The current unrest in the Arab world underscores a long-held political truism—it is often the youth who form the vanguard of revolutionary movements. Driven by an abundance of idealism and energy, the young can topple regimes, or as is often the case, destroy their lives trying to do so. But what happens when the youth grow old, when their wide-eyed idealism is corroded by the patina of painful failure and murdered dreams? In his novella, The Shadow of What We Were, Luis Sepulveda addresses this issue with an uncommon combination of delicacy, humor, and sobriety. The end result is a delight.
Set in Chile, three decades after Augusto Pinochet’s 1987 coup, Sepulveda’s novella follows the exploits of four old socialist friends, once the vanguard of the Chilean left and enemies of the Pinochet state, who gather to carry out one more revolutionary act. After decades of exile, torture, and a youth “scattered in hundred of places, burned by electric prods during investigations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered,” they reunite, sixty pounds heavier, for one last nostalgic revolutionary go-around.
If this sounds depressing, it isn’t. While the novella is saturated with a melancholy yearning for the naivety of youthful idealism, Sepulveda infuses it with humor, humanity, and crucially, an appreciation of the absurd. Just as decades before, the friends’ revolutionary plans go awry. When their leader is accidentally murdered by a flying record player the friends are set adrift, scrambling to regroup with nary a clue of how to proceed. Such follies are perhaps inevitable, given that the plot was hatched amidst an email exchange on the etiquette and foibles of online dating for seniors.
Much of the novella is spent with the friends sitting in an unused garage, teasing each other while recalling their youthful indiscretion. Their recollections are not rose colored but they are tinged with a sense of a loss for the good old times. And their stories are fucking funny, involving everything from the liberation of a mink farm to treacherous, cannibalizing socialists. It is in the garage that Sepulveda’s wit is given free reign. For example, one of the characters tells the story of an internal schism among youthful lefties that ends with the force-feeding of pamphlets to a disruptive anarchist. It is wryly noted that his girlfriend complained for months that kissing him “was like kissing Guttenberg.”
What emerges from Sepulveda’s juxtaposition of the friends’ past with their current situation is somehow both a biting satire of the revolutionary Left and an ode to the underlying purity of its motives. The friends are by no means heroic, but their ability to retain a sense of purpose—a “moral wart you could never get rid of”—despite their defeats, makes them heroes of some sort. In them, Sepulveda has some of the loveliest, rounded-out elderly characters ever encountered. They are as hilarious as they are misguided.
Winner of the 2009 Premio Primavera Award in Spain, The Shadow of What We Were offers a breezy, yet poignant story that can easily be digested in one or two sessions. It is not a perfect novella—Sepulveda could have dedicated more attention to a culminating revolutionary act which spans an inadequate six pages—but it’s close. Sepulveda has achieved a rare feat—a sardonic dark comedy powerful in its humanity. As a meditation on the absurdity of nostalgia and the loveable pathos of Lefty politics, it is peerless. In the end, the friends indeed have made “their country, if not a better place, at least a less boring one.” For this the reader is grateful.