The Archival Abyss of Pinochet’s Chile: On Nona Fernández’s “Space Invaders”

IN HIS 1995 ESSAY Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Jacques Derrida describes the archive as “a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration.” “In an archive,” he continues, “there should not be any absolute dissociation, any heterogeneity or secret […] [T]his can only have grave consequences for a theory of the archive, as well as for its institutional implementation.” Chilean author Nona Fernandez’s 2013 novel Space Invaders, released in Natasha Wimmer’s English translation by Graywolf Press in the United States in 2019 and published in the United Kingdom this July by Daunt Books, operates on the cause of archival collapse. It is about the spectral voices that haunt official history—a taking into account of the forgetfulness and erasure that are both a condition of the archive and a potential source of its undoing.

The novel revolves around Estrella González, a 10-year-old girl living in Santiago during the final decade of the Pinochet dictatorship. González’s old classmates, now scattered around the city working their respective jobs, share their memories of growing up together. González’s father, the reader is informed early on, “was a big man in uniform who was always traveling and could occasionally be seen dropping González off at school in the morning.” There are numerous intimations that he is working for the regime, including an “accident” at work that leaves him with a hand “like the peg leg of a pirate,” and the sudden introduction of a Chevy-driving associate that González refers to as her “new uncle.” It is not until many years later, while watching the news, that her friends come to learn about González’s father’s role in “the kidnapping and murder of communist militants.”

“Sometimes we dream about her,” says an unattributed voice early on. “From our far-flung mattresses in Puente Alto, La Florida, Estación Central, or San Miguel.” As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this “we” is purposely elusive — it represents a powerful but fragile assemblage that refracts individual subjecthood, as if through a prism:

Acosta says that in his dream she’s a girl, the way she was when we met her, in her school uniform, her hair pulled back in two long braids. Zúñiga says no, she never wore her hair in braids. He sees her face framed by long, thick black hair, hair that only he remembers, because Bustamante sees her another way, and so does Maldonado and so does Riquelme and so does Donoso, and each and every vision is different. […] We share dreams from afar. Or one dream, at least, embroidered in white thread on the bib of a checked school smock: Estrella González.

The process of González’s commemorative becoming is palpable yet wraithlike — it is less the vindication of any single account than the desire to remember that unites them: “Amid all our oneiric differences, we agree that we see her as we each remember her, in our own way.” The resulting effect is that of a testimonial hinterland in which the personal and the collective, the factual and the affective, become impossible to distinguish from one another.

The novel’s title refers to the classic video game in which the children immerse themselves, perhaps unconsciously seeking refuge from the horror that surrounds them. The alien invaders on the screen, however, are killed in “a cycle of endless slaughter,” suggesting a world that is suffused with the indelible traces of the regime. What first appears as retrofuturism morphs into fascism, becoming an allegory for the systematic annihilation of political subversives — “an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien.” One of the group, Zúñiga, risks being marked out as a subversive himself: “[H]his parents are resistance leaders and his brother is in the resistance too,” Fuenzalida tells the others, trying to explain to them why Zúñiga and Riquelme were caught distributing anti-Pinochet flyers outside their school. In a flourish that captures the novel’s subtle brilliance, this scene is later repurposed in the wake of the Caso Degollados (the “case of the slit throats”), a notorious 1985 incident in which police agents murdered three Communist Party members: “Fuenzalida hears the crowd tossing flower petals at the hearses, thousands of petals that cover everything like a shower of flyers scattered in the street.” Given the explosion of brutality in the novel’s chronicles, the devastating beauty of Fernandez’s prose is almost unbearable.

The encroachment of the dictatorship into all areas of the children’s lives is registered as a kind of geometric severity — an obsession with an order that extends from the “perfect formation” of the video game’s alien army to the militarism of the school day: “We form a perfect square, a kind of boardgame […] Trousers perfectly ironed, school crest sewn on at the proper chest height, no threads dangling.” Beneath this surface orderliness, Fernández excavates the layers of history that are too complex and painful for the archival imagination. In a particularly memorable scene, the friends recall a school drama production based on “the War of the Pacific, Chile’s never-ending battle with Peru and Bolivia.” Zúñiga is assigned the role of Chilean navy officer Arturo Prat, but instead of dropping down onto the enemy ship as he has practiced, he falls into the white sheet that is the sea. Zúñiga quite literarily misses the mark of nationalist mythmaking, landing in the space of history’s oceanic remainder. In focalizing this remainder, and thus exposing the gaps in the archive, the novel foregrounds the historical violence — and violent historicism — through which national memory is collated.

Indeed, the specter of the unspoken hangs like a black cloud over Space Invaders, imbuing every sentence with a creeping sense of dread. This dread is finally realized in the novel’s final third, when insinuation gives way to a densely woven testimony that includes the arrest of Zúñiga’s family and the gruesome torture of Riquelme’s mother. Space Invaders, however, braids its mournfulness with defiance, positing friendship and togetherness as a form of resistance. Time and time again, the collective is presented as a protective cocoon that shields the children from — though eventually cracking under — the weight of the dictatorship. For instance, during a parents’ meeting at their school, the children sneak into the upper-year classroom and turn out the lights, at which point the collective voice says:

[W]e, the usual someones, stop being ourselves. Now no one is who they claim to be. No name is embroidered on the lapel of any smock. […] González is no longer González because now she’s part Maldonado, part Fuenzalida, part Acosta too. […] We’re just one body with many paws and hands and heads, a little Martian from Space Invadersan octopus with multiform arms playing this game in a darkness that’s about to lift.

This multiform body is both a repository of comfort and an implicit rejection of the neoliberal individualism the dictatorship sought to install. As the narrative progresses, the resistant power of this body grows more apparent, peaking during a mass walkout from school during which the friends find themselves absorbed by the crowd: “We howl a howl that comes from somewhere that isn’t our mouths, a chant invented and started by others, but made for us.”

Though the group’s eventual dispersal would appear to put a dent in such solidarity, the memories that connect them across space and time serve as a reminder that the fight for justice continues. In a dialectical about-face, it is precisely this feeling of distant proximity that brings the friends back together in the novel’s final scene: “We were scheduled to meet here. We’ve risen from our sheets and mattresses scattered around the city to arrive precisely on time. As always, the dream summons us. A pay phone rings on the street […] we listen attentively.”

Presumably, the voice on the other end of the line is the long-vanished González, or at least the memory of that voice that continues to spread among the friendship group. The novel thus leaves us on the brink of an archival abyss, encouraging us to take the leap into a past that may be beyond saving but which still has yet to be written.

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Josh Weeks is a PhD student and Finishing Fellow at the University of Amsterdam. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, 3:AM Magazine, Review 31and New Socialist.

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