by Beth Holmes
"Emerging from the surreal atmosphere and fragmentary structures of these books is akin to waking from a nightmare."
Years and figures cannot alone measure the impact of authoritarianism on a populace. In Macarena Gómez-Barris’ work on post-Pinochet Chile, she reveals how those affected by the military dictatorship live with the violence in their bodies, daily lives, and in the identities that younger generations inherit.
Chilean authors such as Alejandro Zambra and Lina Meruane are reckoning with this generational trauma: Zambra’s ‘literature of the children’ excavates memories of growing up under the dictatorship to develop new perspectives on those years and their aftermath. Nona Fernández’ compelling novels Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone (Daunt Books, July 2022) arguably fit within this milieu. In these novels, Fernández uses pop-cultural parallels from the 1970s and 1980s to unearth Chile’s buried memories.
The Twilight Zone fuses truth and fabrication with a collage of divergences, hopping spiritedly from autofiction to essay, reportage to poetry, whilst maintaining deep empathy. The plot revolves around Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales: a distressed agent of the secret service who in 1984 gave his testimony to an opposition magazine. Our autofictional narrator describes seeing Morales’s photograph; his face is as unassuming as a ‘science teacher’, contrasting with the frightening headline ‘I TORTURED PEOPLE’.
This encounter initiates the narrator’s lasting fixation – Morales exposes her to a ‘secret dimension’. Just as the much-loved television programme of her youth, The Twilight Zone, depicted a clandestine world, the novel depicts the horrors underneath the mundanity of daily life in Santiago. As the narrator’s and Morales’s threads unfold, through different stages of their lives, Fernandez follows, gathering portraits of victims and culprits of violence along the way.
Nitya Rayapati suggests Fernández’s project echoes ‘critical fabulation’, a form of creative semi-nonfiction combining historical research, theory and fiction to illuminate archival absences. In shedding light on the forcibly ‘disappeared’, Fernández communicates the writer’s responsibility in contexts of historical erasure: to bring absences to the surface by harnessing the imagination’s power.
Contrasting with the singular narrator of The Twilight Zone, Fernández invokes a plurality of voices in Space Invaders. This short, intense novel reveals the dictatorship’s imprint on a group of ex-classmates as they remember their friend Estrella, who one day disappeared. The sweet, shy girl returns to them in dreams, memories, letters and a frightening event. As the characters reconstruct their shared trauma, Fernández unpicks the fear and violence that stole their innocence. Estrella remains in their collective subconscious, but her ‘truth’ moves further toward subjective feeling, conveying the unreliability of individual memory.
Space Invaders has a complex structure and disjointed narrative, and it becomes difficult to differentiate the speakers. That could become overwhelming, but Fernández’s sparse tone provides balance. The Atari game of the book's title frames their perspective and conveys the Santiago of their youth. The children line up 'like little Martins' and the oppressive state is enforced with bullets that are 'ghostly green'.
Emerging from the surreal atmosphere and fragmentary structures of these books is akin to waking from a nightmare. But despite that, Fernández’s writing is elucidatory – never unwieldy – and precise. Her reliance on devices can seem excessive, but their power lies in uncovering hidden histories, the legacies of which continue to impact Chileans today.