Space Invaders – Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

It was the release of Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone by Daunt Books that first put me onto Nona Fernández and I’m so glad to have discovered her. Space Invaders has also been published by Graywolf Press in the US, and boy it’s impressive.

Early on, in this gem of a novella by Fernández, one of the characters called Riquelme is in Estrella Gonzalez’ house playing Space Invaders, both children completely engrossed in this video game.

The green glow-in-the-dark bullets of the earthlings’ cannons scudded up the screen until they hit some alien. The little Martians descended in blocks, in perfect formation, shooting their projectiles, waving their octopus or squid tentacles, but Gonzalez and Riquelme had superpowers, and the aliens always ended up exploding.

Riquelme is the only one from the group of children, around which this novel centers, to have visited Gonzalez’ house and he remembers hours after hours of playing Space Invaders with Estrella, this vivid recollection now the only point of connect between the two.

Space Invaders is a video game whose goal is to defeat wave after wave of descending aliens with a horizontally moving laser to earn as many points as possible. Launched in the 1970s, it became a cultural phenomenon; quickly becoming one of the most influential video games of all time.

Using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernandez brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. These shards of memories that pierce their consciousness are often slippery, the lines between fact and fiction blurred, but they conjure up an evocative image of troubled childhood in an increasingly complex adult world, a world far out of the reach of children and which they couldn’t comprehend at the time. The atmosphere of menace and lurking danger is palpable; an uneasiness that seeps into their bones that they can’t quite put a name to.  

They vividly remember rigid school assemblies (“We spread out, each of us resting a right arm on the shoulder of the classmate ahead to mark the perfect distance between us”), and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor (“Year after year I take part in this perpetual disaster, that it seems, will never end”).

Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). The way each of her classmates remember her is also unique to each – Acosta dreams about her hair pulled back in two long braids, Zuniga sees “her face framed by long, thick black hair”, Fuenzalida doesn’t care much for physical traits but is captivated by Estrella’s voice, because Fuenzalida believes that “in dreams voices are like fingerprints.” Maldonado dreams about letters, an exchange of correspondence with Estrella where the latter displays a different personality unlike her usual quiet self, and last but not the least is Riquelme, the only classmate to have stepped inside Estrella’s home and who dreams of “spare hands” which morph into nightmares. These hands are nothing but green prostheses worn by Estrella’s father after losing his real hands in an accident.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the orthopedic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts. Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien.

As if a tensed childhood wasn’t enough, as the children grow up they are thrown headlong into the murky realm of politics, even if it’s a path they would otherwise not have chosen given a choice. But what does “going into politics” really mean? What does it mean to be in the resistance?

Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naïve, we leaped onto the deck of the first enemy ship in a first and final attempt doomed to failure.

Pinochet’s regime was the epitome of cruel military dictatorships marked by repeated violations of human rights as citizens – particularly those opposing the regime – mysteriously disappeared, were tortured or executed (“Coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them”). The US’ alleged support to the government is also subtly alluded to, particularly exemplified by the Red Chevy (another cultural reference) driven by Estrella’s nebulous uncle Claudio.

Time isn’t straightforward, it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps us in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape. Whether we were there or not is no longer clear.

While the content of Space Invaders is an amalgam of dreams and fragments, what also makes this novella so novel is its structure and voice. Fernández fashions her novella into four sections which she calls First Life, Second Life, Third Life and Game Over – in tandem with the rules of the actual game where the players are given three lives to shoot the aliens before they reach the screen edge. And then, like in Greek plays, the narrative voice is first person plural where this close-knit circle of friends forms the chorus that builds up into a crescendo; individual first person narratives sometimes materializing from these collective voices.

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of what childhood means during a particularly brutal regime, the loss of innocence it entails; of events which are buried deep into the recesses of the mind but not entirely forgotten, and how these memories resurface later in our adult lives in all their imperfection as we try to ascribe some meaning to them. Life under dictatorship like the Space Invaders is a game but atleast the video game has straightforward rules that the children understand, unlike real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable (“We are the most important piece in the game, but we still don’t know what game it is”).

In The Woods – Tana French

Tana French is an author I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Some love her, some have mixed opinions and I was curious to know on which side of the fence I would fall. As of now, she has written six novels under the Dublin Murder Squad series and two standalone novels, and I decided to begin with the very first, In The Woods. My verdict – I really, really liked it.

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolour nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silk-screen blue.

Thus begins Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. The woods were no stranger to the children; they knew it like the back of their hands.

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the micro-landscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

So when they asked for permission that day to spend some time there, they were allowed to do so provided they were back in time for tea. But when the children failed to return by teatime, one of the parents knew that something was amiss. Large search parties went further into the forest to hunt for the children, and came across one of them – Adam Ryan – standing with his back and palms pressed against a large oak tree, his nails digging deep into the bark. Adam’s shoes were heavily bloodstained but otherwise he suffered minor injuries. However, he had no recollection of the events, of Jamie and Peter’s whereabouts, or why he was the only one to be discovered. Given Adam’s memory loss and no new leads, the case goes cold.

Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there.

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.

We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind. Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

The brief outline of the case is this – at an archeological site in Knocknaree bordered by woods, the very woods where Rob’s friends vanished all those years ago, Katy Devlin, a twelve-year old girl, is found dead on a high rise altar. Brutally hit by a stone and subsequently strangled, Katy’s death sends shockwaves throughout the small Knocknaree community. We learn that Katy had become quite the talk of the town before her untimely death having secured a place at a prestigious ballet school for which the community had organized a fundraiser. Enmeshed in this story is the politics of the place – the archeological site is to be completely razed to make way for a motorway funded by nebulous corporations, a development that does not sit well with certain members of the community.

We are then introduced to a host of characters – the motley crew of archeologists digging for finds at the site, the dysfunctional Devlin family, the protestors signed up for the ‘Move the Motorway’ campaign, not to mention certain key figures from Rob’s past.  

In The Woods, then, is a fascinating exploration of fractured memories, the elusive aspect of them; memories like jagged shards that pierce the consciousness when least expected. It’s a closer look at how certain events can trigger seismic shifts in memories forcing those wedged in the subterranean recesses of the mind to suddenly reveal themselves, but that too only partly. For Rob, the Devlin murder in Knocknaree is too close to home, a painful reminder of a traumatic period he would rather forget. Rob is an extremely flawed character, and as the novel progresses seems more and more lost grappling with a range of emotions – anger, guilt, suspicion and fear. It is crystal clear that the trauma entrenched within him is unresolved threatening to spill over into his work and personal relationships jeopardizing them.

And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.

French uses the Devlin murder as a medium to study the widening cracks in society, particularly the unholy nexus between politicians and property developers and how small time residents end up getting a raw deal.

Corruption is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired: the guerilla cunning of the colonized is still ingrained into us, and tax evasion and shady deals are seen as forms of the same spirit of rebellion that hid horses and seed potatoes from the British.

References are made to the Celtic Tiger, or ‘Ireland’s Economic Miracle’ and the accumulation of wealth it fuelled, how the generation before it slipped through the cracks never to corner a slice of the country’s rapidly expanding wealth pie.

There’s a gothic feel to this book amplified by the fear of the unknown; the deep, dark, mysterious forest at once terrifying and familiar. The other strength of the book is the depiction of Rob’s relationship with Cassie, the camaraderie and banter between them becomes a febrile ground for close friendship to the point that they gradually become comfortable sharing their secrets with each other, secrets they have told no one else.

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. She is interested in character studies, of delving into their minds…highlighting the psychological aspects which expose their flaws as well as their strengths. The flashbacks often have a filmic quality to them, tinged with nostalgia and regret and French is great at portraying the simplicity and innocence of children to whom the complex world of adults is unfathomable.

Trauma is a theme that pulsates throughout the novel; French is particularly keen to examine this topic from varied angles. For instance, while the events of Adam’s childhood form the core of this theme, Cassie is not without scars either having been profoundly affected in her student days by the actions of a pathological liar.

In a straightforward police procedural, the solving of the crime takes centrestage, the resolution is neat with the threads all tied up, and I liked how In The Woods refused to conform to these requirements. It’s a beautifully written crime novel, melancholic, haunting and poignant, a reminder of how our childhood crucially defines who we shape up as adults.

I have now bought the rest of the books in the Dublin Murder Squad series and am looking forward to making my way through them.  

The Trouble with Happiness & Other Stories – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen first came to my attention three years ago with the publication of her remarkable The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three memoirs – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – released in slim, individual volumes by Penguin Classics. I loved that trilogy, some of the best books I read in 2019. Another book called The Faces, a lived experience of mental illness, was also pretty good. And now we have the latest offering, her short story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, another superb book that in terms of content and style pretty much mirrors the trilogy.

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each. Just like the previous collections I have reviewed, I won’t focus on all of them but more on those stories that really stood out for me.

In the first story, “The Umbrella”, we are introduced to Helga who “had always – unreasonably – expected more from life than it could deliver.” Helga is presented to us as on ordinary woman having never demonstrated a special talent of any kind.” She is hardworking, accommodating, and quiet and like her girlfriends interested in dancing and men, although she never displays the kind of desperation her friends sometimes do.

Over time, many small infatuations rippled the surface of her mind, like the spring breeze that makes new leaves tremble without changing their life’s course. 

But then Egon comes along, falling hard for Helga and they get engaged. Egon is a mechanic, interested in sports, and not culturally inclined, and yet during their days of courtship he reads poetry, using modes of expression very unlike him. Egon is happy with the fact that he is engaged to a chaste woman. But her first experience of physical intimacy leaves her confused with the sinking feeling that there was nothing very extraordinary about it.  For her parents though, it’s a perfect match, but Helga is beset by uneasiness, the source of which she can’t put a name to.

When she was half asleep, a strange desire came drifting into her consciousness: If only I had an umbrella, she thought. It occurred to her suddenly that this item, which for certain people was just a natural necessity, was something she had dreamed of her whole life. As a child, she had filled her Christmas wish lists with sensible, affordable things: a doll, a pair of red mittens, roller skates. And then, when the gifts were lying under the tree on Christmas Eve, she’d been gripped by an ecstasy of expectation. She’d looked at her boxes as if they held the meaning of life itself, and her hands had shaken as she opened them. Afterward, she’d sat crying over the doll, the mittens, and the roller skates she had asked for. “You ungrateful child,” her mother had hissed. “You always ruin it for us.” 

The umbrella, in many ways, symbolizes a secret desire, a want, and an alternate world that Helga keeps longing for and thinking about, because the reality has turned out to be a disappointment. While her life has all the hallmarks of respectability – a home, husband and child – Helga increasingly becomes indifferent, lost in her inner world. But then, a day dawns when she converts her desire for an umbrella to a reality that has dramatic consequences.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of insecurities to spill out (“A hollow melancholy enveloped her with an unmerciful darkness she could not escape”). Our unnamed woman hears her husband answer the telephone, and tell the person at the other end who is advertising dance classes that his wife doesn’t dance. Nothing wrong with that statement when taken at face value, but for the protagonist it reveals many hidden meanings. We learn that she suffers from a limp that is quite conspicuous when she walks but it soon becomes apparent that this is a childhood torment that she hasn’t completely left behind, ready to resurface at the slightest hint. She is an accomplished woman capable of eloquently speaking on a variety of topics such as art, literature, politics and is married to a man who loves and desires her. So why is she on tenterhooks?

Did he think about it when they were out together? All the time? Had she lulled herself into a false sense of security here, inside the walls of the home they had created together?

In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl. When the story opens, Grete is kneeling on a chair observing her mother put on make-up for a carnival she’s about to attend, a spectacle that completely absorbs the young girls’ attention.  Grete’s father is nearby, seemingly fast asleep, after having worked a night shift, and the mother is anxious about not waking him up. Grete loves her mother’s costume called Queen of the Night that “made a nice crinkling sound when she moved”, the nicest and the most expensive dress in the catalogue. This costume becomes a symbol of how mismatched the couple is, money as always remains a bone of contention.

The cloth for that one had only cost two kroner, but her father, as usual, still had to calculate how many bags of oatmeal or pounds of carrots could have been bought with the money. What nonsense. They had oatmeal and carrots to eat anyway, and her mother didn’t get many chances to enjoy herself, and it wasn’t her fault he was unemployed half the year, so she had to go out and clean for other people.

Grete loves her mother and resents her father taunting her all the time (“Grete was completely convinced that they would be better off if her father wasn’t around”), and the reader observes a brief moment of bonding between father and daughter but that spell is quickly broken.

“One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. On one particularly cold morning, a young girl is wearing her new brown winter coat for the first time, in anticipation of a journey she is about to embark on with her father. Her nanny Miss Hansen is inconsolable, and wakes up the girl that morning unable to stop crying. The girl’s mother is also dazed, trying to brace herself for this difficult moment, vaguely aware that she is being judged and secretly admonished by everyone around her. The father is obviously coming to take the young girl away, as previously arranged with his wife, but the girl is unaware of the real circumstances of this ‘so-called trip’ she’s about to take with her father (“Children are so willing to be tricked to avoid the truth they don’t want to hear”).

In “Depression”, another excellent piece, a woman married to her depressed husband, comes pretty close to a nervous breakdown herself. The story opens with Lulu, washing stacked plates at the sink, dead tired after playing the perfect hostess at a house party. The festivities aren’t entirely over yet, her husband Kai, who has smoked and drank copiously, is still regaling his guests, but by this time Lulu could not be bothered. We learn that Kai is suffering from depression, the first bout having lasted five months…

Of course, it was unfortunate, but to her mind it wasn’t the end of the world. And certainly not for him. In the end, she was the one who had to do the heavy lifting.

Lulu is seemingly content and well-adjusted to Kai and his unemployment is not a nagging source of worry because they are supported by his parents financially. But a sense of discontent is gradually looming large within Lulu. Kai is visiting a psychoanalyst but it doesn’t seem to be helping, while the costs of those visits keep mounting. During periods when he manages to cast away the shackles of his mental illness, Kai becomes a transformed person, happy, carefree and eager to socialize. Those moments gladden Lulu but it feels fragile, as if a bomb is ticking, because the next bout of depression could just be around the corner ready once again to drown Kai. Meanwhile, Kai seems to be taking Lulu’s good health for granted, because Lulu often wonders “how he would take it if one day she ‘gave up’!” Until one day, she does come close to breaking point.

Bullying fathers and passive-aggressive behaviour forms the backbone of “The Knife”, another superb story and the first in the second collection. The father in this tale is an overtly cold, rational man who abhors affection and sentimentality.

One of the duties he adopted, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general attitude toward life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a rational person who disdained sentimentality.

He is married to a woman called Esther and they have a young son, although the father is ambivalent towards them, sometimes struck with the thought – “My life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t around.”

Meanwhile, the father has gifted his son a very special knife, a relic that has passed hands through the generations. And the boy has been warned not to lose it and look after it well. Every Christmas, it becomes a tradition for the son to display the knife to his parents, but one Christmas, the son in a fit of extreme fear and panic is forced to confess that he has lost the knife. The mother senses the fear and immediately takes her son’s side, nonchalantly declaring that the knife is probably just misplaced and bound to turn up soon. The father, however, is livid. But is the father genuinely upset that a family relic has been lost or is he secretly happy at the chance of asserting his authority over his son?

“Anxiety” is an excellent but nerve-wracking tale of a claustrophobic marriage, of a woman distressed by her husband’s tyrannical behaviour only to find her world slowly shrinking. Married to a man who is a light sleeper, our protagonist’s life is defined by the tone of the creaking noises made by the bed on which her husband sleeps or tries to sleep. Gripped by the fear of rousing him and incurring his wrath, the woman is compelled to move around on tiptoe in her own home. Stressed by the momentous effort required to remain quiet, she often longs to just head out and spend time with her sister Henny. Until one day she does. At Henny’s welcoming home, bristling with warmth, noise and children, our protagonist experiences that rare pocket of joy where her doleful existence seems like a surreal dream. But soon it is time to head back home and to the suspense of wondering whether her husband noticed her absence or not…

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with his step-daughter. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. These stories offer readers slices of domestic life in Copenhagen; gloomy, gut-wrenching situations which see her characters teetering on the edge. The women particularly are in a perpetual state of anxiety, paralyzed by an unnamable fear – unhappy in love, gripped by feelings of doom, grappling with stressed financial circumstances and unnerved by insecurities that sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. These haunting, unsettling vignettes, simmering with undercurrents of desire and violence, are made all the more arresting by Ditlevsen’s clear-eyed vision and an honest, lucid writing style that conveys multitudes in a few paragraphs.

It’s a rich, layered collection sizzling with a gamut of themes – mental illness, impact of broken marriages on children, bullying fathers, deteriorating relationships, a longing for happiness that is forever on the fringes seemingly an illusion. The subject matter, reminiscent of The Copenhagen Trilogy, is doled out to us in short, measured doses this time, but the brevity matches the brilliance of those memoirs. Highly recommended!