Robbed of their dignity

The Shadow of What We Were

Luis Sepulveda (translated by Howard Curtis)

Europa Editions, $15;

Kindle: $12.29

Review: Billy O’Callaghan

After decades in exile following Pinochet’s brutal 1973 coup, and on the anniversary of the country’s first bank robbery, three militant socialists are reunited at the behest of Pedro Nolasco, a legendary Robin Hood-type anarchist known to both police and public as ‘The Shadow’.

Nolasco is proposing a top-secret heist lucrative enough to make them all rich in their retirement.

Both Lolo Garmendia, the man responsible for orchestrating this reunion, and Cacho Salinas have spent the last 30 years traipsing Europe, surviving and seeking in vain for evidence to justify their communist ideals.

Lucho Arancibia, the third leg of their combo, remained at home and watched his family murdered, spending his prime years in prison, disturbed by relentless torture.

The men gather at Arancibia’s family garage and renew old acquaintances, eating chicken and drinking bottles of wine, reminiscing on old glories and swapping yarns about where life has taken them since the coup.

Meanwhile, across the city, an argument rages between Coco Aravena and his wife, Concepcion. Coco is a socialist, too, loud to the status of idiocy even back during the halcyon days of Allende’s rule, and his wife has finally grown tired of his indolence. The row reaches its crescendo with a record player thrown from the upper-storey apartment window, the consequences of which are tragic and far-reaching, not least for a misfortunate passer-by, one Pedro Nolasco. Finding a phone number and an ancient pistol in the dead man’s pocket, Coco makes a call and is quickly drawn into the business of the heist.

Together, the four men attempt to salvage something from the wreckage, not only of the plan but of their lives.

At barely 130 pages, Luis Sepulveda’s captivating novel, already honoured in its original form with the 2009 Premio Primavera, is lightweight only in its physical dimensions. Recounted largely in dialogue, the plot is farfetched, brilliant and ultimately uplifting, and the prose packs a genuine emotional punch, swinging freely between gut-wrenching realism and pure and often hilarious absurdity to create a portrait of a country’s lost generation. Such comedy makes the darkness bearable, but is careful not to dilute more sombre truths.

Novels like this feel important because of how they attempt to examine the sordid colours of history in a way that facts alone can only suggest. Mr Sepulveda was one of many incarcerated for daring to voice their opposition to Pinochet’s regime. The world of literature is lucky that such a talent survived to tell its tales.

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