The Distortions of Pinochet

The Distortions of Pinochet

Nona Fernández’s novels reckon with the Chilean dictatorship through surreality and memory.

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On August 27, 1984, a man named Andrés Valenzuela walked into a magazine’s offices in Santiago, Chile, and asked to speak with a journalist. The magazine, Cauce, had been founded during a brief thaw in Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship, then entering its 11th year. Valenzuela surprised the journalist when he told her he was an intelligence agent in the Chilean Air Force. But he surprised her even more when he told her that he wanted to sit for an interview and talk about his role in the disappearance, torture, and murder of left-wing dissidents.

This real-life event is the point of departure for the Chilean writer, playwright, and actor Nona Fernández’s novel The Twilight Zone (translated by Natasha Wimmer). Fernández is part of a loose cohort of Chilean writers who grew up during the dictatorship and its immediate aftermath. The novel, her sixth, fits neatly into the template she, Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane, Alia Trabucco Zerán, and others have developed over the past 20 years. In their work, the Chile of today—a prosperous democracy—is overlaid against the manifold horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship, which began with a coup d’etat on September 11, 1973, and ended on March 11, 1990, when Pinochet stepped down. In these authors’ novels, coming to terms with the dictatorship and its continuing impact on contemporary Chilean society is metaphorically equivalent to the loss of their childhood innocence.

The Twilight Zone was originally published in 2016, following two novellas by Fernández, Chilean Electric and Space Invaders. (The latter was also translated by Wimmer and published in 2019.) In all three books, Fernández experiments with form in order to examine the malleability of memory. In Chilean Electric, utility bills and maps of Santiago at the turn of the 20th century accompany the revelation that the narrator’s grandmother had fabricated an oft-retold childhood memory. Space Invaders uses the classic arcade game as a structuring device, its narrator and her childhood friends arguing over competing memories of a former classmate whose father was a military officer during the dictatorship in chapters titled “First Life,” “Second Life,” “Third Life,” and “Game Over.”

In The Twilight Zone, the author reflects on how the eponymous television show—a fun-house mirror of the conditions of the American middle class in the nuclear age—and its uncanny premises seem to match, to a disturbing degree, the conditions of life under Pinochet. Throughout the book, the novel’s nameless narrator, a middle-aged writer who closely resembles the narrators of the prior books, recalls her youthful obsession with the series, matching storylines of individual Twilight Zone episodes to Valenzuela’s revelations. That such horrors were unfolding not far from the darkened living room where the narrator watched the show as a girl is the dark irony that propels the novel forward.

The narrator, in returning to this time, imagines her way out of her living room, dramatizing not only Valenzuela’s decision to turn against his fellow agents but also the kidnappings, torture, and murders in which he participated. These dramatizations, however, are drawn from the record left by Valenzuela in his interviews with Cauce and its allies in the opposition, leaving ambiguous what place exactly Fernández’s narrator is meant to occupy in the story. The novel’s flat, near-affectless prose—sparse and unadorned in the original Spanish and rendered fluidly into English by Wimmer—reflects her inability, or her unwillingness, to involve herself. This distance allows the narrator to bring the past to vivid life, but it has the unfortunate effect of turning the reader into a helpless spectator staring into a screen.

The Twilight Zone’s narrator was a girl when she first saw Valenzuela’s face on a copy of Cauce under the simple headline yo torturé (“I Tortured People”). The interview, printed in a special insert, confirmed what Cauce’s investigations had previously suggested—that the military was systematically targeting, torturing, and murdering dissidents, activists, and anyone affiliated with left-wing politics.

As a girl, the narrator reflects, semi-clandestine magazines like Cauce, passed hand to hand in schoolyards, helped her make sense of what was going on in the world of adults. Most arresting were the images they published, photographs that “gradually arranged themselves into a confusing landscape that I never managed to map in its entirety, though each dark detail lingered in my dreams.” One of these details, Valenzuela’s “bushy mustache,” surprises the narrator, now an adult and a writer, when it reappears some 30 years later. She is helping some friends edit footage for a documentary about the dictatorship when she unexpectedly stumbles across an interview they’d recently done with Valenzuela. “The man who tortured people looks me in the face as if it’s really me he’s talking to,” she writes. “He’s speaking in a voice I’ve not heard before. It’s a calm voice, very different from what it must have been when he turned up to give testimony in eighty-four. Soft and timid, even; nothing like what I had imagined. It’s as if he’s answering my friends’ questions despite himself, reluctantly, but with the conviction that it’s his duty, as though he’s following orders.”

The novel, from this point forward, develops along three interwoven narrative strands. In the first, Fernández’s narrator follows Valenzuela as he goes into hiding after giving the interview and eventually flees the country. In the second, she dramatizes the abductions, torture, and murders that Valenzuela participated in and later testified about. In the third, which meanders between these reconstructions, we follow the narrator in present-day Chile as she reflects on the dictatorship’s legacy and its relationship to the television show.

The strands begin to converge toward the end of the book, when the story of the interview’s preparation and eventual publication, in 1985, is intertwined with the narrator’s description of the 2016 commemoration for a memorial of three of the dictatorship’s victims. The victims, we learn, were Communist Party members involved in preparing the interview for publication, “connecting the dots, recognizing beloved names on the list of the dead, linking the crimes described to other crimes, using the material to reconstruct scenes of detention, torture, execution, guessing at the identity of the gents behind each nickname, making the pieces fit, untangling a skein that even now is hard to follow.” But—and here Fernández leans on a Twilight Zone episode about a book that kills its readers—when the interview is unexpectedly published ahead of schedule, Valenzuela’s fellow agents abduct and murder the three men. One of the killers, the narrator reports, was the father of her former classmate—the same one who appears in Space Invaders.

The section is haunting. Fernández is in full command of her narrative ability, maintaining and ratcheting up the tension despite having already revealed how this story is going to end—terribly. Yet the revelation of the narrator’s glancing involvement in this story, of just how close she’d come, feels unsatisfying. And that’s before Fernández devotes a dozen or so pages to an extended riff on contemporary Chilean history as a cover of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The narrator continually compares Valenzuela to a ghost, but the figure whose absence most marks the book is the narrator herself.

Early on, after seeing the documentary interview with Valenzuela, the narrator decides to write him a letter. “I didn’t understand everything that was happening around me when I was a girl—I still don’t,” she writes, “and I suppose that, in my attempt to understand back then, I was captivated by your words, by the possibility of using them to decipher the enigma.”

But when it comes to elucidating exactly what she wants from him now, all she’s left with are questions: “Why should I write about you? Why should I resurrect a story that began more than forty years ago?” The questions roll on, becoming at once more personal and more abstract: “Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

The pronoun shift, from “I” and “you” to “we,” is striking. After the Cauce interview—an act of unimaginable courage—Valenzuela fled Chile for France, where he apparently still lives under state protection. He returned to Chile in 2014 to provide testimony in the ongoing criminal cases against his former colleagues. He has given interviews to journalists, lawyers, and the documentarians for whom the narrator reviews footage. He has, nearly as far as it is possible, given “the world the bad news.” The “we” of her final question, then, is really a restatement of her first question: Why must I tell this story that has already been told? But the letter, like her question, remains unsent, unmentioned, and forgotten in the pages that follow.

Why not send the letter? Why not mention Mónica González, the heroic journalist who interviewed Valenzuela, by name? If it seems misguided to ask questions like these of a novel, the book’s insistence on remembering, and on remembering correctly, practically demands it. Fernández is exceedingly careful with the material at hand. She—or, rather, the narrator—scrupulously notes the moments at which she is departing from the record. Nearly every detail in the book is fact-checkable, down to the texture of Valenzuela’s mustache.

Yet it’s hard not to read the book’s formal ambiguity—caught between autofiction and narrative nonfiction—as a kind of shield, one that allows Fernández to avoid the responsibilities and commitments of nonfiction, on the one hand, and fiction’s imperative of imaginative creation on the other.

Nitya Rayapati, in the Chicago Review of Books, referred to the book as a work of “critical fabulation,” after Saidiya Hartman’s method of literary scholarship. But Hartman has a skeptical, even antagonistic, relationship with her archival material, with its many gaps, elisions, and outright distortions. Hartman’s “fabulation” is an act of recovery, of scholarly recompense for centuries of violence against Black people. For Fernández, meanwhile, the archive is fragile, a precious bulwark standing between democracy and fascism. Those interested in keeping the memory of the dictatorship’s horrors alive must constantly do battle against the desire to forget, to leave the past dead and buried. For her, it seems, the remembering—filled out by a bit of fictionalization—is enough.

And it is easy enough to forget. As the narrator notes, Patricio Aylwin, Pinochet’s democratically elected successor, backed the military coup as a conservative senator in 1973. Pinochet, meanwhile, remained commander in chief of the Chilean armed forces after leaving the presidency before being named “senator for life” in 1998. He died under house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of kidnapping, torture, and murder. The constitution he put in place is still the law of the land in Chile.

But the story—unlike the novel—doesn’t end there. Though Pinochet may have escaped justice, Chileans are still pushing for change. In October 2020, in response to massive protests over income inequality and rising levels of student debt, Chileans voted overwhelmingly to convene a constitutional convention to write a new governing document.

“What is writing if not a kind of testimony?” Fernández asked in an essay published in 2015, a year before The Twilight Zone was originally published. “Every personal story we offer adds more meat and more blood to that general story that sometimes runs the risk of being entombed in museums, in official histories, in univocal and classified editions.” Valenzuela has done far more than most in making his story available for anyone who wishes to read it. The lives of those he helped torture and kill are there, too, marked down and preserved within the archive. The mystery at the center of this book is finally the narrator, who offers neither meat nor blood to this story.

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