, Purgatory is really a lamentation for the missing and for those left behind. It is a brilliant, bittersweet narrative that keeps a reader up at night long after the last page has been read.

. . .

So ends my formal review for Purgatory. Now comes my informal reaction to the book:

I had an entirely visceral response to this novel. I suppose it’s a mix of several elements, including my university degree and my interest in Latin American literature. Maybe it’s also my personal experience—an acquaintance of mine, Sherlyn Cadapan, is among the disappeared in the Philippines. You can read about her case here. I was not particularly close to her and I had not seen her in years before her abduction by the Philippine military.

It was impossible for me not to be bothered on a primal level. This was someone who used to tease me to buy her lunch when she was broke, which was the case pretty often. This was a familiar face I saw in Vinzons Hall during my last years in university. To consider the worst fate possible just renders me speechless. In the back of my head, it’s hard not to think, “if I was a stronger person, if I had pushed further and done more community work, that could have been me.”

Some of my former colleagues would call it “lie low guilt.” Lying low, in the parlance of NGO or nonprofit work of the last decade, was to take a break from the intense, grueling lifestyle connected to social work in the Philippines. It usually involved crawling back to one’s family for a couple of months and recuperating from diseases like malaria or amoebiasis. (For some people—myself included—lying low means never returning and being slowly ripped apart by one’s conscience for abandoning the cause of social justice.) This is something easily misunderstood by those touched with apathy, and even those active in the movement (the grim and determined types.) After all, it’s easy to dismiss something as intangible as mental suffering.

It is in this frame of mind I found myself finishing Purgatory. It was impossible for me not to relate and sympathize with Emilia. When I think of everyone I’ve ever met who lost a loved one this way, I just want to curl up into a ball.

It’s painful to consider these things, after all these years. But I have to say, Purgatory is such a beautifully written trigger for self-examination.

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

Art books are awesome. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Serendipity led me to a book on James Tissot in the Berkeley Library. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s okay, because he’s not exactly a superstar of nineteenth century art.

I first encountered Tissot in one of my mother’s art books, Edward Lucie-Smith and Celestine Dars’s How the Rich Lived: The Painter as Witness 1870-1914 (1976). That title is incredibly snooty and I suspect that’s why my mother owned it.

As a child, all the reproductions in that book fascinated me. It was only when I was older that I actually read the accompanying essays on the incomes, manners, and scandals of the period.

How the Rich Lived furnished me with some basic education about the class divide in nineteenth century Europe. When I started reading Charlotte Brontë and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a girl, it helped me understand the social context of these works. Why both Mr. Rochester’s marriages were shocking and why Irene Adler was an unsuitable match for a royal personage became clear to me.

Yes, I was always an arts-and-culture nerd.

Going back to Tissot, though, I found his paintings compelling because of the repetition of the same female figure in all of them. How the Rich Lived gave scant details on Tissot, merely noting that the woman was his lover and she died young.

My inability to find out more—remember, this was the age before the internet and public libraries in Manila are in a woeful state—really frustrated me, teased as I was with this idea of a painter’s great love affair that ended in tragedy.

In any case, I simply filed the visual information away in my head and forgot about it for years.

As an adult, my interest in Tissot was rekindled when I saw one of his works at the Auckland Art Gallery. I recognized its style immediately, which included Tissot’s signature ruffled frocks and “that woman.”

It was a graceful, flighty thing that the museum was understandably proud of. One of their monographs detailed how the painting was restored after it was damaged in a botched art heist back in 1998.

Belated as it is, I’m really glad I found James Tissot, as edited by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz (1984). After all these years I found out the identity of the mysterious woman.

 

"Too Early" by Tissot. This is one of my many favorites of 19th century art. I believe Mrs. Newton is the model for the central figure (in profile). Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

II.

Her name was Mrs. Kathleen Newton and she was described as “a hauntingly pretty Irish divorcée.” Born Kathleen Kelly, Tissot’s great love led a very interesting life even before she met him in 1876. Apparently she was sent to India to meet her fiancé, in a match set up by her family. On the trip out, however, she fell in love with another officer. Despite her feelings, Kathleen was still married off. She was only seventeen years old.

When her husband discovered the situation, scandal erupted and he sought a divorce.

It’s unclear whether Kathleen Kelly Newton was a victim of circumstance, youthful indiscretion, or even the patriarchal attitudes of the time. Online sources suggest different ideas from the essays in the Matyjaszkiewicz book. It’s all quite confusing. What’s definite is that by the time Tissot met her in England, Kathleen was a twenty-two-year-old divorcée with an illegitimate child. She would give birth to another, whom many believe was fathered by Tissot.

Despite their relationship, Mrs. Newton and Tissot lived in separate households, living across the street from each other in St. John’s Wood. (Again, some online sources state differently.) The book itself never states why they never married.

Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight. Even after her death, Tissot continued to draw and paint her likeness. There’s no indication that he had another serious relationship again.

 

III.

Tissot was an odd man. He seemed to be a calculating sort of guy: equal parts artist, hustler, and businessman.

I’m pretty sure his contemporaries didn’t know what to make of him. He was known to backbite some of his friends, like the printmaker Marcellin Desboutin and Edgar Degas. On the other hand, he was on good terms with Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro. He received some high-profile visitors at his English home, including Berthe Morisot, who was not very impressed with anything. (To quote a caveat from the book: “Everyone probably seemed a little vulgar next to Berthe Morisot.”)

"Kathleen Newton in an Armchair" by Tissot. It's not my favorite portrait of her but it's a typical representation. All languor and illness!

As an addition to his known social weirdness, it’s been posited that Tissot was attracted to Kathleen’s sickly nature. After all, several of his paintings deal with fleeting seasons and ephemera. Tissot was definitely not bothered by depicting his muse covered in blankets, whether nursing a cold or merely looking frail.

I did not think deeply about these portrayals of Mrs. Newton before reading the Matyjaszkiewicz book. After more information on the nature of their relationship, in hindsight it all seems rather weird. Why would anyone want to capture their lover’s worst moments and romanticize them? I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps some Art History graduate student can make much of it for a thesis. This is going to be one of those trivial bits of history that I will turn over in my mind, time and again, in fruitless speculation regarding motive and artistic intent.

I suppose the goal of most artists is to be remembered after they are gone. In this way, Tissot succeeded, at least with me.

If you are in the Bay Area, you can check out some Tissot etchings and mezzotints at the Legion of Honor. If you are rolling in dough and wish to add to your art collection, you can buy some Tissots from the Christopher-Clark Fine Art Gallery near Union Square. Adam and I had stumbled upon this find in yet another moment of serendipity. I have a way of just chancing upon Tissot; even after this post is done, I am sure I haven’t seen the last of him yet.

Emperor Norton Lives On

Emperor Norton Lives On

Totally in character throughout the tour.

I enjoy walking tours and historical curiosities. The more obscure the detail is, the more my mind ties itself in knots over it. So when Auey told me there was an Emperor Norton walking tour, I just had to go.

Who is Emperor Norton? That’s a good question, something that the tour tried to answer over the course of a summer afternoon.

On the surface, Emperor Norton was a nineteenth century businessman named Joshua Abraham Norton, a man who lost his fortune with one unfortunate deal. After disappearing for a few years, Norton re-emerged to declare himself the first emperor of the United States.

As tour operator Joseph Amster noted, in any other city Emperor Norton would have been sent straight to the nearest asylum. But he was in San Francisco, the most tolerant and freethinking city in North America. Originally an object of interest to the local newspapers which needed to fill column inches, soon Norton became a mascot, a tourist attraction, and even an unofficial spokesperson for city’s downtrodden.

Here's a replica of the money issued by Emperor Norton.

Some of Emperor Norton’s far-sighted proclamations addressed the need for a bridge between San Francisco and the East Bay, and the need for an international council that promoted peace among all nations. Many people may have laughed at his ideas when he was alive, but the Bay Bridge and the UN were created anyway.

How an entire city could have humored and even encouraged the eccentricity of one man is fascinating. It’s unthinkable that this feat could ever be duplicated. Over a twenty-year period, Emperor Norton became an accepted part of city life. He was fed for free at certain restaurants, he was given free tickets to new shows, and he was even issued clothes by the local government.

The emperor's last moments, as depicted in The Sandman #31. A Vertigo DC Comics image.

Despite his obvious eccentricities, Emperor Norton was never declared insane. I asked specifically if anyone had tried to have him committed. According to his research, Joseph said that the Emperor was even autopsied after his grand funeral. The doctors could find no sign of brain damage. The consensus was that there was nothing wrong with him at all.

It’s as if the man—gasp!—lived upon a dream.

For my Neil Gaiman-loving friends, Emperor Norton may be a familiar name. He appears in one issue of The Sandman as the object of a bet between the Endless siblings. It’s a memorable one-shot, punctuated with a Mark Twain cameo. When I first read it years ago I thought it was all fiction, so it was a pleasure to find out that Gaiman embroidered little on reality. It was definitely an amazing treat to walk the streets where this strange man once trod.

II.

The walking tour started promptly at two thirty. We started at Union Square and crisscrossed all over the city, and somehow ended up in Chinatown. My favorite points included the history of Maiden Lane, all the many anecdotes connected to Lotta’s Fountain, and the origins of Bummer and Lazarus, the city’s most famous stray dogs.

Joseph is an engaging, entertaining guide, with an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of the city. He’s not afraid to improvise either. He simply burst out into song at one street corner, when he realized that the two opera singers (who sideline as buskers) weren’t working that day!

Emperor Norton is the central figure in this mural found in Maxfield's Pied Piper Bar.

Probably the best—and totally unscripted—moments of the tour were the locals who were delighted to see Emperor Norton (or at least someone cosplaying him). Around Barnaby Coast one bicyclist roared, “the Emperor has returned!” while several foreign tourists couldn’t resist photographing “the Emperor” in all his splendor. It was a momentary glimpse of how the real Emperor Norton was treated during his heyday.

While the tour ends at the corner of Grace Cathedral and it’s a thirteen-minute drive from there, I think the best way to finish up an Emperor Norton tour is to drop by Elixir, a lovely saloon-styled bar on 16th Street. I interviewed the owner, H. Joseph Ehrrman for Gastronomique En Vogue magazine, a week or so before I went on the tour so it was a bit of serendipity. Among the many fabulous summer concoctions H. made was the refreshing Emperor Norton’s Second Mistress. Since I love fresh strawberries and I have a soft spot for bourbon, I have to recommend this cocktail.

Whether you think Emperor Norton was a crazy coot or not, the drink named after him is certainly fit for a king.