Nona Fernandez and the Black Hole of Collective Memory

Nona Fernandez and the Black Hole of Collective Memory

Nona Fernandez and the Black Hole of Collective Memory

Her book-length essay Voyager examines life after Pinochet—and the disjunctures in public remembering the era produced—through an exploration of the stars. 


After her mother begins to experience inexplicable fainting episodes, Nona Fernández finds herself sitting behind a screen in a doctor’s office, observing her mother’s electrical brain activity. To help her relax, the doctor tells her mother to think of a happy memory. Suddenly, the screen lights up with “a neuronal circuit like the most complex stellar tapestry.” When Fernández tells her mother what the thought looked like, she is told that the happy constellation was created by the memory of Nona’s birth—a starscape sparked by a moment in which she participated, though the memory of the event is inaccessible to Fernández.

It’s a fitting entry point to the Chilean author’s latest work, Voyager (translated by Natasha Wimmer), a book-length meditation that grapples with the scale and resilience of memory, from our interpersonal relations to the lies—reinforced on a global scale—about our countries and their horrors, which are often hidden in plain sight. In Chile, historical narrative in the post-Pinochet era is often contentious due to the carefully crafted misinformation campaigns, banishments, executions, and disappearances that were rampant during the military junta. In a country where you can visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, remembering has become its own form of political activity.

Voyager, rather than being organized chronologically or with a more conventional narrative arc, is instead organized by constellations (Southern Cross, Cancer, Scorpio, etc.), which gives its readers the feeling that they are drifting through space, using radars, cameras, and other sensors to locate and collect fragments of memory. It is through this impulse to record that we realize forgetting would be a crisis for Fernández and those she loves. In fact, her mother is troubled less by her own safety during her fainting episodes—there are many instances when the consequences could be worse than embarrassment—than by the random blanks in her memory, which bystanders often fill in for her: You knelt down, you vomited, you collapsed on the ground.

One of the constellations that Fernández returns to repeatedly in Voyager is the Constelación de los Caidos, an Amnesty International project to create a new constellation of stars named after the 26 Chileans killed by the Caravan of Death in the Atacama Desert in 1973. This death squad was responsible for systematically murdering those perceived as supporters of President Salavador Allende after the coup against his government. To cover its tracks, the military used bulldozers to disinter the remains and rebury them elsewhere, leaving families searching for splinters of bone in the desert. Hence the Constelación de los Caidos: one star for each life lost. Fernández tells us that the Atacama Desert is the perfect place to stargaze because of the climate, the elevation, the lack of humidity and artificial light. Then she takes it one step further and says that “if we recall that everything we see in the sky is part of our past, we must accept the idea that the Atacama Desert is the planet’s most important portal for time travel.” And by the time the starlight reaches our eyes, many of the stars have already died, having consumed all of their energy. Our brains work that way too, creating orchestras of light when remembering what has already been consigned to the past. At the memorial to symbolically name the constellation, Fernández joins the families and loved ones of the disappeared, all of them bundled against the cold of the desert night. An astronomer informs them that the stars they’ve come to christen won’t be visible until well after midnight, so instead he passes around photographs of each one, printed with a special Amnesty International graphic that states the name of the victim it will commemorate. It’s important to add here that the International Astronomical Union never agreed to change the names of the stars, and that the website devoted to the project no longer exists. In a footnote, Fernández describes the website as “a dead star whose light has yet to reach us.”

When Fernández brings us to the Aries constellation, she recounts how her 17-year-old son—referred to as “D” and born as the sun transited the ram-shaped constellation—was asked to give a speech on the 30th anniversary of the 1988 plebiscite in which Chileans voted to decide whether to keep Augusto Pinochet in power or call a new election. Before the ceremony, D is approached by members of the student council and teachers from his school. They believe that several sentences in his speech are “hurtful, hostile, or intolerant” and have a “radical tone.” His thoughts are censured before they can even be uttered, because they don’t adhere to the idea of democracy that Chile is now promoting. His omitted words ask:

How is it possible that political parties that were active in the dictatorship and continue to support it in part or in full still exist? How is it possible that political leaders in parties that worked with Pinochet are members of parliament today? How is it possible that there are public places named after leading figures in the military regime, like Jaime Guzmán?… How is it possible that we’re surprised by the fact that the first Transition president was involved in the coup? How is it possible that we fail to see the democratic ethic this promotes?

Fernández shines a light on these instances when critical voices were edited or erased, making the reader wonder what sort of diluted ideas of history the next generation will inherit.

Of course, any reader of Fernández will recognize her interest in memory, both collective and individual. In her novella Space Invaders, a group of friends discuss what they remember of their childhood, games that mirror school assemblies, and a friend whose father was a national police agent. Fernández included much of Space Invaders within her next novel, The Twilight Zone. The narrator, a documentarian, develops an obsession with Andrés Valenzuela, a former intelligence agent with the Chilean Air Force who, overcome with grief, confessed to torturing people in an interview for the magazine Cauce. The narrator imagines Valenzuela haunted by the images of his victims: “Remember who I am, they say. Remember where I was, remember what was done to me, where I was killed, where I was buried.”

Mixing memories of computer games and TV shows with real-life horror and torture is not an attempt at cheap analogy, but simply the truth of her own experience: The trauma of history always intermingles with the mundane and the banal. It would be misleading to say that people were not living their lives, taking the bus, going to the movies, while others were condemned to death in the house next door. It is reminiscent of a moment that W.G. Sebald recounts in On the Natural History of Destruction, when the German writer Hans Erich Nossack entered a suburb of Hamburg unaffected by the massive Allied bombing in 1943 and was shocked to see people sitting out on their balconies leisurely sipping coffee while, not far away, bloated carcasses in the streets were being eaten by rats. It also mirrors a moment that Fernández recounts in Voyager, when Jaime Guzmán (an instrumental figure of the Chilean dictatorship, who subsequently served as a senator thanks to the Constitution he helped craft) was shot leaving a university where he worked. The assassination attempt happened moments before Fernández left the same campus—but rather than being stricken with fear by the sound of gunshots, she was mainly focused on the fact that she was already late for a theater rehearsal at her house.

Voyager concludes with the Gemini constellation and the twin Voyager probes launched by NASA in 1977. After traveling 3.7 billion miles, Voyager 1 used its camera one last time to capture the most distant picture ever taken of Earth. In an image known as Pale Blue Dot, the planet is a tiny pixel, a speck of dust held in a sunbeam. Even though their purpose was to study the outer planets of our solar system, the probes were also outfitted as a sort of greeting card of the human experience in case they were found by another life-form in the future. The music of Bach, Mozart, and Chuck Berry, the sound of rain and wind, and a picture of the Taj Mahal—these were all artifacts of human culture placed in the probes. We also included the electrical activity of a human brain recorded by an electroencephalogram. All of this was encoded into sound and stored on a gold-coated copper phonograph record that could survive hundreds of millions of years of interstellar travel.

Together, Space Invaders, The Twilight Zone, and Voyager function like the twin probes collecting information with every sensor at their disposal, while simultaneously telling a story that says: This is who we were; this is what it was like. To record your experiences and tell your story, regardless of scale, serves as a reckoning with a past that so many have tried to bury.

Fernández’s readers are asked—much like the Voyager 1 probe—to look back one last time before being propelled into the future. Yet instead of a pale blue dot, all we see is a black hole. We’re reminded not of our own insignificance, but instead of the altered history that the uninitiated will inherit. Fernández’s obsession with memory and truth now becomes clear. Those places where sound and light are plunged into darkness—entire lives and deaths, critical pamphlets and speeches, all folded in on themselves and collapsing under their own gravity—carry with them an unknown weight: “the excluded names, the invisibilized groups, the hidden horrors, the redacted opinions…” As for what has been lost and what might be regained, Fernández has this to say: “And then again comes the vision of those terrifying, menacing black holes. I used to believe they were empty space, blots of nothingness lying in wait. Now I realize they’re actually places of great density of information, of material maximally condensed until it’s no longer detectable.”

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy