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Shadows and Reds in Chile

July 10, 2012 13 comments

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.

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