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from the December 2019 issue

“Space Invaders,” by Nona Fernández, Looks Back at the Unspoken Terrors of Pinochet’s Chile

Reviewed by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

A remarkable novel about the traces left by the Chilean dictatorship in the lives of children explores the tension between the unsaid and shreds of remembrance that acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.

As I write this review, Chileans are on the streets, dealing once again with the limits and injustices of the neoliberal model, first imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and currently advanced by the government of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera. As people hit the streets, fed up with decades of policies that have intensified class inequalities across the country, the fiction of Chile as a model of free-market success and democratic neoliberalism is crumbling, and the legacies of the dictatorial period are once again palpable in the streets, from the carabineros arresting middle schoolers participating in demonstrations, to Piñera’s declaration that his government is at war with its own citizens. Looking at the wounds of the neoliberal process in Chile, visible in such a stark way in the past few weeks, it is not surprising that a new generation of writers in the country has developed around narrating and making sense of both the unresolved traumas of the dictatorship and the contradictions of a country that continued to enact the policies of the military regime well into its democratic transition.

Chilean literature is booming, built by new generations of writers born right before, during, and after the Pinochet regime, who deal with the heavy history that haunts them. Some of them deal with it indirectly, as if addressing it by evasion, while others prefer frontal engagement, but in both cases the roster of writers is truly exceptional: Álvaro Bisama, Alejandra Costamagna, Claudia Ulloa Donoso, Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane are but a few of them. Translation is finally doing justice to this generation. Readers can find the works of Zambra and Meruane readily available, and the novel The Remainder, a postdictatorial work by Alia Trabucco Zerán, one of the youngest of the bunch, recently made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist.

Nona Fernández is one of the most fascinating writers in this group and an artist of many talents. Besides her career as a fiction author, she is a well-regarded television writer and a theater actor. Her literary success in Spanish, particularly beyond Chile, came from the wide acclaim for her novel La dimensión desconocida (The Twilight Zone, 2016), winner of the prestigious Sor Juana International Award, granted to the best book in Spanish written by a woman. In the book, a nonfiction narrative—an interview with a military officer published in 1984, in which the interviewee confesses to being a torturer and killer for the regime—intersects with an autofictional arc constructed on the memories triggered by the interview. This novel, which is both her most famous work and, arguably, her best one, turned Fernández into a household name in Latin American letters, and I hope an English translation will come soon.

English-language readers now have the opportunity to enjoy Fernández’s brilliant fiction thanks to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of her short novel Space Invaders. Published in Spanish in 2013, Space Invaders is a polyphonic novel about the traces that the dictatorship left in the lives and memories of children growing up in the seventies and eighties. As with The Twilight Zone, the title of Space Invaders is a temporal marker, in reference to the Atari game that was popular during the protagonists’ childhood. The novel is centered on a group of young adults who, as primary school classmates, experienced the silences and terrors of everyday life under Pinochet. The group’s collective remembrance of their classmate, Estrella González Jepsen, the daughter of a major official in the dictatorship who ultimately leaves for Germany, gives structure to the book. The novel functions as an (incomplete) reconstruction by the characters' older selves of traumatic events, oftentimes remembered in dreamlike ways, with traces of everyday terror: a teacher who freezes when a child asks what it means to be involved in politics, two young men killed by the police in a slum, the games that internalize military culture and patriotism in the children’s minds. The story is told in very short episodes, traversing the memories of various characters as well as the innocent letters they write to each other as a symbol of their childhood friendship.

The perspective of children of Southern Cone military dictatorships has become a significant theme both in literature and in cinema of the past two decades. Iconic films from Chile and Argentina—like Andrés Wood’s Machuca and Paula Markovitch’s El Premio—have become leading works on the dictatorial experience. Novels like Zerán’s The Remainder and Fernández’s The Twilight Zone and Space Invaders have consecrated what Zambra calls “literatura de hijos,” the literary reckoning of the generation after the one that perpetrated and suffered the dictatorship itself. Space Invaders is both iconic and unique in this group due to its literary economy. All the themes of literatura de hijos are present: the inability to grasp the present, the trauma of recognizing events post-factum, the unexpected ways in which the past catches up with the characters. At the same time, the contrast between the book’s minimalist tone and its complex structure creates a distinctive reading experience based on the slippages between memory and experience. It is a book fully built on the tension between the unsaid and the shreds of narrative that are casually dropped on the reader’s lap and acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.

Wimmer is as ideal a translator as Fernández’s work could hope for. Known primarily for her exceptional translations of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, Wimmer performs a masterful work in conveying a style that, at times, is the polar opposite of Bolaño’s proliferating prose. Reading the Spanish and English versions side by side, one can see how Wimmer balances her translation, giving the book discursive flow while keeping both the distinction between voices and Fernández’s uncanny ability to weave key elements of the narrative into casual statements.

Space Invaders is a compelling and insightful work of literature from a truly talented fiction writer. It is my hope that this is only the first of her works to appear in English and that The Twilight Zone or Mapocho, Fernández’s deep historical and environmental novel, will follow suit.

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