The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on quite a roll over the past few years, issuing books by some of my favourite women writers in translation – Natalia Ginzburg, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and Elisa Shua Dusapin, to name but a few. Now I can add Nona Fernández to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful novella Space Invaders, recently released in this stylish new edition. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)
First published in Chile in 2013, this dazzling, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s, a time of deep unease and oppression for the country’s citizens – several of whom were kidnapped, tortured and murdered for resisting the regime. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella González, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police.
Right from the very start, Fernández injects her narrative with a chilling sense of oppression, creating an ominous atmosphere that pulses through the book. Memories of the protagonists lining up in a regimented grid-like fashion at school – or later as adults marshalled together in the street – recur throughout the narrative, the context subtly shifting each time the passage appears.
Displaying clean fingernails, ringless hands, bright faces, hair brushed into submission. Singing the national anthem every Monday first thing, each according to their ability, in piercing off-key voices, loud and almost bellowing voices enthusiastically repeating the chorus, as up front one of us raises the Chilean flag from where it rests in somebody else’s arms. The little star of white cloth rising up, up, up till it touches the sky, the flag finally at the top of the staff, rippling over our heads in time to our singing as we stare up at it from the shelter of its dark shadow. (pp. 9–10)
Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the popular Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. As such, the text is divided into four sections, each one focusing on a different time in the 1980s, with the title reflecting one of the lives assigned to a Space Invaders player during the game (e.g. ‘First Life’, ‘Second Life’ and ‘Game Over’). Moreover, the children’s situation can be likened to that of the targets in the Invaders game, their lives literally being shattered – both physically and psychologically – by the horrors of the Pinochet regime.
‘We’re pieces in a game, but we don’t know what it’s called,’ cites one of the protagonists as they recall those dictatorial line-ups at school – a statement that changes to ‘we’re pieces in a game that we don’t know how to stop playing,’ when it reappears towards the end of the book.’ As such, it implies that the battle seems never-ending, indicating a scenario where everyone feels trapped.
And when the last one died, when the screen was blank, another alien army appeared from the sky, ready to keep fighting. They gave up one life to combat, then another, and another, in a cycle of endless slaughter. (p. 16)
As the book unfolds, mostly through the sequence of dreams, partial recollections and letters between Estrella and her best friend, Maldonado, a composite picture of the missing girl emerges – a typical schoolgirl, alive to the wonders of life, despite her vulnerable situation. Each classmate sees Estrella slightly differently, viewing her from their own unique perspective; nevertheless, common threads are visible amongst the various voices, images and words.
One thing Fernández does brilliantly here is to draw on some remarkably striking imagery – often from the Space Invaders game itself – to convey the nightmarish world these children were exposed to. For instance, one of the group, a boy named Riquelme, is haunted by dreams of an army of prosthetic hands – an image prompted by the sinister wooden hand worn by Estrella’s father following his accident with a bomb.
Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the prosthetic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts.
Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien. (p. 19)
In some instances, dreams can provide an escape from the brutality of life, a safe space to retreat when seeking liberation or solace. However, in the scenario reflected here, any glimpses of freedom and joy are swiftly replaced by more frightening imagery, signalling grave danger as the threats close in.
The sand is swirling. Everything is draining. There’s a hole in the bottom of the pool and it’s beginning to swallow up my classmates. It swallows Bustamante. It’s swallows Fuenzalida. It swallows Maldonado. And I hear screams and the dream turns dangerous and I’m scared. I knew I shouldn’t have jumped into the water… (p. 67)
As the narrative continues, the story becomes progressively darker. More sinister signs and imagery appear. The relative familiarity of school assemblies, lessons and plays gives way to horrific events. Two active dissidents – young men barely out of school – are shot and killed by the State Police. Suspected militants are kidnapped, killed and dumped, their throats slit for all to see. Other individuals are abducted, arrested or beaten up; homes are searched; threatening phone calls are received. In short, the situation becomes increasingly gruesome. Suddenly, the signs of death prove impossible for the children to ignore as their understanding of the reality around them grows – a force they are powerless to tackle.
No one is exactly sure when it happened, but we all remember that coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them, because it had all become something like a bad dream. Maybe it had always been that way and we were only just realising it. Maybe Maldonado was right and we were too young. Maybe we were distracted by all that history homework, all those maths tests, all those enactments of battles against the Peruvians. Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naive, we leaped onto the deck of the enemy ship in the first and final attempt doomed to failure. (p. 57)
It would be unfair of me to reveal what happened to Estrella during this time; you’ll have to read the book to discover it yourself. Suffice it to say we learn enough from the narrative to piece her story together (including the reasons for her disappearance) – a story inspired by actual events from the author’s childhood.
Fernández’s style is visual, engaging and stylishly poetic. While the world portrayed here is brutal, there is wonderful lightness of touch to the author’s approach – an exquisite layering of details for the reader to assemble. Despite its brevity, this is a novella with hidden depths, a highly memorable narrative for such a delicately-etched text. In particular, Fernández skilfully illustrates how in childhood we suppress thoughts and images of traumatic events, only for them to resurface later, often unexpectedly, to be filtered, aggregated and processed in the context of adult life. In short, this is a fractured narrative reflecting fractured lives. A stunning achievement by a remarkable writer – definitely someone to watch.
This sounds excellent Jacqui, so delicately written and inventive, about such traumatic events. The Space Invaders motif could so easily be clunky or gimmicky but it sounds like it works really well here. It’s on my list!
What’s interesting about the Space Invaders motif is that it works on so many levels. In addition to the points I’ve made in the review, there’s a sense that the game is an ‘escape’ for the children, a chance to step away from what’s happening around them. They can forget their names and identities for a while, become different people or beings, even if it’s just for a few hours. It’s a really impressive, thought-provoking book.
I’ve read some absolute corkers from Daunts and always make for the small tables where they pile up the latest when I visit one of their shops. Space Invaders sounds like another to add to my list.
They have such a great list, it’s quality all the way. And l like the fact that they publish a mix of rediscovered gems (from writers such as Ginzburg and Bourdouxhe) alongside books by more contemporary writers (like here). I always sit up and take note when their schedules come through.
This sounds so clever although probably a bit much for me in terms of the content and the experimental style. But very important to have such books translated and available.
Yes, agreed. It’s important that these stories are given a voice – and in this instance, Fernandez is in a unique position to able to do it so sensitively given her personal connection to the group portrayed.
This sounds incredibly powerful, telling a story that it’s important isn’t forgotten. It sounds sensitively handled too, as these stories are clearly brutal. The Space Invaders motif might go over my head a bit, but is a really clever way of structuring the novel.
Yes, a very striking story indeed and beautifully handled by Fernandez. Funnily enough, I think you’d get the Space Invaders references pretty easily as they’re not too detailed or obscure. As a writer, she has a very subtle touch, so the symbolism is relatively easy to grasp without feeling laboured or overwrought.
Daunt books are doing great things. I have never heard of this Chilean author or this book. Subject matter sounds very confronting but is a story that must be told.
I only came across her as a result of these Daunt Books editions – they’ve also published another of her books, The Twilight Zone, which if anything sounds even more arresting than this one. She’s also an actress and a screenwriter – a multi-talented woman!
I confess that I’m fairly ignorant about the circumstances under Pinochet, but the little I know sounds horrific. What a clever and powerful way to tell the story, though, and for a debut author to write so brilliantly is a real achievement. I could cope with the style but I don’t know if I could take the detail right now – but I’ll bear the book in mind for a possible read! :D
She’s been writing for a while (her first novel was released in Chile in 2002), although I think this is one of the first to be translated. It’s very sensitively done, so while we get a sense of the trauma these people are dealing with, the violence itself is off-camera. (There are brief reports of it, but we never see the details of the incidents themselves.) I think it’s different from Mieko’s Kawakami’s Heaven (which I reviewed a week or so ago) in that respect. The Kawakami shows the bullying scenes in full, which makes it a more challenging read from that perspective. That said, I think it has to show those incidents for the moral/philosophical arguments in Heaven to hit home. You’d probably find the Fernandez much more approachable!
Yes, I think so – off-camera works better for me and although I accept it’s probably necessary in something like heaven, I’m not sure I’m up to that at the moment!
That’s completely understandable!
Very pleased to see such a great review. I read this in the US edition and was impressed. I’m currently reading The Twilight Zone which is at least just as good.
Ooh, I hope you’ll review The Twilight Zone, as I’d love to find out a little more about it. Also, it sounds as if you were well ahead of the game in discovering Fernandez (no surprises there, Grant, as you’re always at the cutting edge of these things). I shall have to head over to yours a little later to take a look!
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It sounds excellent, and Daunt have certainly done her proud with the cover. Definitely one I’ll want to read.
Interesting comparison with Heaven. The bullying scenes there are very hard to read but I agree they’re necessary. I don’t think the book would work as well if it had looked away, but that’s not of course the right answer for every book. For some oblique reference is more powerful.
Yes, absolutely. Fernandez is exploring something different to Kawakami here, so her focus on fragmented, half-remembered memories and snatches of disturbing dreams works really well to highlight the long-term effects of being caught up in these horrors. A fractured narrative for fractured lives, so to speak. I’d love to hear what you think of it!
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