Memory matters


Luis Sepúlveda has drawn upon all his experience as a political exile to explore how memory colours Chilean life


The Shadow of What We Were
Luis Sepúlveda, Howard Curtis (translator)
2011, Europa Editions
134 pages

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

THE INCESTUOUS relationship between memory and nostalgia is stretched taut across the broad sweep of Luis Sepúlveda’s mesmerising novel, The Shadow of What We Were.

Indeed, it is perhaps only in Chile that this tale reuniting ageing revolutionary activists for one last money-spinning job could have been created.

Memory goes to the very heart of the painful, but ultimately, therapeutic process by which the country has shone light into its darkest corners. No country in the world, other perhaps than Argentina, knows better how collective memory works. It was Chile, for example, that pioneered the institution of the “truth commission” that has become such an important part of civil society reconstruction in traumatised societies, from Africa to Ireland.

Pinochet’s legacy

Chilean collective memory has been the subject of a voluminous three-part study, The Memory Box of Pinochet’s Chile, by Steve Stern in which the researcher provides a comprehensive and definitive trilogy accounting for how Chile came to terms with General Augusto Pinochet’s legacy of human rights atrocities. Battles over memory were at the very core of this process, and have helped to shape emerging understanding of post-authoritarian transition and the human rights culture that has taken root throughout Latin America. “Memory politics” has now become a key phrase in the language of political scientists. The “memory question”, Stern reminds us, has proven central to the remaking of Chilean politics and culture, and the study of memory cannot be disentangled from an account of the wider political and cultural context.

It is against this background, and a nuanced understanding of memory and its role in political and social life, that Sepúlveda has woven his story. What he adds to this mix is a profound knowledge of Chilean history and a penetrating insight based on his own, hard experience, as well as a dark, arresting humour that etches a raw humanity upon the faces of his characters. These qualities have turned him into one of Chile’s most popular writers, and they are most definitely not lost in translation.

Sepúlveda was a political activist under Salvador Allende’s leftwing government in the early 1970s, and after the Pinochet coup in 1973 he was jailed then held under house arrest. His escape and subsequent underground activities landed him a life sentence for treason and subversion, but the efforts of Amnesty International enabled him to leave Chile and he spent time in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and finally Ecuador as the guest of the late great poet Jorge Enrique Adoum, who died in 2009.

In this period, the irrepressible Sepúlveda developed a strong environmental focus and, after serving with the Simón Bolívar International Brigade fighting in Nicaragua’s revolution, he started working as a journalist in Germany. His strong links with the environmental movement Greenpeace led to a period as a crew member on one of their ships, and he later co-ordinated branches of the organisation.

The Shadow of What We Were tells the story of three veterans of Chile’s anarchist and revolutionary struggles, once scattered to the winds through exile and flight, who reunite to pull off one last revolutionary heist. As they wait for a specialist – Pedro Nolasco, a legendary anarchist with the nom de guerre Shadow, they ruminate on a past of torture, betrayal and factionalism. Unbeknown to the greying trio, the Shadow has been the victim of a freak accident, killed by a gramophone tossed through a window in a domestic dispute, and the police are on the trail of his killer.

Suspense and sorrow permeate this tale, which Sepúlveda skilfully uses to explore the suffering, resilience and eventual disillusionment of the Chilean left. The author takes the opportunity to discuss the meaning of memory, and the role this plays in modern Chile.

The ageing revolutionary Cacho Salinas, for example, remembers nostalgically the faces of dead comrades as he walks through fog in Galicia, and puts smiles on them: for the defeated, he believes, life had turned into a fog bank where they were condemned to preserve the best of their memories from 1968-73. The Shadow reflects in a letter on how memory works to save us, embellishing what we’d prefer to remember objectively. “Never trust memory,” he says, “Because it’s always on our side. It embellishes the ugly, sweetens the bitter, casts light where there was only shadow. Memory always tends towards fiction.”

Sepúlveda has woven his own paean to memory through fiction, striking a subtle but key chord about Chilean history with this short, but potent, novel, and translator Howard Curtis has then given it perfect pitch.

And berets off to publisher Europa – described as “a kind of book club for Americans who thirst after exciting foreign fiction” – for bringing this title into English in the first place.

Isabel O’Toole is a freelance contributor

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