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.