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 that in Chile, that no one had ever sung The Young Guard, and that the Communist girls had not had the taste of future on their lips.
Luis Sepúlveda’s novel, winner of the 2009 Premio Primavera for Spanish literature and just translated into English by Howard Curtis, focuses on a group of old men, former exiles, recently returned to Santiago. The men had left for Paris, Munich, and other locales after the September 11, 1973, coup that removed President Salvador Allende from office. Now, years later, they are coming back together at the behest of a man they call “The specialist.” As they as just beginning to gather, their plans hit a snag, thanks to a domestic dispute and a record player that flies out of a window and kills a man.
This 132-page novel is a very good example of why I tend to prefer doorstop-sized tomes to novellas. A good novella can indeed pack a punch, but often I need time to get acclimated to the author’s style and voice, to the setting and characters. This book and its dark, dry humor was just starting to grow on me when it ended. For the first 50 pages or so, I was still figuring it out. Is this meant to be funny? How are these guys connected? Wait, are these real names and events or made-up ones? Does it matter?
Eventually I did get pulled into the book, and I enjoyed several of the more absurd moments in the book, such as when two of the men are exchanging e-mails in which they are plotting their mysterious gathering and exchanging (bad) advice about online dating. And I came to accept that the details about the political scene weren’t as important of the overall idea that these are old men living in a country that changed without them. However, by the time I was able to adjust my expectations and start taking real pleasure in the book, it was over.
Of course, I can’t fault the book for my ignorance of Chilean politics and my unfamiliarity with what may (or may not) be typical Chilean humor. Before this book, I believe that the sum total of my Chilean literary experience was five books by Isabel Allende. (And yes, Bolaño is on my to-read list.) With a little more experience, I might have gotten interested in this book much more quickly, but I have a sneaking feeling I still would have liked it to be longer. The plot just felt ever so slightly undercooked. I liked these men, and I would have enjoyed spending more time with them.