“I want to tell you about making people disappear,” says intelligence agent Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales to a reporter at Cauce magazine. His defection arrives in the middle of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. It is—was—August 27, 1984. “I keep mixing up my tenses,” admits the narrator of Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone.
In this novel, newly translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, time warps around Morales’s actions: kidnapping, torturing, and killing people as a police agent, confessing to Cauce, escaping from Chile to France. All this is reconstructed by an autofictional narrator whose voice—translated by Wimmer with sparkling clarity—is as seductive and disquieting as the narrator of the The Twilight Zone episodes our narrator binge-watched as a child.
Our narrator first saw Morales as a child. He was on a magazine cover, his photo set below the words: I tortured people. As an adult, our narrator co-writes a TV series based on Morales’s life. While working on a documentary about the Vicariate of Solidarity, she again encounters him while watching an interview taken thirty years after his initial testimony.
She becomes obsessed. For her, the words of “the man who tortured people” are paths into the twilight zone—a world of los desaparecidos, state-sponsored torture, and murder—a world that during Pinochet’s dictatorship appeared only through cracks in the surface world.
It’s this twilight zone our narrator seeks. She fleshes out the fate of Morales and his victims by mining his testimony and placing it alongside memories of her childhood in Chile, pop culture references, fables, and her adult experiences of public history. The novel’s first sentence—“I imagine him walking down a city street”—sets up Fernández’s project as an imaginative one, set on tracing the man who tortured people and illuminating the archival absences of the disappeared.
Her narrative strategy recalls scholar Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation”: a method of combining historical research with theory and fictional narrative to illuminate the archival absences of enslaved women. Hartman is committed to a “storied articulation of ideas”; Fernández as well. At the Remembrance Museum, when our narrator sees a parrilla—a metal bed frame where electric current was used to torture detainees—alongside images of mass graves, she’s struck by the lack of story: “All of this in no particular order, with little regard for firsts or nexts, because when the subject is horror, the logic of the machinery doesn’t much matter. Dates and time lines and causes and effects and explanations are subtleties you might as well skip.”
By contrast, even while flashing between past and present, our narrator clings to logic and the timeline, especially when reconstructing the stories of victims. This novel is her remembrance museum, partitioned into four “zones” – Entry Zone, Contact Zone, Ghost Zone, Escape Zone. Each zone marries the storied horrors of the reconstructed past with the domestic lull of the narrator’s present, in which there is little “plot.” The narrator stares at her computer screen. She makes coffee. She goes to museums, attends memorials. She goes to a screening for the documentary she worked on.
Fernández uses these moments to explore forms of public memory. Take the documentary project. It’s about a human rights organization that emerged during the Pinochet regime. Our narrator wants to see her work on the big screen. At the movie theater, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron fills most of the screening rooms. Our narrator and her mother are the only people at the documentary. While on-screen a lawyer is describing Morales’s testimony, there’s “a deafening sound, like an explosion”—sound bleeding in from the climactic scene of Avengers 2. “Maybe,” our narrator muses, “we should have reconstructed some scenes: brutal fights, hand-to-hand combat with evil agents.” Maybe hiring Robert Downey Jr. would have attracted more people.
What makes a story attractive? Heroes, villains, conflict, catharsis? As an actress, screenwriter, and documentarian, Fernández is well-aware of the narrative conventions of different genres. When our narrator works on a TV series based on Morales, she writes his confession as the climax, an attempt at catharsis. This novel, which begins with the testimony and returns to it often, stays stubbornly in the space of memory and guilt. How does the man who tortured people live with the stink of guilt, bloodstained pants, murder? How could anyone?
The “anyone” is not rhetorical. Fernández is concerned with the gray of complicity. At the Remembrance Museum our narrator observes the museum’s presentation of the crimes as “one big massacre, a fight between good guys and bad guys who are easy to tell apart because the bad guys are in uniform and the good guys are civilian…The citizenry is free of responsibility, innocent, blind, all of them victims.”
For her this is false. A man flung himself in front of a bus to avoid being re-detained, and passerby “froze in confusion, silent and still, as if the stopwatch man on The Twilight Zone had scheduled a few minutes of paralysis.” The narrator’s own mother was present. When the man is dragged into a police car, everyone freezes again. The man, Carlos Contreras Maluje, is later shot and buried in a ditch. By then, our narrator imagines, her family was likely helping themselves to gelatin, drowning it in condensed milk.
Or: a blindfolded man, Don Alonso Gahona, pushed into a detention center on a busy residential street. In reconstructing this scene, our narrator imagines a woman spying from the house across the street. “I imagine her and others like her watching the activity at this place day after day, as surprise turns into familiarity. The cries from torture sessions coexisting with the music on neighborhood radios, dialogue from the 3:00 pm soaps, the announcer’s voice on the broadcast of the soccer match…no one daring to protest.”
In the present, this complicity shapes memory. When our narrator visits the Remembrance Museum with her mother, they read every text, play every testimony, visit every floor. And this long, carefully-fashioned path creates catharsis as a summer blockbuster might:
And at each station we cried, of course we did. And then at the next one we were angry, of course we were. And then at the next one we cried again, only to move on and make room for those behind us who were enacting the same ritual of tears and anger, tears and anger, on a kind of emotional roller coaster ride terminating in the End of Dictatorship Zone, where a big blowup of ex-president Patricio Aylwin giving his inaugural address makes visitors’ spirits soar, leaving them exultant with joy and hope, more at ease, more at peace, because from now on we’re safe, the good guys won, history is forgiving, we’ll forget that it was Aylwin himself who went to the military to request a coup in 1973, a fact that isn’t part of this chain of memories, and moving on, listening to the happy slogans of democracy’s return which inform us that this is the end, everyone’s free to go now, and enjoy a refreshing Coca-Cola in the café, or stop by the little souvenir shop—as we do, why not?—to buy a couple of Allende buttons and a postcard of La Moneda in flames.
Fernández questions this impulse towards catharsis; narratively, she largely refrains from it. Still, there is real suspense as we circle a sticky question: how should a populace justly remember unthinkable injustice? By vividly imagining the man who tortured people, his victims, and their surroundings, Fernández directs our attention to what is a dizzyingly wide-reaching machinery of evil. We are left to imagine its afterlife.
The Twilight Zone
By Nona Fernández
Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Published March 16, 2021