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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Shadow of What We Were

Luis Sepúlveda

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To purchase The Shadow of What We Were

Title: The Shadow of What We Were
Author: Luis Sepúlveda
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Shadow of What We Were - US
La sombra de lo que fuimos - US
The Shadow of What We Were - UK
The Shadow of What We Were - Canada
The Shadow of What We Were - India
L'ombre de ce que nous avons été - France
L'ombra di quel che eravamo - Italia
La sombra de lo que fuimos - España
  • Spanish title: La sombra de lo que fuimos
  • Translated by Howard Curtis
  • Awarded Premio Primavera de Novela, 2009

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Our Assessment:

B : evocative but too-trimmed novel of Chileans that had to go their separate ways in 1973 back together again

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El Cultural . 17/4/2009 Joaquín Marco
L'Express . 19/1/2010 Marianne Payot
Libération . 18/3/2010 Claire Devarrieux

  From the Reviews:
  • "La trama de esta novela resulta casi una excusa para adentrarse en la situación de quienes retornaron del exilio chileno sin que se hubieran restañado las viejas heridas de un pasado cuajado de violencia." - Joaquín Marco, El Cultural

  • "(P)roprement formidable." - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "La sortie de l'Ombre de ce que nous avons été, feuilletage de mélancolie mortelle et de burlesque ronchon, de mémoire politique et de vieillissement inéluctable, d'héroïsme et d'étourderie, d'exil et de références culturelles internationales, a été soigneusement anticipée." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Shadow of What We Were is a good title for this short but crammed novel, as its main characters are now, over three decades after the fateful day in 1973 when the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, mere shadows of what they were -- and it is also the shadow of those events and times that still looms large in their lives and every aspect of this novel.
       A small group have been called together in Santiago again, former comrades who had gone their various ways after 1973, into varieties of exile -- one even to Romania (for a while) -- and now find little left of the Chile they once knew. They had been young revolutionaries, members of the Communist Party, one even expelled from it for being "ultra-leftist" in one of the naïve disputes of those heady times, which are now: "Old times, dead times".
       Back then they knew a man -- "Some people called him The Shadow" -- who was a specialist: "just that: a specialist", known for his meticulous plans for bank robberies and similar large raids, which led to: "no violence, and no casualties". He has an idea for one last big bank job -- but for all his careful planning things don't quite work out this time: decades later tragedy becomes farce, as the plan goes awry from the start because of a ridiculous fluke; even 'The Shadow' winds up a shadow of what he was, a specialist left even without his shoes.
       The novel shifts back and forth among the rather large group of characters, and includes the police investigating some of the goings-on -- in decidedly different (i.e. far more casual) style than they might have under Pinochet. Revolutionary fervor has not just been tempered but beaten completely down --and the authorities, too, show a much lighter touch.
       Sepúlveda effectively shows the lingering effects of that one moment in time which changed all their lives, that fateful rainy Tuesday, 11 September, 1973:

From noon onwards, the clocks had started to strike unknown hours, hours of mistrust, hours when friendships faded and disappeared, and all that remained was the terrified wailing of widows and mothers. Life became riddled with black holes. They were everywhere, you went into a subway station and never came out, you got into a taxi and never reached home, you talked of light and were swallowed up by shadows.
       Try as they might, the old guard can't fully re-emerge out of these shadows. They realize: "We aren't the Young Guard anymore", and in his quick sketches of them -- as they catch each other up on their lives when they meet again -- Sepúlveda suggests all they've lost. Yet The Shadow of What We Were is also a lament for what has been lost in contemporary Chile, glossing over the ugly years and the toll they took:
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.
       In not lingering over the many stories he presents, Sepúlveda provides a quick and fairly effective portrait of a generation, but it does feel hurried and diluted. His melancholy use of farce -- much here that is, in part, tragic is presented with quite a humorous twist to it -- is effective, but on the whole the story feels a bit too watered down.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 January 2011

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The Shadow of What We Were: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Luis Sepúlveda was born in Chile in 1949 and went into exile in Spain in the 1970s.

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© 2011-2022 the complete review

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