I was stymied by this short book at first, and even after completing it, I was not sure exactly what I had read, though I recognized that humor and dark irony were at the root of much of the novel. It was not until I had spent considerable time looking up the author's biography, and the historical events in Chile with which he had been involved, that the full impact of this novel became clear. Ultimately, I found this to be one of the most interesting novels I have read in a long time, but it is complex, in part because of its brevity, and in part because there is no introduction which provides the background which many non-Chilean readers, such as myself, may want or need to appreciate this book fully.
At the heart of the novel is the government of Salvador Allende, a socialist who was elected President in 1970. Allende, a physician, promised better health care, among other things, and he immediately began nationalizing industries and implementing socialist goals. He was vigorously opposed by the right, by the judiciary, and eventually by the army (not to mention the Nixon administration). Eventually he was overthrown by the army, under General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, a date that echoes throughout this novel. Pinochet kept the country under military law, arresting many and "disappearing" others from 1973 - 1990. The author himself endured two and a half years in a Chilean prison. Like all five of the characters in the novel, he spent many years in exile after that, before eventually returning to Chile.
When the novel opens, four former supporters of Allende, now old men, have gathered in Santiago at the behest of "the Shadow," who hopes these former rebel-anarchists will help him commit a robbery which will not only provide them with hundreds of thousands of dollars but also with real evidence to be used against the military and others who looted the country in the years after Allende. The four characters, all ordinary men, plan to gather on June 16, the anniversary of the date on which the Shadow's grandfather and four friends committed the first bank robbery in Chile in 1925. They used the money to "bring happiness to the wretched of the world."
In the lead-up to the planned robbery, the men chat about how they returned from exile to a country they no longer recognized, about their memories of life before and after Pinochet, about those among family and friends who have "disappeared." They discuss the divisions within the Socialist party which prevented them all from keeping the country on a socialist path under Allende, and they comment on what they think might be the possible involvement of the US and the CIA in the overthrow of Allende. Then they discover, in one of the darkest, most ironic, and black-humored coincidences imaginable, that the Shadow, for whom they have been waiting, is dead. They will have to act on their own, despite their physical and mental limitations.
The novel is intriguing, not only for its perspective and its view of Chilean history, but also for its surprising humor, however dark. As one character says, "There is no screw-up that could not be overcome with a good laugh." Ironies add further to the humor, as an honest police detective and his partner investigate the death of the Shadow. The novel does, however, depend on knowing some of the history of Chile, its leaders, and its military, along with the peripheral history of western governments as they have related to Chile during the past forty years. A fascinating novel (and cautionary tale), well worth taking the time to explore. Mary Whipple