The Thread®

'Space Invaders' maps pixelated battles onto real-life conflict

The Chilean playwright and fiction writer Nona Fernández's Space Invaders, translated into English by the masterful Natasha Wimmer and nominated for a National Book Award, is as addictive as its video game namesake. Fernández writes in short chapters, rarely more than three pages, and each one slides by quickly, but lingers like a dream. The effect is that of being haunted — which is fitting, given that her collective narrators, a group of primary-school classmates who came of age during Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1989 military dictatorship, are haunted by the memory of a girl named Estrella, who joined their class briefly, then left after her father, a national police agent, had to go into hiding. For a while, Estrella wrote letters, but then she vanished entirely. Now, she appears to her former classmates in dreams, old letters, and half-suppressed memories, which Fernández weaves expertly into her multi-voiced narration. The result is an unsettling, compelling portrait of childhood in dire political times, and of the lasting impact of historical trauma.

Fernández's collective narration — we, not I — might remind American readers of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, which shares Space Invaders' plural voice and dark, dreamy tone. That dreaminess, combined with Fernández's unsparing and unsentimental handling of the Pinochet dictatorship's crimes against its citizens, gives Space Invaders a certain kinship with Roberto Bolaño's short novels By Night in Chile and Distant Star. But for readers of Chilean literature, its most intriguing resemblance is to Alejandro Zambra's story collection My Documents, which was published in Chile a year after Space Invaders, but translated into English four years earlier. Like Fernández, Zambra filters coming-of-age stories set in the Pinochet regime's waning years through the development of technology, focusing especially on the personal computer. Fernández, of course, opts for video games instead.

Her use of those games, particularly of Space Invaders, is excellent. She beautifully de-familiarizes the classic alien-shooting idea, emphasizing its strange, pixelated violence. For her narrators, Space Invaders becomes a tool for understanding warfare, and for understanding 1980s Santiago as a battlefield. One character, Riquelme, looks back wistfully on his afternoons playing Space Invaders with Estrella, watching as the "green glow-in-the-dark bullets of the earthlings' cannons scudded up the screen until they hit some alien ... Ten points for each Martian in the first row, twenty for the ones in the second row." Later, while standing in regimented formation at school, Riquelme remembers those rows of Martians, and sees himself as a potential target for the first time.

In Pinochet's Chile, it was frighteningly easy to become a target of repression; Fernández's characters learn this together. At the same time, they learn that they have the option of fighting back. In one playground scene, they debate fighting against Pinochet: "What does it mean to be in the resistance? asks Donoso. Everybody in the upper school is a leader or a fighter in the resistance. Get with it, we're not kids anymore, says Bustamante. We are kids, says Maldonado, we're only twelve. We're not, sometimes there's no such thing as too young, says Bustamante." Bustamante prevails, and in the next chapter, the narrators leave school together and join a massive anti-regime protest that Fernández writes as if it were a video game. Her characters march through Santiago like "a block that advances in lockstep," feeling like "the most important piece in a game, but we still don't know what game it is."

This pre-adolescent confusion runs through Space Invaders. One section, "Third Life," opens, "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 ... Maybe it had always been that way and we were only just realizing it." Once this realization hits, the narrators become fully politically active. They also get scared. National police agents break into one character's house; afterwards, he can't "sleep at night, [too] afraid that a squad would come any minute and take his diaries, his comics, his parents." Another has auditory hallucinations of protests. A third character's parents disappear, and he, at 12 years old, is far too young to fight for their return.

The tension between childhood and activism shapes Fernández's characters into adulthood. Decades after the regime ended, they still feel like "pieces in a game that we don't know how to stop playing." Having borne witness to brutal political violence while too young to understand it, they find themselves looking eternally backward, struggling to process the world in which they grew up. Remembering Estrella becomes a proxy for remembering the Pinochet years well enough to understand them — which is, of course, impossible. Still, the narrators ceaselessly compare notes on Estrella, even though "there's no way to agree, because in dreams, as in memory, there is no agreement, nor should there be." Their real questions, of course, are not about Estrella but their past selves. Were they earthlings or aliens? Activists or targets? In Space Invaders, there's no way to know.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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