The Twilight Zone 
by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Daunt, 232 pp., £10.99, July 2022, 978 1 914198 21 2
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In 1959​ , television screens across the United States became portals to other worlds. The Twilight Zone, an anthology series with no narrative links between episodes, showed characters going beyond the limits of normal human experience, encountering extraterrestrials, time travel, evil spirits and magical objects. The world we take for granted, the show suggested, might not be the one in which we live. Like the series from which it takes its name, Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone, first published in Spanish in 2016, is closer to an anthology than a traditional novel, only here the encounters aren’t with aliens or amulets but with detention centres and electrified bedframes in Pinochet’s Chile.

Fernández was two years old in 1973, when a military junta overthrew Salvador Allende’s government. Like the narrator of The Twilight Zone, she spent her childhood oblivious to the murderous policies of the new regime: ‘Sitting in front of a black and white television set in the kitchen of my old house, I watched episode after episode of The Twilight Zone … I’m forever marked by that seductive feeling of disquiet and the narrator’s voice inviting viewers into a secret world, a universe unfolding outside the ordinary, beyond the bounds of what we were used to seeing.’ A child watching stories of outlandish horror on TV, oblivious to the violence taking place outside her house, might be a ready-made novelistic conceit, but the allusion is apt. In 1989 a team of Chilean psychologists studying the junta’s rule described the disappearance of Pinochet’s political enemies as akin to ‘magic intervention by mysterious forces … It suggests the inexplicable, the irrevocable, an absolute loss of knowledge.

The surreal aura around the disappearances was dispelled in 1984, when Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales, a member of SIFA, the intelligence service of the Chilean air force, walked into the offices of Cauce magazine in Santiago and gave a journalist the scoop of her life: the first insider account of spying, torture and killing, eleven years into Pinochet’s rule. Fernández’s narrator is thirteen when the Cauce article is published. She recalls reading it just as people were beginning to feel either brave enough or desperate enough to protest about what was happening. Around the same time she began to hear stories of survivors, like the 16-year-old girl who told of being taken to a detention centre where agents ‘stripped her, smeared her body with excrement and put her in a dark room full of rats’. More than thirty years later, the narrator is still haunted by the image: ‘I can’t shake it and maybe that’s why I’m here, as a way to let it go.’

The uncertainty in that sentence never entirely dissipates, even as The Twilight Zone plunges into the grim stories that Valenzuela first told to Cauce, and then to other journalists, human rights lawyers and judges in the years after he fled Chile. The book is part autofiction (the narrator is known only by her last name, Fernández), part history and part horror novel. We meet one group of characters after another on what begins as an ordinary day and witness them being consumed. These stories of actual events are punctuated by Fernández’s attempts to reckon with her reasons for retelling them. From the start she tells us what is her invention and what isn’t. Of Valenzuela on his way to meet the reporter, she writes: ‘I imagine him in a hurry, smoking a cigarette, glancing nervously from side to side.’ But when he enters the offices of Cauce, the story becomes fact: ‘I’m not imagining that part; I read it.’

This self-consciousness leads Fernández to devise a series of analogies – from Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight to a Chris Marker documentary about the Pacific War and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – to help her navigate the territory. Some are more successful than others, but they all expose the doubleness of Chilean society in a period when life could be either peaceful or extremely dangerous, depending on who you were. Sometimes the two worlds come close to meeting. In 1976, though she didn’t know it at the time, Fernández’s mother briefly witnessed the ‘crack through which the twilight zone appeared’. The day before, Carlos Maluje Contreras, a member of the Partido Comunista de Chile (PCCh), had been arrested. He was interrogated and tortured through the night. He told his captors that he had arranged a rendezvous with another communist for the following day; if they let him keep it they could make a further arrest. Once alone on the appointed street, he threw himself under a bus. The agents shadowing Maluje pulled him out and bundled him into a waiting car as he screamed his name and shouted that he was being tortured. The street was busy with people – including Fernández’s mother – but no one came to his aid; until Valenzuela spoke to Cauce, no one outside the security services knew that Maluje was driven into the countryside outside Santiago that night, shot and buried in a ditch.

This is one of only two episodes in the book with a personal connection to the narrator. More often, Fernández imagines her way into events. In one section of the novel she is ‘the woman who’s ready to draw on a moustache’ to play Valenzuela, detailing his rise through the ranks from guard to torturer and his escape from the country after his whistleblowing interview, an adventure involving fake delivery vans and tense border control checks. In another, she is a reporter, coolly recounting the experiences of dissidents targeted by the state. The narrator’s dispassion doesn’t lessen the effect. Take the story of the Flores brothers, the eldest of whom turned informer to guarantee the safety of his younger siblings, until his handler, El Pelao Lito, fell out of favour:

The man who tortured people [Valenzuela] says that one night he and his fellow agents were brought in for a special operation. They were driven to a detention centre, where his superiors were waiting for them in the midst of a cocktail party. There was pisco and pills and everybody drank and ate. When the drinks were finished they called in the ‘package’ – that was the word they used, he said. The package was El Pelao Lito, handcuffed and blindfolded. He made a mistake, they were told, he was a traitor, you don’t play around with information, whose side was he on. The man who tortured people says he didn’t know what was happening, but he gathered that El Pelao Lito had done something bad, had betrayed the group by revealing some secret. That was why they forced him kicking and screaming into the trunk of a car and took him to the Cajón del Maipo. There, in the middle of the mountain night, they let him out and they shot him, just as he had done to so many of his own targets. Just as had been done to José Weibel, to Carlos Maluje Contreras. The man who tortured people says that he had to bind El Pelao Lito’s hands and feet and throw him into the river. The man who tortured people says that he was scared. For a moment it crossed his mind that the same thing could befall him some day. El Pelao Lito was his comrade, he was 25 years old. The man who tortured people had never imagined having to witness the death of one of his own at the hands of their group. He had never imagined what a fine line it was that separated his comrades from his enemies.

This story, and others like it, are reminiscent of Danilo Kiš’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, which tracks a number of characters caught up in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and which, like Fernández’s book, is situated between fiction, essay and report. Yet whereas Kiš felt free to invent and imagine, once telling an interviewer that ‘literature must correct history: history is general, literature concrete’, Fernández constantly patrols her writing to ensure she doesn’t deploy her imagination in the wrong areas. Having described the death of José Weibel, a high-ranking member of the PCCh, in purely logistical terms, she writes: ‘I don’t know the details of what unfolded. Nor do I want to. I lack the words and images to write the rest of this story. Any attempt I might make to account for the private last moments of someone about to disappear will fall short.’ This is the same disavowal Laurent Binet makes in HHhH, his attempt to write a historical novel devoid of invention: ‘I refuse to write a sentence like: “Automatically they checked the release boxes and static lines of their parachute harnesses.” Even if, without a doubt, they did exactly that.’ Like Binet, Fernández is mostly successful in capturing the drama of the events she describes, while denying herself many of the novelist’s tools.

The section of the book in which the narrator tries to come to terms with her own experience of Chile’s recent history is the least successful. Concerned here only with her character’s story, rather than the historical record, Fernández can dispense with the caveats and asides that litter other parts of the book (at certain points when relating Valenzuela’s story, the phrase ‘I know – I’m not imagining’ is as insistent as an alarm). But the Fernández of the novel doesn’t really emerge as a character at all. We learn she is a mother, and lives with a man. She goes to the cinema with her mum and to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights with her son. But her complicated feelings about growing up in Chile and about the project of her book don’t emanate from a fully-formed character. Writing about her partner, the narrator says:

Readers who’ve been paying serious attention … will have assumed the presence of M. Incidental or ghostly, maybe, but ultimately a real presence. He’s even mentioned in one chapter as the father of the narrator’s son: but has anyone spared him a single thought before we reached this point in the story? I doubt it. No one has properly imagined him. The trick has been not to focus attention on M. Until this very moment.

The flourish falls flat, and not just because of the air of self-congratulation. No one has spared M. a thought because he’s not a very interesting absence, let alone a ‘real presence’.

The  Twilight Zone’s individual strands – Valenzuela’s confession, the testimony of the victims, the narrator’s own account – cohere in the second episode with a connection to the narrator’s childhood. One of her classmates, Estrella González Jepsen, used to be picked up from school in a red Chevy by her father’s assistant, a man the children called ‘Uncle Claudio’. Later, in March 1985, the narrator recalls hearing a news report about three bodies discovered on the road to the airport, their throats slashed. The dead men were all PCCh members. Not long after this, Estrella was absent from class and never returned. In 1994, the men responsible for the murders were convicted and their images released. One was Estrella’s father, a commander in the short-lived Dicomcar intelligence agency, and another – the man who had done the throat-cutting – was Uncle Claudio. The car used to take the men to their deaths was the red Chevy.

This story, which Fernández first told in a fragmentary, impressionistic way in her 2013 novella Space Invaders, serves as a reminder that the crimes of the Pinochet era aren’t abstract but interwoven with the lives of modern Chileans.*Her books are part of a new wave of novels written by authors who were born just before the coup or during the regime, including Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red and Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder. Zambra has described this movement as ‘the literature of the children’, meaning both the children of the Pinochet era and the children of adults who understood, as their children did not, the kind of country they were living in. Unlike Roberto Bolaño, a young adult at the time of the coup, or José Donoso, then at the height of his fame, these writers didn’t experience military rule as a rupture with the past but as the unremarkable norm. This has resulted in a very specific strain of metafiction, concerned with the realisation that a supposedly happy childhood was in fact a grotesque lie, and that the novel might be a place where this could be reckoned with. Zambra writes that he grew up believing

that the novel belonged to our parents. We cursed them, and also took refuge in their shadows, relieved. While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner. While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of aeroplanes. While the novel was happening, we played hide-and-seek, we played at disappearing.

The place where Fernández and an older writer such as Donoso might be said to meet is Santiago’s National Stadium. Nearly 20,000 people were held there in the eight weeks after the coup; 41 of them were killed. It is one of the locations most strongly associated with the events of 1973. But in The Twilight Zone it’s something else as well: the site of some of the happiest moments of the narrator’s youth. She has memories of concerts by David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart, and of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987. The protagonist of Donoso’s 1986 novel, Curfew, is based on Víctor Jara, the Chilean protest singer and poet who was among those killed at the stadium. The character in Curfew escapes, only to find himself guilty and depressed in exile (‘He sold revolution even though he had no experience of what it was’). When he finally returns to Chile, to attend the funeral of Matilde Urrutia, Pablo Neruda’s widow, a teenage girl asks him: ‘How does it feel to be living under a dictatorship?’ He doesn’t know what to say. Forty years later, it’s a question Fernández and her peers are still trying to answer.

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