‘Space Invaders’: A dreamlike look at the Pinochet regime

Thursday, January 9, 2020 - 11:56am

Writers have rarely shied away from historical tragedies like genocide, war and oppressive governments. The Orwells of the world have dissected and shown the dangers of humanity’s most destructive ideologies. Nona Fernandez takes a different approach to writing about one such ideology in her book, “Space Invaders.” 

The novel follows the experience of a group of school children at the height of the Pinochet regime in Chile. Under Pinochet, the Chilean people faced suppression of dissent, mass killings and violations of human rights. What sets “Space Invaders” apart from most other political fiction is its focus on the lived experiences of the characters. There is virtually no reflection on the abstracted political conflicts of the time period; the novel only reflects on their effects on the human beings involved.  

While the unconventional subject matter works to keep the reader interested, the similarly unconventional structure is not as well executed. The novel is told in the form of memories recalled through the characters’ dreams. These former classmates, now adults, try to piece together the collective experience of their youth in hopes of making sense of the horror they lived through. As a result, the narrative is made up of disjointed images of militant classroom routines, brutal violence and their classmate Estrella, who has mysteriously gone missing. 

This explanation may seem a bit confusing, but that’s because the structure is too. Basic plot points were at times difficult to pin down due to frequent jumps in the timeline. While the lack of extensive character development for each classmate is forgivable because of the novel’s focus on the collective rather than any individual experience, it does make it difficult to keep track of the characters.  

That said, the novel does have its bright spots. As difficult as the structure is to follow, the dreamlike recreation of the characters’ memories in individual moments is beautifully rendered. The prose is clear and full of emotion, placing the reader right in the mind of a child facing unspeakable violence. It captures the instances of abject horror uninhibited by the rationalizations of an adult mind. A child, having no understanding of the political motivations of the regime, is not able to assimilate these events to a narrative. The child then sees the events for what they are: senseless violence. In the same way that the events of a dream rarely make sense and simply are what they are, the children's experiences don’t make sense to them, adding to their emotional impact. By refusing to articulate the ideology that motivates the actions of the Pinochet regime, Fernandez can present the real pain, fear and death that it caused with full force. 

Considering the novel’s strengths, it’s difficult to fault Fernandez for the disorienting structure. To an extent, such ambiguity is necessary to capture the states of mind of children who are so lost and confused. Fernandez can certainly be commended for her willingness to experiment, though one must wonder if the story would be better told in the form of poetry. Fernandez treads a fine line between the poetic, dreamlike world she creates and the maintenance of a clear narrative throughout — a line which she falls just barely on the wrong side of. Regardless, the book is engaging, thought-provoking and worth the read.