I thoroughly enjoyed Nona Fernández’ Space Invaders, a book I read last year, but to me, The Twilight Zone, published by Daunt Books, is even better. This review is my contribution to February’s #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy.
One of the striking aspects of Nona Fernández’s novels is how pop cultural references (video games and TV shows) form a unique kernel from which springs tales of the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship; haunting narratives of the mundane uncomfortably coexisting with pure evil. We saw this in her novella Space Invaders with a similar motif employed in The Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone takes its name from the popular TV show of the same name – an American anthology television series created and presented by Rod Serling which ran from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and began with the following words…
“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”
Each episode focused on characters grappling with disturbing or unusual events; the show was a blend of science-fiction, fantasy and horror where the phrase “twilight zone” became a metaphor for strange and surreal experiences.
Using this motif and exploring “this dimension beyond that which is known to man”, Fernández delves into these unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.
In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.
When he first appears on the cover of the “Cauce” magazine, our narrator recalls being in her early teens with no knowledge whatsoever of the people captured and tortured, but the face of Morales stays impinged on her mind.
He didn’t seem like a monster or an evil giant, or some psychopath you had to run away from. He didn’t even look like the national police in boots, helmet, and shield who charged at us with batons during street protests. The man who tortured people could have been anybody. Even our teacher.
Years later, our narrator is working on the script of a documentary for her friends. This documentary is about the Vicariate of Solidarity, an agency of the Catholic Church “created in the midst of the dictatorship to assist victims.”
The film was a record of counter-intelligence work, carried out mostly by the agency’s lawyers and social workers. From testimonies and material collected for each case of forcible disappearance, detention, abduction, torture, and any other abuses they handled, they were able to put together a kind of panorama of repression. By obsessively studying this landscape, the Vicariate team tried to expose the sinister logic at work in the hope of getting a step ahead of the agents and saving lives.
As she sifts through interviews, recordings and other material to draft a coherent script, she once again comes face to face with the man who tortured people, this time on a videotape. As Morales begins to dole out specific information about the people who mysteriously disappeared, a grim landscape of torture and death emerges where the essential details of capture and torture remain the same, but the potency of fear and suspense evoked by these narratives never diminishes.
We first learn about José Weibel and the chain of events on the day he is mercilessly abducted by the man who tortured people. It’s an ordinary day like any other, a busy morning of routine that involves breakfast, getting the kids ready for school and stepping out for work. As the family travels on the bus that will take them to their respective destinations, suddenly and without warning this scene of routine and domestic idyll is transformed into a frightening spectacle of chaos and dread as Weibel is forcibly spirited away.
I wonder whether José took a mental snapshot of his family in that instant. I wonder whether he managed to catch a last glimpse of his wife and children from the car, freezing the protective image. My runaway sentimental imagination wants to believe that he did, and that the image helped him keep terror at bay in the grey realm where he was condemned to spend the last days of his life.
Weibel is not the only victim of this gruesome government machinery. There’s Contreras Maluje who throws himself under a bus because to him death is preferable to torture. He fails though and meets the same horrific fate as Weibel. We read about the Flores brothers – Boris, Lincoyán and Carol – a heartbreaking case where in exchange for the freedom of his brothers, Carol is forced to make a pact with the devil, he has now become a collaborator with the very set of people who were torturing him.
Over the course of the novel, as a series of names along with their stories are revealed, these narratives accumulate to give a wider framework of the atrocities of the regime and the all-pervading sense of distress and extreme anxiety that ordinary people had to grapple with in their daily lives (“Hearing the occasional gunshot wasn’t strange anymore, it was part of the new sounds, the new habits, part of the daily routine that established itself emphatically with no one daring to protest”); where frequent parallels are made between the secret workings of Pinochet’s regime and The Twilight Zone – that dark, murky, nebulous other world of horror and terror that is beyond the imagination of the ordinary man.
Enmeshed in these accounts and retellings, is the narrator’s personal storyline as she dwells on events across a time span that encompasses more than two decades, from her childhood years to her life now with her teenage son, her work, and the people in her orbit. When she goes back to the days of her youth, we are given a snapshot of Estrella Gonzalez, that mysterious girl, who formed such a haunting presence in Space Invaders. We once again hear about her letters with Maldonado, her Uncle Claudio and the red Chevy he drove, Estrella’s father who wore prosthetic hands after losing his hands in an accident, and Estrella’s sudden disappearance from school. We also learn that this particular aspect of our narrator’s history is just another jigsaw piece that when assembled with the other pieces offers a broader picture of the country’s shadowy past.
Providing a window to a particularly dark period in Chilean history, the core themes that reverberate throughout The Twilight Zone are – the legacy of violence, unspeakable crimes, torture and brutal repression. It’s an indictment of the distortion of reality and manufacture of lies, it’s about the quest to uncover the truth, to document history and prevent its erasure so that it serves as a reminder of a nation’s grim past as well as a warning of the dangers of regressing. But it is also among other things, a book about resistance and rebellion against a dictatorship that denies citizens their rights. It examines the complexity of human nature driven to extremes – the hunger to survive, the desire to rebel, and the need to absolve oneself of guilt. We see a couple of role reversals – the oppressed becoming the oppressor and vice versa (Carol Flores under extreme pressure is compelled to move to the darker side; Morales, unable to withstand the heavy burden of his acts and desperate for some modicum of salvation, is driven to turn against the enemy). The Twilight Zone is also about loss and the difficulty in coming to terms with it – the threat of losing your loved ones always a hair’s breadth away, the pursuit of answers as intense as the need to find closure.
Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? Could he have chosen not to be an agent of the government? Is an admission of guilt enough to compensate for countless lives lost? Perhaps the central question that the book addresses is this – Can you resist an oppressive regime? And what are the consequences if you go down that path?
In terms of structure, The Twilight Zone is a brilliant, riveting assortment of various facets and vantage points – the testimony of the man who tortured people, accounts of those who interviewed him and charted his escape from Chile, a reflection on the country’s bloodied history often intertwined with cultural references of the time (space invaders, Billy Joel, Yuri Gagarin, etc) and the narrator’s imagination which forms a bulk of the narrative. The writing style has a reportage feel to it, but what elevates the book to the next level is the narrator’s vivid feats of imagination and her empathy as she tries to ascribe a human touch to these incidents which in their sameness are in the danger of being obliterated from memory.
I believe that evil is directly proportional to idiocy. I believe that the territory you roamed in anguish before you disappeared is ruled by idiots. It isn’t true that criminals are masterminds. It takes a vast amount of stupidity to assemble the parts of such grotesque, absurd, and cruel machinery. Pure brutality disguised as a master plan. Small people, with small minds, who don’t understand the abyss of the other. They lack the language or tools for it. Empathy and compassion require a clear mind. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, changing your skin, adopting a new face: these are all acts of genuine intelligence.
She attempts to understand what went on in the minds of these people in the moments before their capture, how they were violently pulled away from the comfort zone of routine and family life into an unthinkable dark void (“that ultimate portal of evil and stupidity”) in the split of a second. Because of this unique approach, these individuals and their stories come alive on the pages, they feel real rather than just another set of statistical casualties buried and forgotten.
Fernández’s incantatory, hypnotic writing style is a prominent feature in both Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone but takes on different avatars in each. In Space Invaders, the hallucinatory prose is driven by a fragmentary montage of dreams, visions and memories. The prose in The Twilight Zone, in contrast, feels more like a documentary but it derives its power from increased emphasis and deliberate repetition. As our narrator focuses on recounting the stories of many of the victims, the reader is struck by how despite the sameness of the brutality involved (violent capture, torture and murder), the panic, tension and anxiety remain fresh and palpable each time.
In a nutshell, The Twilight Zone is a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.
This door we unlock with the key of the imagination. Behind it we find another dimension. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to enter a secret world of dreams and ideas. You’re about to enter the twilight zone.