Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: The Shadow of What We Were

The Shadow of What We Were

by Luis Sepulveda (2010)


I have read a lot of 20th/21st century Latin American literature. That it surprises me should no longer surprise me.  I was expecting to read a somewhat serious reflection on life post-exile, the story of men returning to the country which they had fought for.  And I did get that.  I expected to find a touch of humor to undercut the tension. What I found instead was a healthy current of humor and a touch of tenderness.

Sepulveda tells the story of a group of men who are coming together for one last revolutionary act.  Reunited by Pedro Nolasco, "The Shadow," they come together to recover a secret stash of money left behind by the corrupt government that controlled the country in their younger days.  The day is July 16, and it is the anniversary of the first bank robbery in Chile, carried out by Nolasco's grandfather and his companions. He wants to memorialize his grandfather and end his career as a folk hero of sorts on a high note. It is not something he can do alone, however.

On the way to meet his comrades, together again after more than 30 years, he meets with an unfortunate end. To honor his memory, the friends carry out his plan.  The circumstances of Nolasco's death and  his accidental murderer are the source for some of the humor in the novel. The rest comes from the observations of its characters, the unique way they have of telling their stories. Their carefully chosen exaggerations are born from the passion they feel for their cause and their nostalgia for the days when they felt as though they were making a difference.
A few of my favorite lines:
He would have liked to reply that you never come back from exile, that however hard you try it's an illusion, and absurd attempt to live in a land you have kept in your memory.  Everything is beautiful in the land of memory, nothing bad ever happens in the land of memory, there are no quakes and even the rain is pleasant in the land of memory. The land of memory is Neverland. (p. 34)

I don't know what I think about Robin Hood, he was English and history tells me that most Englishmen aren't so noble.  If he robbed the rich to give to the poor I'll endorse his cause, but I think they told us the story all wrong and the guy's name was Hobin Rood and he robbed the poor to give to the rich, which is a very Anglo-Saxon custom.  (p. 81)
I think that, perhaps, one of the reasons that the novel stands out to me is that it reminds me of another work by another Latin American writer living in exile. It has the same sort of renewed innocence that comes with age that  Gabriel Garcia Marquez's shows in his novella Memory of My Melancholy Whores. The men in both books are imperfect. They take somewhat extreme actions in an effort to recapture a bit of their forgotten youths. In both cases, I would say they succeed.

When I am their age, I hope I have it in me to do something a little crazy. And I hope that someone takes the time to write it down.

*This book was provided by the publisher for review. 
*The review also appears on my blog, Indie Reader Houston.