The Atacama Desert is one of the best places on earth to see the stars. Because of its low light pollution, dry climate, and more than 200 cloudless nights a year, northern Chile offers a window to space—and to the past, since starlight takes so long to reach us. When she was little, Chilean writer Nona Fernández’s mother taught her that stars are little people in the sky sending messages with mirrors. Hello, here we are, they say, don’t forget us.
In her first work of nonfiction, a book-length essay called Voyager, Nona Fernández articulates the stakes of remembering. She does this by recounting how in 1973, five weeks after Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, a squad of army officers called the Caravan of Death drove twenty-six men into the Atacama Desert from the prison where they had been detained. There, they murdered the men with curved knives and machine guns and dumped their bodies in an unmarked grave. Fernández tells this story to protest the silence that makes it easy to forget.
Memory is an important theme across Fernández’s works—which include six novels and a book of short stories—three of which have been translated into English by Natasha Wimmer. Voyager weaves together the account of the twenty-six men with Fernández’s meditations about her own aging mother, who is struggling with frequent fainting spells and memory loss. By toggling between these strands, Fernández argues that personal memory and national memory are entwined—and that we have an obligation to the future to not forget the past.
Fernández, who was born in Santiago two years before the 1973 coup d’état, documents the Pinochet regime’s brutalities to ensure we do not forget them. She calls herself a “space probe,” a “recording machine,” who is responsible for capturing stories she can launch “into the stars” for someone, someday, to find. Fernández suggests this active work of remembering is vital because the dictatorship demanded silence. Now, two decades after Chile’s return to democracy, generations grow up who never knew life under the regime. This increases the potential for past horrors to happen again.
In Voyager, Fernández charts how the dictatorship’s atrocities affected individual people. She turns her attention to individual deaths in the desert, individual bodies dumped in unmarked graves, individual women combing through soil with their fingers to find bones. Only by attending to the individual—by naming the dead to keep their memories alive—can we fend off forgetting.
Fernández models how to do this by focusing on one man, Mario Argüelles, who was murdered by the Caravan of Death. She reads about Argüelles online, and finds his name in lists of victims. She visits his widow, Violeta, in the home they once shared, and peers at his picture while Violeta tells stories about him. Fernández travels to the remote desert memorial site where wooden pillars bear each victim’s name and contributes a tribute to Argüelles. Her dogged insistence that we focus on the individual unsettles the ease with which we lose sight of individual grief when discussing widespread violence. When we force ourselves to confront the deep and unspeakable pain of just one person, we see the stakes of forgetting authoritarian regimes’ abuses. After all, we are “made of [our] own memories.” Fernández’s mother fears “that if she surrenders to oblivion she will be lost, shedding layers into outer space and breaking apart.” The only way to prevent national and global identity loss is remembering.
In one of Voyager’s most moving sections, Fernández describes her mother and grandmother preparing to vote in the plebiscite that put an end to the dictatorship. “The eyes of the world were on us,” Fernández explains, “and despite an ominous blackout the night before, despite rumors of the cancellation of the plebiscite, despite attacks of nerves that kept them up for hours shuffling along the hallway with candles and cups of tea, at eight in the morning my mother and grandmother were ready to vote.” Fernández conveys the occasion’s significance by focusing on quotidian details, like clothing. “My grandmother got dressed in her formal best,” she remembers, “[in] the blue linen dress she wore for birthdays and a light wool coat that hadn’t yet become moth eaten in her closet.” She also removed her apron, which “I could count on one hand the number of times I had seen her without.” Then, despite difficulty walking, Fernández’s grandmother trekked to the National Stadium to cast her secret ballot. “Her vote was No.”
Fernández’s attention to individual acts of resistance, like her grandmother’s, suggests that preserving memories is one way to fight back. Voyager is Fernández’s effort to do that, a written “space-time capsule” she can send to the future, because there is much we need to remember. The resounding “No” vote in 1988 Chile paved the way for a return to democracy, but we still live in a world where racist, sexist, and authoritarian ideologies, not to mention violence against the more-than-human world, threaten the freedom of so many. Past atrocities still threaten our present. The answer, Fernández suggests, is to document the ugliness and beauty of where we’ve been without flinching—a message to anyone coming after. Hello, here we are, don’t forget us.
by Nona Fernández, t.r., Natasha Wimmer
Published February 21st, 2023
Morgan Graham is an English PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is Managing Editor at Pleiades and has published work in Colorado Review, Great River Review, Split Lip Magazine, The Evansville Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Find her at morgandianegraham.wordpress.com and @morgraha on Twitter.