Early in Nona Fernández’s new novella, some preadolescent friends are playing video games in one of their safe, middle-class homes, gleefully blasting away at a phalanx of onscreen Martians. A few pages later, they’re surrounded by real-life carnage. “Coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere,” one recalls.
Space Invaders is set in the author’s native city, Santiago, Chile, in the 1980s, a decade in which Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship killed, jailed, and kidnapped thousands of dissidents. A nimble tale told in letters and the shared recollections of now-distant childhood friends, Fernández’s book presents a devastating portrait of the trauma that a savage, rapacious government inflicted on a community and a country.
The story has a big, introspective ensemble cast, but its central character is an enigmatic presence. Estrella González is a child of the junta—her father holds an important post with the national police. At first, though, she’s not very different from Donoso, Maldonado, Fuenzalida, Acosta, Riquelme, and the rest of her grade-school classmates.
Dismissed by some of her peers as “the shy girl in the back row of the classroom,” Estrella has already experienced loss and pain, as she reveals in a letter to another student: “Did you know that my dad had a work accident? Nobody at school knows. He’s had lots of operations…You know how my little brother Rodrigo died last year. He was only a year younger than me, so when I turn eleven he would have been ten.”
Like several subplots in this episodic tale, the cause of Rodrigo’s death will remain a mystery. But the injury sustained by Estrella’s father—he lost a hand in a bomb explosion—is described in detail, the first hint that the unrest the children see on TV will soon be a palpable presence in their lives.
As the murder and disappearance of pro-democracy activists becomes impossible for the maturing students to ignore, Estrella peels away from her peers. She’s chauffeured to school by what appears to be a bodyguard, and soon stops attending class altogether. One of her classmates is suspended for distributing anti-Pinochet leaflets, and in time, the remaining friends realize that her father wants to keep her away from “agitators and pamphleteers.”
Throughout this powerful book—translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer— Fernández’s use of vivid imagery evokes the oppressive nature of life in an authoritarian state. In Space Invaders, the students’ favorite video game, “little Martians descended in blocks, in perfect formation,” just like the students themselves at their regimented school: “We stand one after the other in a long line across the classroom. Next to ours is another long line, and another, and another. We are multiple columns forming a perfect square.”
The memory of Estrella hovers in the background as her friends are battered by political violence. “Maldonado dreams of the word degollados. She sees it printed in the headlines of every newspaper,” Fernández writes. “…Caso Degollados. Throats Slashed.” Meanwhile, “Fuenzalida hears the sounds of the crowd tossing flower petals at the hearses,” and “one night, as she was leaving work, Riquelme’s mother was kidnapped.”
Pinochet was ousted in 1990, and as Fernández notes near the end, at least some of the regime’s henchmen were punished. But as this harrowing novella demonstrates, their cruelty left wounds that haven’t yet healed.
By Nona Fernández
November 5, 2019
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications.