Nona Fernández: The Twilight Zone (2021) | Graywolf
Nona Fernández: The Twilight Zone (2021) | Graywolf

Chilean Author Nona Fernández’s Historical Fiction ‘The Twilight Zone’ Dismantles Good and Evil Dichotomies

In search of answers from Chile’s painful past, Nona Fernández imagines and reconstructs the events surrounding the testimony of a real-life torturer in her book, The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone
Nona Fernández
March 2021

Every social group has parables that perpetuate their outlook. A parable gives a sense of cohesion and filters through uncertainty arising in the real world. Among police circles in the United States, the sheepdog parable has become the standard, repeated over and over again with minor variation. Anyone who has a Blue Lives Matter-subscribing family member has likely heard a version. 

In broad strokes, it goes somewhat like this: the world can be divided into three types of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep live their lives quietly, never once thinking of committing an act of violence. Most people — working, raising their families, and paying their taxes — fall into this category. Meanwhile, there are wolves lurking in the vicinity intent on hurting the sheep. The only reason they don’t succeed is as a result of the sheepdog standing guard.

Violence is deployed against the devious wolves, but it comes from a place of love for their woolen neighbors. The sheep see these acts and question how anyone is capable of inflicting harm, ignorant of the fact that it is to their benefit. The wolves would have otherwise eaten them≠. 

Reality, of course, is much more complicated. 

Few populations in the world have seen the consequences of the brutal means of so-called protectors fully convinced of their cause as intensely as Chile. All ends justified the means in eradicating the ‘Communist scourge’ that had gained political ascendancy at the ballot box in 1970. The General Augusto Pinochet-led coup bombed the nation’s democracy into the ground three years later. The exterminations of the ‘ideologically unfit’ began soon after and continued — denied or ignored by most — for nearly 17 years. It is during the latter years of this era, characterized by routine sadism, that Nona Fernández’s ingenious work of imagination, The Twilight Zone, is set.

It opens in Chile’s capital of Santiago as Andrés Antonio Valenzuela Morales walks into a dissident magazine’s offices hoping to come clean. He tortures people. His testimony is published soon after, and he is transformed instantly into an entirely despised figure. To one side, he is a traitor. He broke the line. He said the quiet part out loud to a country incapable of understanding why these killings were necessary to maintain order. To others, he was the demon carrying out the devil’s work. This unassuming man with the face of a science teacher was the driver of the caravan of death that disappeared their loved ones and vigorously denied it until that point. The boogeyman finally had a name and a face. 

The real-life Valenzuela Morales’ transcribed accounts frankly detail the grisly deeds carried out at a superior’s command; Fernández catches these statements on the other side, giving life to the small daily routines of those that suffered at his hands. Playing chess, lunches with family, and dropping children off at school, always aware that this could be the day that it all ends. A teenager at the time of the events, Fernández recreates the scenes as well as the accompanying time period with the precision of a forensic investigator. 

Doing so requires Fernandez to look inward, outward, and every which way, both then and now, in search of answers that don’t easily come. “Time isn’t straightforward,” Fernández writes in The Twilight Zone, “it mixes everything up, shuffles the dead, merges them, separates them out again, advances backward, retreats in reverse, spins like a merry-go-round, like a tiny wheel in a laboratory cage, and traps up in funerals and marches and detentions, leaving us with no assurance of continuity or escape.”

Her absolute faithfulness to this notion throughout the shapeshifting The Twilight Zone shakes preconceptions over the course of a gripping read that situates the scale of the atrocities in the reader’s imagination. When words fail, which they often do in the face of sheer horror, she turns to an eclectic array of cultural allusions — most frequently to the classic television show that lends the novel its name, revealing a dimension between “the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

In one harrowing passage, Fernández describes her and her mother being the only ones in attendance at a screening of a documentary on the close-to-home subject. In the adjacent theater is the packed screening of a Marvel movie, whose clear-cut morality, attractive Hollywood ensemble, and deafening explosions shake Fernandez and her mother’s seats. Seeing her mother sob as mass graves flash across the screen forces her to realize that — as most Chileans try to forget the shameful incidents — she is like the past-her-prime actress watching her films on repeat in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” episode of Rod Serling‘s television series, The Twilight Zone, “trying to decipher ancient images.” 

A long line of contemporary Chilean authors — among them Roberto Bolaño, Isabel Allende, and Ariel Dorfman — have sought to decipher these images that figure so deeply in the collective Chilean consciousness. One of the constant themes of Fernández’s powerful addition to this emerging canon is to question who the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity are. Pinochet, though the primary architect of the system, did not do it alone. 

“With few exceptions, the torturers have gone on to have long careers and marriages, dinner parties and evenings reading bedtime stories to their children and then grandchildren. Impunity reigns. They had the opportunity to move on as their horrific crimes became compressed into a blurry past.

For all its merits, Chile’s poignant Museum of Memory and Human Rights – as Fernández points out – has no section naming the perpetrators. By speaking out, Valenzuela Morales became one of the few named culprits of the bloody oppression. Fernández pulls on this single thread wherever it takes her, even toward compassion for a beach-loving father ground down in the gears of a dehumanizing machine crushing the country into submission.

In his remarkable account of Soviet state terrorism The Gulag Archipelago (1958-68), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 

Almost everyone likes to believe that they would have the courage and wherewithal to refuse an order to harm another person. Perhaps, the thinking extends one step further into having faith that authority is just and would never demand that the men and women charged with keeping order hurt their fellow citizens, or at least not without good reason.

Holding to this conviction might be essential to performing the duties of a police officer, with the good, old sheepdog parable providing a compass when lost in a forest of doubts. Fernández’s The Twilight Zone tells a more tangled and disturbing story, one that requires wading through an unsettling fog in a “dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”

Works Cited

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espiritus).Plaza & Janés, (SA), Alfred A. Knopf (US). 1982.

Bolaño, Roberto. By Night In Chile. New Directions. 2003.

Dorfman, Ariel. website.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. “The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation”. The Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center.

Morales, Andrés Antonio Valenzuela. Page on the Memoria Viva Digital Archive.

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights. website.

Serling, Rod. The Twilight Zone Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” episode IMDb page:

Serling, Rod. The Twilight Zone “Rod Serling” IMDb page.