The Twilight Zone: A Novel

Image of The Twilight Zone: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 16, 2021
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: 

The Twilight Zone is a novel about the long and brutal dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973 to 1990, yes. But it is not the same as the other many novels about that strongman’s disastrous stint at the helm of the Andean country’s history.

The title refers to the famous 1960s cult show, but the phrase acts here as a sort of super adjective, one that describes and breaks down abstract and concrete parts of a whole, even as it summarizes them into one “it,” and turns an unfathomable thing or situation into something that can be spoken and shown credibly with one undividable swoop of the tongue. A super adjective, if such a thing actually existed, would be that effective because it would use memory and emotional context to complete meaning. To become inarguable, overwhelming, even devastating in the certitude it is able to create, in this case, by becoming the shortest, surest way to say what the Chile that Fernández so masterfully recreates in this novel was like. What was it really like? A Twilight Zone.

That said, and literary and historical value notwithstanding, The Twilight Zone is, at first, not an easy novel to read. That isn’t just because of the torture, the beatings, the disappearances, the killings, the needless dehumanization that occurred and that it reexamines. It’s more because of the torn-apart families, the years of searching for lost ones presumed dead. It’s the scenes of fear: a regular citizen traveling on a bus that is stopped suddenly, the man sitting beside him, a normal man, a regular man like himself taken off the bus, violently, quickly, his wife and children having seen it all, left behind on a bus that continues without the abducted man. It is the sense that the torture that would happen “night and day” is still happening, being felt even today by too many who remember, who lost, who suffered, who “survived.” It is in the compulsion of the narrator to recall things, to retrace the past she can’t bear, and in the collective guilt of a society once forced into criminal complicity with one man that is subtext to so much of this book.

But Fernández does a few great things to help us through the grim reality of the past that serves as background to the story. She remembers a man who really existed. He had a moustache, and the narrator first becomes aware of him in her early teens. He is a military officer, and he tortures people. One day, he walks into the offices of a magazine and asks for a reporter. He wants to tell his story. He wants to say all he knows about the abductions, the torture, the killings, about all the byproduct of the dictator’s notion that anyone not in line with his takeover of an entire country deserved to die the most violent, humiliating, dehumanizing death possible. Now that is all part of the known. What Fernández does is give us what we do not know. What must have led things to be one way or another, what he would have said, thought, done, and how all of it, what he did and what others like him did, affected, or affects, real people beginning with her.

Because in a format reminiscent of the Japanese I-Novel genre, “Fernández” is also the name of the protagonist, a screenwriter, like the author, searching for the man of the moustache, who really existed, there on the cover of Cauce magazine, to interview him. Her letter to him tells us much about the heart of this gorgeous novel and the noble purpose behind the ugly, ugly things it recounts with compassion for the reader, but also with heartbreaking certainty.

“Now, writing to you, I’m trying again to clarify my motives so that I sound less vague, but the honest truth is that all I can come up with or more questions.

“Why should I write about you? Why should I resurrect a story that began more than 40 years ago? Why bring up curved knives, electric shock torture, and the rats again? Why bring up the disappearances? Why should I talk about a man who was part of it all and at some point decided he couldn’t be any more? How do you decide when you’ve had enough? What kind of line do you cross? Is there such a line? Is the line the same for all of us? What would I have done if, like you, I had reported for military service at eighteen, and my superior had sent me to guard a group of political prisoners? Would I have done my job? Would I have run away? Would I have understood that this was the beginning of the end? What would my partner have done? What would my father have done? What would my son do in the same place? Does someone have to take that place? Whose images are these in my head? Whose screams? Did I read about them in the testimony you gave the reporter or did I hear them myself somewhere? Are they part of a scene from your life or mine? Is there some fine line that separates collective dreams? Is there a place where you and I both dream of a dark room full of rats? Do these images creep into your mind, too, and keep you awake? Will we ever escape this dream? Will we ever emerge and give the world the bad news about what we were capable of doing?”

This letter represents a key moment in the novel. Despite the questions, it is a moment of understanding, of lucidity, in which the questions are a device forcing writer and reader to adhere to truth and to do it strictly, to declare nothing that isn’t known and understood deeply.

Though simply stated, they go to the heart of questions that have long disturbed us. About human susceptibility to corruption by force, violence, and fear for oneself or others. About the construction of cowardice, which the novel forces us to consider in tandem with context, in this case historical, but, really, we learn, how can cowardice ever be justly judged without the full context of what is threatening our very lives? The questions ultimately speak to the issue of collective responsibility when the criminals being judged are/were unrelentingly forced to be criminals.

But the letter is only one of Fernández’s devices. She uses memory, games, photos she brings to life, then silences and puts away, directing us to look elsewhere. She uses pop culture, misdirection, and even propaganda to teach us what propaganda is, the real effect it has on a country when its people forget how to tell truth apart from lies. She hides the narrator, and even her partner, only to expose them later, telling us what she remembers and may not be a fact, along with what she absolutely knows and can prove. She confesses to narrating a lie, a construction, then trots out the clues, in pieces, suggesting a conclusion supported by too many elements not to be true, letting us be the ones to defend it. 

And she manages to do it all while crafting a tight plot, with suspense born of the prose, so precise it often reads like a mystery caper.

“I imagine him hiding on the floor of a van. I don’t know what he’s wearing. I don’t know whether he’s clean-shaven, either. It may be that he’s gotten rid of that dark bushy mustache, or on the other hand, he’s kept it and he has a heavy beard, too, to throw of anyone who might recognize him. Months have gone by since he gave his testimony to the reporter and the lawyer. Since then he has waited in utter seclusion until conditions were right for him to be escorted from the country. He knows that his superiors are looking for him. He knows that if he is found, he’s a dead man. That’s why he’s being taken in secret to complete some paperwork that will make it possible for him to leave. He sitting on the floor of a delivery van from Manantial Books, a familiar store.

“There he is, under piles of packages. Schoolbooks, notebooks, boxes of pencils and erasers shifting with each turn of the wheel. He feels the weight of the bundles on his back and legs. He can hardly see out from under all the packages. From the street comes the clamor of the city. He hears car engines, horns, the radio announcer’s voice. His hands are sweating. His scalp, too. The trip has taken longer than he calculated. But all at once he feels the van’s motor slowing, the turn signal ticking, the clutch shifting, and all of this tells him that they’re parking in front of a church. Specifically, Our Lady of Los Ángeles on Avenida El Golf, in the upper reaches of the city.

“We’ll wait here, he hears the lawyer say from the front of the van.”

It’s prose that is tight and beautiful. All meandering done with purpose, even in the verses that are interspersed within the narrative where least expected.

“The Parque Arauco mall opens.

Family members of the disappeared

Light candles in front of the cathedral,

I see the little flames go out

in jets from the water cannons.”

The Twilight Zone is, then, is not so much about the government that was cruel enough to enslave and murder its own. It’s more about the human beings caught in the impossible situation of enforcing the incomprehensible, and what it turned them into. It’s also about how the people who loved those enforcers had to love them, or resist them, or disown them, killing a part of themselves in order to live. It’s also perhaps about the few who speak up, early or late, but at some point, naming, telling, remembering the things most of us would sooner forget, but that can only be kept away if we all commit to never allowing them to completely fade from our memories.