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Four ageing revolutionaries and a general note of unease

29 years ago this month, Salvador Allende’s government in Chile was deposed by a military coup. Here, FRANCES DOCX reviews a novel discussing the legacy of this period in Latin American history.

The Shadow of What We Were was difficult to digest. I was left with few absolute opinions and myriad questions. The novel has been recognised as a triumph; it won the Premio Primavera prize for Spanish Literature. Yet Luis Sepúlveda’s novel is a web of inconsistencies. Plot, tone and focus twist unexpectedly and refuse to settle for more than a minute while the revolutionary spirit appears to be both in earnest and self-mocking.

The novel takes place in Chile; 30 years after Salvador Allende’s Socialist government was viciously opposed by factions on the right. The attempts on his presidency culminated in Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup supported by the army and the Nixon administration. The coup was successful; Allende’s army surrendered and Allende himself committed suicide. The residue of destruction which followed, forms the atmosphere in which Sepúlveda introduces his four ageing revolutionaries, called together at the behest of ‘The Shadow’ to carry out on last revolutionary act.

Openings of novels are notoriously difficult to get right, and Sepúlveda’s success here is questionable. The first page is scattered with unknown names referencing more unknown names from an unknown past. The style is definitively masculine and uninviting. It seems that the novel expects a heavy foreknowledge of Chilean political history, and would have benefited from a brief contextualising rather than a disorienting opening in medias res.

Sepúlveda scatters and then collects. Initially, each chapter is only tenuously linked to the one before; each episode and character seems irrelevant and unconnected to the last. Although difficult to follow, the technique is effective in echoing the alienation of exile and adding to the general note of unease. The four men themselves have been scattered and estranged; exiled to foreign countries, tortured and imprisoned; the novel structurally emulates the uniting of the four men as the chapters begin to cohere and stories link up.

The tone is elusive; at times the writing is elegant and becomes deeply moving as in the description of Allende’s suicide when the prose builds up to a solemn pause. Yet, simultaneously, Sepúlveda can be coarse when he compares Communism to ‘a moral wart you can never get rid of.’

The death of ‘The Shadow’ is another tonal clash; the enigmatic and powerful figure dies in a freak record-player throwing accident- it’s farcical, slapstick even. Or does this make it more tragic somehow? Sepúlveda has us constantly questioning his sincerity and reminding us not to take anything too seriously. He revels in juxtapositions; moments of high drama and intensity are broken by debates over how shit Chilean coffee is.

Repeatedly, the exceptional folds in to the mundane even in his choice of protagonists; the revolutionaries are ageing, grey and overweight; they experience failure, disappointment and embarrassment. There is an appealing realism to the four men; Sepúlveda does not glamourize nor does he overstate the ‘revolutionary spirit’- at times he even questions its authenticity and sincerity.

Despite being set in the 21st century, the characters seem stuck in their days of youth; reciting old marching songs from the Young Communist training school; retelling their pasts and reminiscing. Again Sepúlveda’s tone twists and bucks when the plot awkwardly thrusts into modernity, featuring online dating and internet cafes. This juxtaposition jars and becomes a digression – dissolving the dramatic intensity and subtly mocking the notion of code names and secrecy.

The fractured tone of the novel proves a manifestation of a dark, idiosyncratic humour which runs through Sepúlveda’s novel; a humour which perhaps could only be explored at thirty years arm length from the events. Perhaps the key to understanding the tenor of the book is to consider the author’s own personal involvement in this era of Chilean history and the resonance which the dedication holds:

To my comrades, male and female, who fell, and picked themselves up, licked their wounds, cultivated their laughter, preserved their gaiety, and carried on regardless.

The Shadow of What We Were, by Luis Sepúlveda. Europa Editions, £9.99

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