A fugue of memories and dreams flow over us in Nona Fernández’s lyrical novella “Space Invaders” (Graywolf Press)—arriving in a crisp, lucid translation by my friend Natasha Wimmer that was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. A 10-year-old girl named Estrella González walks into school one day in 1980, the laces of a shoe undone, holding the hand of her father who wears a hat identifying him as an officer in the national police. The story is told through her now-grown classmates’ recollections, but really it’s a ghost story of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. And Estrella haunts everything.
Her name means star and may evoke the star of the Chilean flag, but as her former classmates recall her, she may as well be a saint—shy, sweet, caring. We only slowly recognize the menace lurking around her. Her father wears a prosthetic hand because he lost the appendage in action for his job with the national police—trying to get rid of a bomb, the rumors whisper. An “uncle” appears, tasked with driving Estrella to school. He spies a couple classmates, dreaming of being do-gooder heroes, distributing fliers for a protest. The boys are suspended. “What does it mean to get into politics?” a classmate asks their teacher. “This is math class and you’re here to learn, not to talk nonsense,” the teacher snaps.
Estrella stops coming to class. The language creates a whispery, floating feeling that something is very wrong. But it remains foggy to the adolescents, like something you can’t quite recall from a dream. And, perhaps, it’s something so menacing that it can’t be said aloud, it can barely be tolerated as thought.
“No one is exactly sure when it happened, but we all remember that coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them, because it had all become something like a bad dream.”
National police shoot two brothers. Two men are kidnapped and dumped on a bleak road with their throats slit. A student’s house is searched. Another student’s parents are arrested. A military patrol burns a boy to death. A priest is shot. A reporter is kidnapped. Classmate “Riquelme’s mother was kidnapped. Twelve hours later she was released. Crosses had been cut into her nipples with a razor blade.”
It all surfaces in their dreams, only coming into focus years later, when the father and “uncle” face punishment. The men’s efforts to shelter Estrella, to keep her safe, ultimately fail—because the menace is themselves, the monster is already nestled in their home. “We didn’t dream any of this. We read it in the crime pages of a newspaper.”
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