Twilight Zone

by Nona Fernández

Paperback, 2021




Graywolf (2021), 232 pages


Fictio Literatur HTML: Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature An engrossing, incantatory novel about the legacy of historical crimes by the author of Space InvadersIt is 1984 in Chile, in the middle of the Pinochet dictatorship. A member of the secret police walks into the office of a dissident magazine and finds a reporter, who records his testimony. The narrator of Nona Fernández's mesmerizing and terrifying novel The Twilight Zone is a child when she first sees this man's face on the magazine's cover with the words "I Tortured People." His complicity in the worst crimes of the regime and his commitment to speaking about them haunt the narrator into her adulthood and career as a writer and documentarian. Like a secret service agent from the future, through extraordinary feats of the imagination, Fernández follows the "man who tortured people" to places that archives can't reach, into the sinister twilight zone of history where morning routines, a game of chess, Yuri Gagarin, and the eponymous TV show of the novel's title coexist with the brutal yet commonplace machinations of the regime. How do crimes vanish in plain sight? How does one resist a repressive regime? And who gets to shape the truths we live by and take for granted? The Twilight Zone pulls us into the dark portals of the past, reminding us that the work of the writer in the face of historical erasure is to imagine so deeply that these absences can be, for a time, spectacularly illuminated… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Dreesie
This is one of those odd novels that use fiction to explore history. When this is done poorly I hate it--when it is done well, it is masterful.

The narrator is a Chilean journalist (who happens to have the same surname as the author--are some of the journalist's memories actually the author's?) who
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is fascinated by Andres Antonio Valenzuela Morales, a real member of the Chilean Air Force Intelligence who tortured people. In 1984 he spilled all to a journalist.

The narrator studies his confessions, visits museums, memorials, places he went. She reads articles and imagines what she was doing at the time, as a child.

And throughout the novel she relates the entire experience--of Chile in the 70s/80s, of this agent confessing and fleeing to Europe, continuing to provide information and identifying those he can, of people pretending nothing was happening next door or in the street or across the street when they knew exactly what was happening--with the TV show The Twilight Zone. How the strangest things can happen, and how things may be exactly how they seem--or they may be the opposite.

It sounds crazy, but it works.

In many ways this reminds me of [book:The Shape of the Ruins|38256287]. It is completely different, but the way actual history is examined through the narration is also very similar. I also spend a lot of time on Wikipedia while reading both of these books, learning more of the background.
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LibraryThing member George_Stokoe
Great book. Based on actual events.

It's a treatment of the political repression in Chile under Pinochet.

But it's reimagined as though were an episode of the old American sci-fi series, "The Twilight Zone", shown in Chile where the author watched it on television in her childhood in the 1970s.

As a
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sidenote, televisions were one of the futuristic designs of goods mass-produced in materials such as plastics and fibreglass by the "Popular Unity" coaliton government of Salvador Allende, which was ousted in Pinochet's military coup.

Allende had attempted to raise the standard of living of the Chilean people, nationalising industry, and trying to bring it under workers' control. To help in this, he'd hired a cigar-smoking and whisky-drinking British management consultant called Stafford Beer.

They planned to build a "cybernetic" system, a bit like a human body with organs operating without always being under conscious control of the brain, with a mainframe computer in the nerve centre (modelled on a British wartime Ops room), and telex machines set up in factories.

Beer even had a plan to set up "algedonic" meters in the public's television sets, so they could vote on how happy, or unhappy, they were with any particular political proposal. ("Algedonic" from two words, "algos" meaning pain, and "hedos" meaning pleasure.)

So, a bit had happened by the time of the events depicted in this novel.

It needs a preface, really. But to give some more background, this quote is from the 2018 preface to the edition of another book, How To Read Donald Duck:Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, first published in Chile in 1971, and burnt by the Pinochet regime:

"...military conspirators and their civilian masters in the oligarchy had been financed and aided by the American government and the C.I.A...Nixon and Kissinger had destabilized the Allende experiment... The revolutionaries were dead or in hiding or banished, and the Chicago Boys were unleashed on Chile, a laboratory for the Milton Friedmanesque experiments that were soon to take over England and the United States itself in the Thatcher and Reagan eras..."(p.vii)

A couple of excerpts from The Twilight Zone itself:

"she [the author's mother] returned to work while I [the author] was left in the middle of those long seventies afternoons, The Twilight Zone [TV show] marking the moment when the sun began to set.
A space traveler has to make an emergency landing on an unknown planet a million miles from home. His spaceship is out of commission. His right arm is broken, his forehead cut and bleeding. Colonel Cook, voyager across the ocean of space, will never fly the smouldering wreck of his ship again. He survived the crash, but his lonely journey has just begun. Hurting and afraid, he sends messages home pleading for someone to rescue him, though that appears to be impossible. His people can't come for him and he'll be left all alone, on a small planet in space, his very own twilight zone. "(p. 40)

"My mother knew none of this when she told us what she'd seen that morning, a few hours before. It took me years to connect her story to the one I read in the testimony of the man who tortured people. While we were having lunch that day, eating the casserole or stew my grandmother had made, Carlos Contreras Maluje [a pharmacist and city councilman] was probably getting beaten in a cell on Calle Dieciocho, a few blocks from my old house. While we were helping ourselves to gelatin and drowning in condensed milk, a dessert we loved, Carlos Contreras Maluje was probably sending telepathic messages to his family and friends, asking someone to come and rescue him from the small, lonely planet where he had landed. That place where he was stranded, afraid and in pain, with no ship to take him back to his home above the Maluje Pharmacy in Conception. "(p. 43)

And even the torturers get the same treatment themselves from the Pinochet regime as they've given others when they mess up:

"His body turned up in the river riddled with seventeen bullet holes, his fingers severed at the first joint, his spinal column snapped, and his genitals exploded."(p.84)
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LibraryThing member streamsong
The narrator says that when she was a child she was told that if she was naughty, an old man (woman?) would shove her in a sack and steal her. But instead of being scared into good behavior, she wanted to see what was in the sack – diving deep into the bottom.

So in 1984 when a magazine cover
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pictured Andres Antonio Valenzuela Morales with the headline “I Tortured People” the narrator dove deep into the dark sack.

The Man Who Tortured People worked for the Pinochet regime – first helping the secret police capture the unfortunate accused and then being promoted to torture itself – after a day of which he would return home to his wife and family.

Thousands of ‘enemies of the regime’ including former Allende supporters, those whose politics were to to the left of the dictatorship and trade unionists disappeared to be killed or tortured. They disappeared into another dimension – much like the 5th dimension warping the boundaries of normalality in the popular American TV show The Twilight Zone.

How would I rate it? The author definitely achieved her goal. The writing and the Twilight Zone references make this memorable. It really illuminated the brutal Pinochet regime for me in a way that I’ll remember for a long time.

And yet, would I ever reread it? No. It’s after all a very painful tale of human suffering without a hopeful note except that Chile moved onward. I just can’t look in the bottom of the sack.
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