Commentary. That’s just what Sepúlveda was, a combat-grade storyteller, and he had many battles to fight—old ones, new ones, and especially those on the horizon.

Remembering Sepulveda, the globetrotting lover of words who fought injustice

“That bastard’s not worth a minute of my time,” Sepulveda told me. The topic was Manuel Contreras, the former head of DINA, the Chilean Gestapo, the man who’d thrown Sepulveda in jail and handed him over to the torturers.

Now, Contreras was finally dead, at age 86, with an appalling number of murders and a modest number of convictions on his record. As I spoke with Sepúlveda, the sun was shining, the grill was hot, we had cold beers and a Chilean appetite permeated everything.

“Fuck that Contreras,” he said. He didn’t want a piece, he didn’t want to give an interview. In the background, there was the sound of a steak just starting to sizzle. This was in August 2015.

That’s just what Sepúlveda was, a combat-grade storyteller, and he had many battles to fight—old ones, new ones, and especially those on the horizon. So, why fret over an old butcher, buried under his years and his sins? History had already passed him over, paving the road towards a new Chile, only slightly less appalling than the old one.

That old Chile was the homeland which had absorbed, broken and finally released into the world the grandson of an Andalusian anarchist who had taken refuge in Valparaiso to escape the garrote. Grandfather Gerardo was the beginning of a tortuous, complicated and beautiful path, full of travels, books and shots fired. An adventure that brought forth a thousand protagonists, yet in the end only one: Luis Sepúlveda himself—the best character he ever wrote.

The adventure ended on Thursday in Spain. It took COVID-19 more than 50 days to kill him. He caught it in Portugal, at a literary festival. At the clinic in Gijón, they wasted two days before giving him an X-ray whose result shocked his doctors: he was taken in an ambulance to Oviedo, hospitalized, put in isolation and tested. On Feb. 29, Luis walked into the Central University Hospital of Asturias on his own two feet. He would not come out alive.

The effects of the virus were compounded by a pneumonia he had suffered the year before in Pordenone—at another literary festival—and also by his 70 years of age, the many miles he’d travelled, the many cigarettes he’d smoked. On Thursday morning, when he took his last breath, COVID-19 was no longer in his body—he had tested negative. But the damage had been done.

Even though he has sold many millions of books (more than 9 million in Italy alone), there are no scholarly works on Luis Sepúlveda, and there aren’t even biographies that are more reliable than his own accounts. The life of the wandering Chilean had begun in ‘49 in Ovalle, in the central-northern region of Chile. His anarchist grandfather was a counterpoint to the figure of his communist father, chased by the Francoists, and also to that of the latter’s father-in-law, who had wanted a better match for his daughter than the penniless Galician who had won her heart.

But he could do nothing about it: Luis Sr. and Irma Calfucura would have a child, Luis Sepúlveda Calfucura, half Spanish and half Mapuche Indian, raised by his grandfather and uncle—a hardcore anarchist himself—on a shrewd cultural mixture of Salgari, Melville, Cervantes and regular nocturnal peeing on the steps of the neighborhood church. An early author of poems in the school newspaper and terrific erotic stories he sold to his classmates, at the age of 20 he won the Casa de Las Americas award for his first book, the short story collection Cronicas de Pedro Nadie, together with a five-year scholarship to Moscow’s Lomonosov University, that of the Russian nomenklatura.

In Moscow, he was expelled almost immediately. (For dissidence? Or perhaps for flirting with a teacher’s wife?). And he was kicked out of the dogmatic Chilean Communist Youth as well. Next, he joined the Chilean Socialist Party: with the coup of ‘73, those belonging to the “Friends of the President Group” who weren’t killed in Pinochet’s bombing of the Moneda palace were arrested, and Luis was one of them. He would go on to tell the story of the tiny cell and the torn-off fingernails, his second arrest and the two and a half years in prison until his exile, secured by Amnesty International. He left Chile on a plane bound for Sweden, but at the first stopover, in Buenos Aires, he escaped.

The next 10 years he spent as a leftist adventurer, always defeated but never overcome (with one exception: the victory in Nicaragua), who lived on journalism and wrote literature. From Argentina, he went on to Brazil and then to Paraguay, while one country in Latin America after another was being smothered in the tangles of Operation Condor and right-wing coups. In Quito, Ecuador, he joined a UNESCO expedition to the Suhar natives, and those months in the Ecuadorian Amazon would serve as the foundation for his first truly great novel, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.

In 1978, he joined the international Simon Bolivar Brigades in Nicaragua: “We started off a thousand strong, and a few months later there were half of us left,” he would recount later. He did enjoy victory here, the only one: the Sandinistas entered Managua, and he moved to Europe, to Hamburg, where he encountered Greenpeace and was part of one of their crews for five years. Then, in 1989, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories was published (in 1993 in Italy) and turned him into a renowned writer.

At the end of the 1980s, he was able to return to Chile, but his only attempt to do so failed quickly. He traveled around Europe in a camper van, and finally stopped in Gijón, in Asturias: in northern Spain, with its small-scale modernism and the frail Barcelona with an atrocious climate divided between drizzle, rain and heavy rain. And yet—the globetrotter would put down roots in Gijón, get married once again to the same woman he had married in Chile, the poet Carmen Yanez, and finally dedicate himself to writing.

In 1997, he came to us at il manifesto: “I want to be what Soriano was, are you interested?” Osvaldo Soriano had been dead for a few months, and this Chilean battle hero wanted to carry the torch of his legacy. He had just published The Story of a Seagull, and The Diary of a Sentimental Killer had also just come out. We were very interested indeed.

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