The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda is exquisite, a deeply affecting story of old friendships, long-tested loyalties, and undeniable bonds. Set in Chile decades after Pinochet's bloody 1973 coup, three comrades who survived the horror meet one last time to carry out a final mission. The leader of their mission, anarchist Pedro Nolasco, is unexpectedly delayed, setting off a cascade of missteps by the remaining old radicals and allowing for perfectly placed reminders -- and reminiscences -- from the past. What results is an amazing book, a mixture of heartbreak and humor, bringing me both to tears and to laughter, and finally, in an absolutely unexpected but consummate conclusion, to fist-pumping joy.
Sepulveda educates us in the history of Chile while entrancing us with his plot of secrets hidden, treasure stashed, and comrades reunited. He portrays imposing anarchists -- "I am the shadow of what we were, and while there is light we will exist" -- alongside broken men whose minds have been twisted by persecution but who keep up with crossword puzzles:
Ten letters, concentration camp where, if they took you at night, you never came back. Punchuncavi. Ten Letters, how you feel when your parents visit you in prison and tell you your brother Juan's body has been found on a garbage dump riddled with bullets. Devastated. Seven letters, how you feel when you make a hole in the ground and find three skeletons with their hands tied behind their backs and one of them is wearing your brother Alberto's shoes. Furious. Shit. I'm talking to myself again.
Sepulveda includes in his plot a failed Maoist who stays optimistic against all odds ("There was no screw-up that couldn't be overcome with a good laugh"), his long-suffering wife ("She was fed up with living with a failure who didn't lift a finger to get out of poverty"), and representatives from the police, a decent inspector from the old school and a young detective of the new generation ("You're not to blame. Your hands are clean"). Each character, from anarchist to policeman, resonates; they flash with moments of decency and bravery and then sinking back into ordinary life, complaining about the sandpapery quality of Chilean wine, the non-existence of good Chilean coffee, and the constant downpour of rain.
What is so fascinating about The Shadow of What We Were is how it is both a harrowing story of Pinochet's regime and an absolutely charming fable of survival and justice. Sepulveda manages to immerse readers into the past and present of Chile, not sparing the details of the Pinochet coup or the ensuing exiles, sudden disappearances, and inhumane executions, while also recreating the facts of survival, of how life does go on and how endurance is found not only through acts of defiance and bravery but also through simple acts of keeping on, keeping on. In both the generation that survived the coup and the generation of "clean hands" that came after, Sepulveda finds heroes and brings them to us in all their flawed, but finally wonderful, humanity. I loved this book.
And I am not the only one to love The Shadow of What We Were. Spain awarded its highest accolade in literature, The Premio Primavera, to The Shadow of What We Were in 2009 and it is thanks to Europa Editions that this superb novel is now available in English.
An abbreviated version of this post can be found at www.readallday.org.