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”).