World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World. I’m most interested in the sense of place produced by reading the book.
Book: The Shadow Of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda, translated by Howard Curtis. (Europa Editions, 2011)
Plot: Three ageing revolutionaries wait in a city warehouse for a meeting with an anarchist who will lead them on one, final act of defiance. But a twist of fate means the day will turn out very differently from what they had expected.
Where and when: One rainy day in Santiago.
The detectives: Inspector Manuel Crespo, a man who “liked to take things calmly. That was his only method, the only way not to be overwhelmed by imponderables” and his female assistant, Detective Adela Bobadilla, “proud to be part of the first generation of police officers with clean hands, those who were not even born yet in 1973, or were too young to be torturers or the allies of drug traffickers.”
Sense of Place: The above description of Detective Bobadilla sets the scene. Nobody is murdered in this crime novel, and yet this is a book filled with deaths. Santiago is a city of ghosts – the thousands of militant supporters of President Salvador Allende who ‘disappeared’ after the military coup of September 11, 1973, led by General (and soon-to-be self-elected President) Augusto Pinochet: “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 in prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries.” Sepulveda, who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for political activism, is not blind to the doctrinaire absurdities of the Leftist factions – Marxist, Maoist, Hoxhan, Anarchist, Socialist, Workers Revolutionary – that competed and plotted to impose their particular narrow ideology in Allende’s Chile. But, after the coup, the same fate awaits them all: “the military prison at Calle do Londres, the concentration camp at Puchuncavi.” Even three decades on, Santiago remains “a hostile city filled with the scars of what had once been,” peopled by men and women who are nothing more than a shadow of what they were, flitting between the bright lights of “the prosperous country of the victors.”
Retired Bloke Verdict: This is a very unusual crime novel; there is very little action, and a lot of conversation about the past. I found it both absorbing and discomforting.
Where Next? Hong Kong: The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.