The Shadow of What We Were Paperback – Jan 25 2011
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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
Most interesting are Luis Sepúlveda's remarks on memory--whether personal, political or national--which are stuck into pauses, when the characters are catching their breaths, and in the time it takes to meet the eyes of a comrade. Memory is a tricky thing. It can be fickle, completely dishonest or brutally forthcoming. It can also by manipulated.
While the three wait for a fourth who will never arrive, they recount their youth and the time that has passed. The men chafe against their oppressors all the while accepting that things will not change and knowing that "only fools or cowards could believe that one day the paternal handkerchief of the State would dry all the tears that had been wept or held in for more than thirty years now."
No, they do no expect anything. Exile and defeat have made them mere shadows of what they were. They still see that there is change to be made but do they have the conviction? "As he poured, the two men looked each other in the eyes for a brief moment and discovered the same shadows, the same bags under the eyes, the same historical glaucoma that allowed them to see parallel realities or to read existence as two narrative lines destined never to coincide: reality and desire."
But can you blame them? When the next generation does not have the "burden of nostalgia" or when your memories--your past--is taken away from you?
"No. They weren't the Young Guard. Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during interrogations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years of prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries, in Homeric returns to nowhere, and all that was left were the marching songs that nobody sang anymore because those in charge now had decided that there had never been young people like them in Chile, that no one had ever sung The Young Guard, and that the Communist girls had not had the taste of the future on their lips."
Good lord, what a comically-depressing book. You might be wondering how this novel could possibly be humorous. Just wait for scenes with internet dating, a man with a flare for the dramatic, and chickens that have been given a vitamin complex that compel them to "engage in the most bourgeois of liberalisms." And the last fifty pages will have you flipping furiously to a finale that will make you clap your hands in relief. Because in the end, "fatter, older, bald or with graying beards, they still cast the shadow of what they were."