The Twilight Zone

Like her earlier novel, Space Invaders, Nona Fernandez’s The Twilight Zone (also translated by Natasha Wimmer) borrows its title from popular culture and uses it as a starting point to examine the years of dictatorship her home country, Chile, suffered between 1973 and 1990. Its starting point is not the television series of the early sixties, but an article in a magazine in the mid-eighties in which a member of the armed forces confesses to his part in the torture and murder of opponents of the regime:

“His face was on the cover… and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I TORTURED PEOPLE… The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story.”

The narrator – we assume Fernandez herself (she was born in 1971) – reads the story as a teenager; she even comments on the man’s likeness to her science teacher. It is she who is transported “into some parallel reality:”

“A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats.”

Two further encounters follow: firstly, when she is writing a television show which features a character based on the man; and secondly when she is working on a script for a documentary in which he is interviewed. We begin to understand what she means when she says that, in a dream, she “inherited the man I am imagining,” presumably the same dream about which she asks him in a letter that is entirely made up of questions:

“Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

What is impressive is how Fernandez turns this admittedly dramatic confession and the chance encounters which follow into a novel. She does this using the tools of the novelist, taking the incidents described in the confession and reimagining them, while continuing to tell her own story. For example, she links the morning routine in the household of the first victims she describes to that in her own:

“On the 29 March 1976, at 7.30 am, the same time my son and his father leave the house each day, Jose and Maria Teresa left to take their children to school.”

This domestic scene is transformed when Jose is captured on the bus under the pretence he is being arrested for robbery. His family cannot say what happens next, but “the man who tortured people”, as he is frequently referred to even though his name is known, can, that he was likely “handcuffed, blindfolded, and then shot and killed…”

“…they then cut off his fingers at the first joint to make identification more difficult, and they tied stones to his feet with wire and threw him in the river.”

One of the most affecting stories Fernandez tells is of the Flores brothers – all three are arrested, and all three are eventually released. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, one of the brothers, Carol, has agreed to work for the intelligence service as long as his brothers are left alone: “The Flores were freed from danger in return for Carol’s soul.” In this way, Fernandez demonstrates the choices which ordinary people faced, and, once again, humanises the individuals who, as she shows at one point, are often little more than a photograph of remembrance.  Yet, despite this, Fernandez avoids the novel becoming simply a collection of painful and upsetting stories. Those stories are there, but surrounded by other elements – not only Fernandez’s own life, but the life of the man who tortured people, who exists in a twilight zone of culpability and redemption, both haunted by his past and a ghost himself:

“That’s how I imagine the man who tortured people: as one of the characters in those books I read as a girl. A man beset by ghosts, by the smell of death.”

The Twilight Zone is not the only touchstone for understanding – in this section (The Ghost Zone) Fernandez also calls on A Christmas Carol. These references work because they also relate to Fernandez’s life as a child and adolescent growing up during the dictatorship. Rather than being simply accusatory, the novel feels like an attempt to understand the experience of those who were tortured and killed, of their loved ones, of the man who tortured people, and of Chile itself. Something of the teenage girl reading the magazine remains in the narrative.

The novel ends with a timeline of the dictatorship written out as free verse with the repeated refrain, “Family members of the disappeared light candles at the cathedral.” But a coda reminds us that at the centre of this is the relationship between the novelist and her informer, and it is this relationship which raises it above its worthiness as a witness to suffering to something very special indeed.

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4 Responses to “The Twilight Zone”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    This sounds like grim, but necessary reading…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It sounds excellent, Grant. A very creative way to tell a powerful, traumatic story in a meaningful/relatable way. I’m sure the author’s background in acting and screenwriting must help here. I think there’s another of her books coming at some point next year – non-fiction, IIRC?

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