Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Shadow of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda

Europa Editions
originally published as La sombra de lo que fuimos, 2009
translated by Howard Curtis
132 pp

"Brave people don't exist, only people who agree to go hand in hand with their fear."

In 1973, the Chilean military forcefully (and with the backing of the US) ousted President Salvador Allende  in a coup.  A military junta became the new form of government, and in 1974 Agosto Pinochet became the president of the country, remaining there until 1990. Immediately after the coup,  the junta banned all of the leftist parties that had been part of the Unidad Popular, the coalition of leftist parties that had backed Allende during his election and whose members served under Allende during his time in office. Luis Sepulveda, the author of The Shadow of What We Were, was active in the Allende government and was arrested in 1975.  The German Branch of Amnesty International worked for his release, but he was still under house arrest, from which he ultimately managed to escape and go to Valparaiso.  There he and a friend started a drama group to serve as a "cultural focus of resistance," and he was arrested and imprisoned again, this time for "treason and subversion." This sentence was commuted to exile for eight years, and supposedly on his way to Sweden, the plane had a layover in Buenos Aires, where Sepulveda escaped again, and began his period of exile.

The Shadow of What We Were is in part, the story of the shadows that linger from that coup some several decades later.   As the novel opens, Concepcion Garcia,  angry that she and her husband Coco Aravena are getting thrown out of their apartment because they were behind on the rent, begins throwing things out of the window. Unfortunately, a phonograph lands on a passer-by who dies. While Coco tries to figure out what to tell the police, the death of the man is a problem -- rather than being the cop that Aravena believes he is, the dead man is really a "specialist," sometimes known as "The Shadow," an elderly anarchist named Pedro Nolasco who is supposed to meet up with three men who are waiting for him in an old garage in Santiago. The three friends have hooked up again, via the internet; all had been in exile for their support of Allende's government and for their political views. They are back after having lived through torture, deaths of friends and family, years of exile, now ready to accompany Nolasco on one last mission.  As they wait for Nolasco, they talk about old times -- the 1960s and the years of political activism in Latin America,  Allende's presidency before the coup, the coup and what happened to each one of them as well as their families and friends, and now and then they mourn the loss of the old revolutionary zeal of the earlier days and of a Chile which they have trouble recognizing in its modern form.  As one of the characters, Arancibia, notes, "We aren't the Young Guard anymore:"

No. They weren't the Young Guard. Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during investigations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years of prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries, in Homeric returns to nowhere, and all that was left were the marching songs that nobody sang anymore because those in charge now had decided that there had never been young people like them in Chile, that no one had ever sung The Young Guard, and that the Communist girls had not the taste of the future on their lips.

In and around the story of the three comrades, Sepulveda intersperses the story of the police investigation into the death of Nolasco.  Concepcion has told all to the police, while the ever-optimistic Coco Aravena, an old Maoist of the

 Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Enver Hoxha Tendency, which was very different than the liquidationist clique that called itself the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Red Flag Tendency
is beside himself making up stories as to what actually happened to Nolasco, hoping the final version will sound convincing to the cops, but comes to realize something about himself in the process.

The Shadow of What We Were is only 132 pages long, but there is a great deal of food for thought packed into this book. It is a story about a generation of people who truly believed in a cause and did something about it, and who were persecuted for their beliefs.  It is also the story of one man who firmly believed that he was "the shadow of what we were, and while there is light we will exist," whose last mission rekindles that light in a handful of people.  Although the story is told in a slightly comic vein, the author is quite serious about revealing to his readers the horrors of the aftermath of the coup, and the effects of exile on those who escaped.  While there are some pretty gut-wrenching stories in this book, the conversations give the reader a quick but concentrated lesson in the myriad organizations of leftist politics, a brief look at Chile under Allende, and especially of the 1973 coup and the oppression that began immediately against the new government's perceived enemies.  This might be a definite drawback for readers who are not familiar with this time period, because everything is sort of packed in there all at once.  However, if you're interested in the history of Latin America, this is a great read. 

 Definitely not for the casual reader, but I'd recommend it to anyone who, like myself, is fascinated with Latin America's political history.

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