Book review of “Nada Será Como Antes” [Nothing Will Ever Be the Same] by Juan Elman

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In an article that is as simple as it is accurate, Argentine political scientist Victoria Murillo wrote that 2019 would be remembered as “the year of the social explosion in Latin America.” In that year alone, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile were engulfed in deep social protests that were not caused by a specific reason, but rather were symptoms of a general reality: one can contain social discontent for a while, but it cannot be suppressed indefinitely. There are moments when silent minorities set aside their muteness and take to the streets as a collective language.

That was what happened in Chile. “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years,” read many of the signs held by the people who joined the streets of Chile after high school students collectively protested against the increase in public transportation fares.

In “Nada Será Como Antes” [Ediciones FutuRock, 2022. Written in Spanish], Juan Elman works with clarity and exhaustiveness on this crucial point. I started reading Juan’s book with the intention of finding a book that could simplify, at least a little, the tangle of reasons, conditions, and events that led the change-resistant Chile to become, overnight, the Chile willing to change everything (only to end up changing nothing?). Now, I think it would be unfair to say that “Nada Será Como Antes” only simplifies the elements in question, not because it doesn’t do so, but because what Elman did is much more than that.

Juan Elman wrote a book that is capable of delving into various hypotheses and lines of conflict because he understands that nothing is unicausal or linear, and that the beginnings of stories (t=0) are not usually the ones that ignite the first visible spark. In fact, and even though it is indeed contradictory, I don’t think the book is necessarily a book about the social protests of 2019. “Nada Será Como Antes” is not a history or politics book, but a book that, through the linking of political and historical factors, constructs a simple portrait of a complex society that has undergone various changes but still maintains much of the legacy of Chile’s unequal Pinochet regime.

There are also two elements that make this book particularly effective. On the one hand, the author does not remain in the comfort of urban centers and overcomes political centralism. In order to truly understand what is happening in Chile, Juan Elma moves with the eyes of an ethnographer across Chile’s elongated geography with the intention of widening the focus to sharpen the argument. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small spot in Araucanía, a “cuico” neighborhood in Santiago, or walking along the coast of Antofagasta, every geography is a social laboratory for those willing to try.

The second element, closely related to the first, has to do with the ability to understand that behind the numbers, there are always people. Juan assigns faces, stories, aspirations, and frustrations to a series of actors who remain unknown (especially to those of us who are not from those places). He is able to construct profiles and assign relevance equally to a candidate for mayor, a militant, or a former minister, because the point is not to interview people in order to collect officials on a list. It is rather a bet to find explanatory arguments in people’s stories. The importance of structures is not overlooked, but the role of individuals is not forgotten either.