Emily Webber Reviews Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Fiction, 88 pages
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
In Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders, a group of friends remember their childhood classmate, Estrella González Jepsen, and try to make sense of her sudden disappearance. Their memories capture both the innocence of childhood and the unsettling feelings of growing up in Chile during the Pinochet regime. Space Invaders is a fractured story being told and retold in a collective voice as the group wrestles with a childhood full of normal daily routines and horror. The dreams, memories, and constantly shifting voices give this novel an otherworldly feeling, but it is also clearly grounded in very personal and real stories. The characters resurrect the past even as they have been told to stay silent and to forget. The language is direct, and the story unfolds quietly in this slim novel, but there is an enormous amount of depth to this work as Fernández uses her story to challenge the instinct to remain silent and leave traumatic events in the past.
In adulthood, this group of friends—Acosta, Zuniga, Bustamante, Riquelme, Maldonado, Fuenzalida, and Donoso—reminisce through letters, fragments, and encounters. At first, there is an innocence—a watching of a new girl getting dropped off at school, playing video games, performing in a play, and a game of kissing. The children participate in the normal games and rituals of childhood. Except small details provide clues to the type of political environment these children are growing up in—Estrella’s father takes off his officer’s hat as he drops her off at school and the streets are littered with flyers after a celebration of the passing of a new constitution by the military dictatorship.
The children play the video game, Space Invaders, a game of killing and being killed, disappearing and reappearing, one where the outcome cannot be changed, and it seems to mirror their circumstances. At first the friends contend with ghostly bullets and aliens disintegrating into colored lights, but this soon turns to missing parents, a kidnapped mother who eventually reappears, funerals, coffins, words like “slit throats” appearing in the news. Several sections start with the children recalling school assemblies and liken them to being pieces in a board game that they do not know the name of or how to play or how to quit the game. Fernandez effectively uses repetition, and it heightens the sense of powerlessness these children struggle with, and the inability to understand what is happening in the world around them.
Latin American literature is often intertwined with political strife, violence, and revolution. Authors such as Roberto Bolaño, Yuri Herrera, and Leonardo Padura come to mind, and Space Invaders is a welcome addition to these translated works. While Fernández is a well-known Chilean author, Space Invaders is the first of her work to be translated into English. The translator, Natasha Wimmer, is best known for her translations of Chilean powerhouse Roberto Bolaño. Best known for his novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, Bolaño ascended quickly to popularity in the U.S. For those familiar with his writing, Space Invaders is similar in that every scene is real and powerful, yet there is a dream-like quality overall to the writing.
Space Invaders is a necessary work that shows what life was like for children growing up under a violent political regime that was torturing and killing those who dissented. This novel is a pledge to use those childhood memories to bear witness and to make visible the lives of the disappeared. Memories are important, even if they are imperfect, especially in a time where both evidence and fact are challenged. Hopefully this translation means we will see even more of Fernández’s work in English. Her voice is fearless and deserving of a spot on every reading list.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. Her fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Brevity, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Read more on her website or Twitter at @emilyannwebber.