Home > 2000, 21st Century, Chilean Literature, Novel, Sepúlveda Luis > Shadows and Reds in Chile

Shadows and Reds in Chile

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepúlveda. 2009. French title: L’ombre de ce que nous avons été. 

I am the shadow of what we were and while there is light, we will exist.

I bought this novel by Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda a few month ago because the title appealed to me. It was on the shelf and I decided to read it for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad  and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos.

The characters in The Shadow of What We Were are former communist, Moist, Trostkist or whatever kind of leftist militant cooked by the 1968 political movements. Sepúlveda makes our former active militants meet again for a last action. Cacho Salinas came back to Santiago after years of exile in France. Lucho Arancibia stayed in Chile but was tortured by the military and spent years in a concentration camp, which damaged his sanity. Lolo Garmendia fled to Romania where he experienced Caucescu’s dictatorship before fleeing to Yugoslavia. And then there is Coco Aravena, a dreamer, not much of a worker, who spent years in Berlin. Things are set into motion when Coco’s wife accidentally kills The Specialist, also known as The Shadow, an anarchist who helped different socialist organizations setting up spectacular non-violent operations before and after Pinochet’s coup. All four members had met The Shadow in their militant life without knowing who he was but benefiting from his advice and training.

After the Specialist’s death we meet Inspector Crespo, an old policeman who tried to keep his hands clean during the blackest years. His new assistant Adelita Bodavilla was born in 1973 and she belongs to the first generation of Chilean policemen who took their function after the dictatorship. She symbolizes the new Chile. They need to investigate the Specialist’s death.

I won’t reveal the plot but I should have guessed the theme. After all, on the cover of my French edition is printed a praise by L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Communist Party.

Sepúlveda describes with gentleness the hangover of these passionate militants. All are a bit lost in this new Santiago. The city changed during their exile, the shops changed, things aren’t at the same place any more. They sacrificed their life for their cause. Some died, some closed the doors to a “normal” family life. They still believe in socialism, quote Lenin and Marx, think according to that particular filter. It’s surprising: how can they still believe in it after the fall of the USSR, the horrors in China and the fall of Eastern Europe dictatorships? Shouldn’t they turn their back to it? And at the same time, how can they? Their sacrifice would be meaningless, their whole life a joke. They need to cling to these thesis because they define who they are, what they gave their life for.

I was born in the 1970s. Every time I read about the political movements, official or clandestine, of the years 1968-1970s, I’m puzzled. Firstly, I’m puzzled at the complexity and the subtlety of the different currents. Secondly, I’m amazed at the enthusiasm and the determination of these militants. This is so far away from my generation’s way of thinking: I find them incredibly naïve, gullible even. How could they genuinely believe in such theories? I’m this generation’s child. How did our parents have such a non-committed offspring? Is it the loss of their dreams? Or did our birth make them change gears and settle down? In my experience, there’s nothing like fulfilling a baby’s needs to change your everyday life and tame you.

The other background character of the novel is Chile itself. How does a country recover from dictatorship? How does it deal with exilees coming back and experiencing difficulties to adapt to their new home town? They’re like prisoners liberated after a long time in prison. It’s hard to get used to the changes in their environment. Salinas misses Paris. Garmendia misses Europe. Coco’s wife misses Berlin. They spent years abroad, they lost touch with their home country.

The Shadow of What We Were is a short novel but it gives an interesting glimpse at Chile today…by a writer who now lives in Spain. Sepúlveda was born in 1949. He was 24 when Allende committed suicide and when Pinochet did his putsch and became Chile’s dictator. His characters are from the same generation as he and he was one of them. It can explain the tender and amused tone he uses.

It is a coincidence but Stu also chose to read this novel for Spanish Literature Month and you can read his review here.

  1. July 10, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Thanks for the mention Emma I loved the way it link past and present how the guys had moved on from the early days and also how Chile had fared over that time ,all the best stu


    • July 12, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      It’s a nice book. The writer respects his characters and their engagement but it doesn’t stop him from gently pointing out their ridicules.


  2. July 10, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    I have not read this, but the sense of dislocation and drifting experienced during the years after Chile’s “9/11” were hammered home to me during a party I attended on the outskirts of Paris this winter where I found myself captive audience for nearly two hours to a talkative Chilean exile who’d left in 1971 and never returned (Paris still has an enormous community of such exiles). The man was clearly still suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress, and the same metaphor that you use above occurred to me while he was talking, that he was a bit like a prisoner unable to adjust to a changed world. Like members of today’s generation to whom you allude, I felt entirely inadequate in the face of the passions, hopes, betrayals, horrors and complexities he and his compatriots had endured. (Apropos of nothing but your mention of L’Humanité, have you ever attended the Fête de l’Humanité held in September just north of Paris? France and the U.S. may have a tremendous amount in common, but there’s one experience – worth doing at least once – where one knows for sure that one is not in the U.S…).


    • July 12, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      When I wrote my billet I thought about one of Guy’s latest review about a man who’s out of prison and struggles to start a new life.

      I’ve never attended La Fête de l’Humanité but it must be quite a thing and it must have been huge in the 1960s/1970s. France and the USA have a totally different vision of communists.


  3. July 11, 2012 at 5:20 am

    They still believe in socialism, quote Lenin and Marx, think according to that particular filter. It’s surprising: how can they still believe in it after the fall of the USSR, the horrors in China and the fall of Eastern Europe dictatorships?

    Quick answer: Because the horrors in the former USSR, China,and Eastern Europe arose not so much because of the belief in Marx, Lenin or Mao but rather because of a lack of fidelity to the socialist cause (i.e. revisionism) 🙂


    • July 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      And I think people are largely disaffected and disinterested because politics in America, for example, is meaningless. People may vote for a new face, but corporations still rule and make the decisions.


      • July 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm

        It’s true for economy. But it’s not for societal changes such as marriage for homosexuals, bioethic rules, abortion…


    • July 12, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      OK, I agree that you can’t judge an idea from what it becomes when it goes from the head to the hands.

      From the little I know (and you’re a lot more competent than me on that matter), I think it’s totally impossible to implement these ideas. Why? Because I don’t have enough faith in humanity. Although I know very fine people and encounter goodness, I still think that collectively, humans are driven by greed for money and power. Give them a little opportunity to have power over others and they’ll use it for themselves.

      So to the “let’s get together and change the world”, I’ll just quote Romain Gary again : “If we could get all together, the world, we wouldn’t need to change it anymore. It would already be totally different. Alone, you can do something. You can change your own world but you can’t change other people’s world”.


  4. July 11, 2012 at 8:34 am

    I read another of Sepúlveda’s novels and liked it but wasn’t blown away.
    This sounds interesting enough.


    • July 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm

      I wasn’t blown away by the style either but I found it interesting to read.


  5. July 12, 2012 at 2:14 am

    This sounds really good. I have always found that Chilean history to be very interesting as well as troubling (especially troubling is the US government’s involvement in putting the Pinochet regime into power).

    Sometimes I too am amazed at the naiveté that some people will exhibit while supporting certain ideologies. When I think about it however, even in the radical 1960s in the United States, very few individuals actually supported things like Anarchism or Maoism. On the other hand, if one grew up in a society with enormous inequalities exhibited in what at the time were second and third world nations, as well living under the threat of a right wing dictatorship, one might be more inclined to support left wing extremist beliefs.


    • July 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm

      On the French radio, there’s a weekly program called “Rendez-vous avec X”. It’s someone from the secret services who explains some political events and what happened behind the curtains. The programs about Pinochet’s coup were particularly interesting.

      These ideologies were very popular in France at the time, so you don’t need to be in a developping country. The USA have a very different view of communists. In France, after WWII, the communist party had 1/4 of the votes. it was popular in universities in May 1968 and at the time, students came from privileged families. What amazes me is people like Sartres being totally caught. How can someone so intelligent be so blind? It went beyond the revolt of people experiencing inequalities.
      Ironically, I’d say it became the opium of the intellectuals.


      • July 13, 2012 at 2:51 am

        I think that you have coined a brilliant phrase Emma – “The opium of the intellectuals”! I love it!


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