Last year I read and loved Space Invaders, a dazzling, shapeshifting novella by the Chilean writer and actress Nona Fernández. These qualities are also very much in evidence here in the author’s captivating memoir, Voyager, Constellations of Memory, a beguiling meditation on memory, family history, neurology and astronomy. This exquisitely-written book also weaves together elements of the personal with the political, delving into the dark heart of Chilean history – specifically the atrocities perpetuated under General Pinochet’s dictatorship in the early 1970s. It’s a tricky book to describe, partly because it’s so richly textured and imagined, but hopefully I can give you a flavour of it here. (I should also say upfront that I simply adored this book. It’s a luminous one-sitting read, full of fascinating observations, connections and ideas; another dazzling gem from Daunt Books, a publisher that consistently delivers the goods.)
When Fernandez’s mother experiences a series of brief blackouts, Nona takes her to the hospital for various tests, including a visualisation of the brain’s activity. As Fernandez watches the network of neurons lighting up on the screen, she is reminded of a starscape, an imaginary constellation of stars twinkling away in the sky…
I remember the electrical charges I saw in her neurological exam. Those constellations of clustered memories. And I muse, in a rather obvious way, that the parentheses in her brain are like the black holes of the cosmos. Dark, enigmatic spaces packed with hidden information. I have only the most basic understanding of them. (p. 87)
In some respects, these parentheses (i.e. the gaps in memory her mother experiences after she has briefly lost consciousness) can be likened to black holes. However, just because her mother can’t remember the details of these blackouts, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.
Moreover, Fernandez also recalls a story from childhood, a conversation she had with her mother about the stars in the sky, their origins and meaning. Irrespective of whether we notice them or not, the stars are always present, reminding us of their existence, transmitting messages and signals night after night after night.
When I was very little and I asked my mother about the stars, she responded with a crazy theory. Up in the night sky, she said, there were little people who were trying to talk to us with mirrors. In a kind of Morse code with flashes of light conveying messages. For a long time I believed her and I assumed that the messages sent by the little people in the sky were to say hello and remind us of their presence despite the distance and the darkness. Hello, here we are, we’re the little people, don’t forget us. (p. 44)
Using these two experiences as a springboard, Fernandez weaves a beautiful, effortlessly fluid meditation, establishing deep and meaningful connections between the constellations in the sky, our constellations of memories – both personal and political – astrology, motherhood, identity and more. Pivotal here are the author’s own personal experiences of stargazing in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the world’s leading areas for observing the night sky. It’s a location steeped in Chile’s history, some of it deeply troubling. In October 1973, shortly after Pinochet swept to power, twenty-six people were executed there by the dictator’s ‘Caravan of Death’ squad.
Around the same time as her mother’s neurological investigations, Fernandez is invited to sign an Amnesty International petition calling for twenty-six stars in a particular constellation to be renamed (one for each victim of the 1973 atrocity) as a permanent act of remembrance. Following her support of this endeavour, Fernandez agrees to become a godmother to one of the stars, Star HD89353, in memoriam of Mario Argüelles Toro.
In one of the most moving vignettes in the book, Fernandez visits Mario’s widow, Violeta, at her home in Calama. She hears how Violeta searched the Atacama Desert, day in day out for twenty years following her husband’s death, desperately seeking elements of his remains – a bone, a scrap of clothing, a belonging of any sort – something she could bury as a way of saying goodbye. These visits culminate in Fernandez joining Violeta and the other bereaved families on a pilgrimage to the desert, a deeply affecting act of remembrance that hopefully brings a modicum of solace to all involved.
If I think about the story of Mario Argüelles and his twenty-five fellow victims executed in the desert, if I think about all the people of Calama, their city, who have no information about them, I’m visited again by the image of those menacing black holes. Twenty-six lives and twenty-six deaths and twenty-six bodies hidden in some corner of history, in a blind spot where there’s nothing left to be found anymore. (p. 88)
In some ways, Mario’s story is a powerful reminder of the importance of individual acts of defiance and remembrance – a way of focusing on an individual death within the cumulative horror of Pinochet’s actions. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that each of these losses represents a unique person, an individual robbed of their life – each leaving behind a family destroyed by enduring grief.
Alongside these elements, Fernandez also touches on her own family history – most notably, stories of her mother and grandmother and their shared determination to vote ‘No’ in the 1988 national plebiscite, a crucial referendum on Chile’s political direction. A victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign would have strengthened Pinochet’s control over the country at the time, but thankfully the ‘No’ campaign prevailed by a comfortable margin, ushering in a more democratic future for the country.
Fernandez continues to revisit these themes throughout the book, weaving together a beguiling network of connections, alighting on personal family memories, her mother’s neurological condition, the mysteries hidden in the cosmos and episodes from Chile’s troubled history. By doing so, she seems to be highlighting the importance of the past to our present and future direction. In short, light from the past can illuminate our current situation. Only by remembering and preserving these stories, by learning from our history and previous experiences, can we hope to move forward, shaping the decisions and constellations of the future as positively as possible.
Voyager is published in the UK by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Interested readers should also check out Patricio Guzmán’s stunning documentary on the Atacama Desert, Nostalgia for the Light, which explores similar themes – the cinematography is dazzling.