In a book-length essay, Chilean writer and actor Nona Fernández’s drifting exploration of the legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Voyager: Constellations of Memory, by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer, Graywolf Press, 108 pages, $15
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In September 1973, the Chilean army general Augusto Pinochet staged a coup with the support of the United States, overthrowing democratically elected president Salvador Allende, who died in violent circumstances during the events, and establishing a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990. Keen to strike fear into the people in the weeks after taking power, Pinochet appointed Brigadier General Sergio Arellano Stark to tour the country’s prisons and torture and execute certain opponents of the new regime. His murder squad traveled by helicopter and became known as the Caravan of Death. Estimates vary—they may have killed up to ninety-seven people, a small portion of the three thousand killed by the dictatorship, but the Caravan of Death loomed large in the national imagination. In the north of the country, thirteen kilometers southeast from the desert city of Calama, there stands a monument to some of the dead, a metal cross and twenty-six wooden poles with plaques and names standing for the disappeared. It’s said the soldiers of the Caravan of Death exhumed many corpses and dumped them in the sea, in an effort to conceal their crimes.
How to write about such events, such an inheritance? Especially if, like the novelist and actor Nona Fernández, who was born in Santiago in 1971, the story is both yours and not yours to tell? Voyager is a memoir of sorts, with childhood and adolescent recollections of the Pinochet years, reflections on the legacy of dictatorship for her own teenage son, and a narrative about the writer’s mother—the holes in her memory, the loss of the recent past. The book is also an essay, or a drifting series of linked essays, on collective memory, on astronomy, on the nature of consciousness. Fernández moves readily, but sometimes not so smoothly, between her subjects, sketching a constellation of themes and obsessions rather than any kind of argument, let alone polemic, about relations between individual lives and vast historical or cosmic forces. The result is a beguiling pattern whose center is sometimes unclear, like a heavenly body that won’t quite resolve to the upturned gaze.
In the opening pages, Fernández tells us that her mother has been fainting, falling over and briefly disconnecting from the world. When she wakes, a crowd of strangers tries to reconstruct for her the missing time: “A chorus of voices offering up details of the blackout, enough for her to partially recover the scrap of life hidden in a parenthesis in her brain.” Parenthesis is a beautiful and profound way of putting it. These bracketing interludes will turn out to be epileptic seizures; in a doctor’s office, mother and daughter watch neurons sparking on a screen: “what I see looks like a starscape.” What is a life, Fernández asks, if not the amassing of points of light and clarity about the past, alternating with lapses into obscurity? Transparent but broken, memory is “a pile of mirror shards, a heap of the past. The accumulation is what we’re made of.” The epileptic fits cause Fernández to wonder what exactly her mother remembers—she herself is visited by dream versions of deceased family members: they sound and smell just like themselves, and then are gone.
A parallel set of lights and shadows also develops early in the book, as Fernández recalls a visit to a desert astronomical station. (The darkness and dry air of Chile’s Atacama make it the ideal environment for stargazing; forty percent of the world’s astronomical observation goes on there.) Her mother’s moments of oblivion provide the first guiding metaphor, constellations seen from the desert the second. Except of course that a constellation is a fiction, a motif imagined from a particular, limited point in the universe, corresponding to no actual arrangement of stars. Still, the light means something: it comes from the past, and staring into space is a kind of time travel. Celestial history rains on us from the night sky, and in turn we send frail scraps of text, sound, and imagery out to meet it. Fernández is fascinated by the two Voyager space probes launched by NASA in 1977—“two perfect huntresses” capturing “fragments of stellar memory” and carrying maps of our home, drawings of ourselves, fragile minutes of music.
At times, Fernández’s cosmic musing can become a little too dispersed, or verge on the metaphysically banal: “Who are we? Where are we going? Where do we come from?” But the themes of familial recall and desert sky-watching come together and are grounded in the personal, cultural, and political aftermath of the dictatorship. Fernández is asked by Amnesty International if she would adopt a star named after one of the twenty-six dead whom the Calama monument honors. The invitation leads her to the story of Mario Argüelles Toro, a taxi driver and socialist leader who was arrested by Pinochet’s forces and later murdered by the Caravan of Death. His widow tells Fernández that every day for twenty years she searched the desert for his bones. It’s a narrative that some would like to bury, but not Fernández, nor her seventeen-year-old son, who, she relates, wished to give a speech about the horrors of the Pinochet regime at school—it was the history teachers who came to tell him he must remove certain “hurtful” sentences.
The electrical impulses of the human brain, the nebular mass from which a star is born, the desert and its secrets, her son’s speech with its censored passages or parentheses: Fernández has organized a work of narrative nonfiction as if it were a poem, the whole hung on interleaving images and metaphors rather than storytelling drive. But are they really metaphors? The point in fact is that all of this is material, concrete, interconnected, and real—we and the world are the metaphors we thought we had invented. “There is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind,” wrote the Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, himself a keen amateur astronomer. Memory remains, De Quincy felt, even if we lose access to it, much as the stars only seem to disappear in the light of day. In Voyager, Fernández pursues that thought far into the night, where it had seemed all was lost.
Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination is published by New York Review Books in April. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love.