The Twilight Zone

Nona Fernández, trans., Natasha Wimmer

March 15, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Nona Fernández's novel, The Twilight Zone, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Fernández is an actress and writer, and has published two plays, a collection of short stories, and six novels, including Space Invaders. Wimmer is the translator of nine books by Roberto Bolano, including The Savage Detectives; her most recent is The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra.

The first time I saw him was on the cover of a magazine. It was a copy of Cauce, the kind of thing I read back then with no knowledge of the people featured in all those headlines reporting attacks, kidnappings, strikes, crimes, scams, lawsuits, indictments, and other scandalous occurrences of the day. “Accused Bomber Was Local CNI Boss,” “Degollados Killers Still Doing Time in La Moneda,” “The Plot to Assassinate Tucapel Jiménez,” “Did DINA Order Calama Executions?” My reading of the world at thirteen was shaped by stories in magazines I didn’t own, that belonged to everybody, passed from hand to hand among my classmates. The pictures in each issue gradually arranged themselves into a confusing landscape that I never managed to map in its entirety, though each dark detail lingered in my dreams.

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I remember a scene I came up with in my head after reading some article. On the cover of the magazine was a drawing of a blindfolded man in a chair. An agent was interrogating him in the glare of a lamp. Inside the magazine was a catalog of torture methods. I read the testimonies of victims and saw diagrams and drawings that looked like something out of a book from the Middle Ages. I can’t remember every detail, but clear in my mind is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who said that in the detention center where she was kept they had stripped her, smeared her body with excrement, and put her in a dark room full of rats.

I didn’t want to, but inevitably I imagined that dark room full of rats. I often dreamed of that place and woke up from the dream over and over. Even now I can’t shake it and maybe that’s why I’m recording it here, as a way to let it go. In that same dream, or maybe another like it, I inherited the man I’m imagining. An ordinary man, no different from anyone else, nothing special about him. Except for a bushy mustache, which I, at least, couldn’t stop thinking about. His face was on the cover of one of those magazines, and over the picture was a headline in white letters: I Tortured People.

Under that, another line: Shocking Eyewitness Account By Security Services Agent. In a pull-out section inside there was a long exclusive interview. The man gave a full account of his time as an intelligence agent, from his service as a young conscript in the air force to the moment he went to the magazine to tell his story. There were pages and pages of details about what he had done: the names of agents, prisoners, informers; detention center addresses, burial sites, descriptions of torture methods; accounts of many missions.

Powder blue pages—I remember them well—transporting me for a moment into some parallel reality, infinite and dark as the room I dreamed of. A disturbing universe that we sensed lay hidden somewhere out there, beyond the bounds of school and home, where everything obeyed a logic governed by captivity and rats. A horror story told by the ordinary person at its center, who looked like our science teacher, or so it seemed to us, with the same bushy mustache. The man who tortured people didn’t mention any rats in the interview, but he could have been the tamer of them all. I guess that’s what I imagined. A pied piper playing a tune that made it impossible not to follow him, not to march one by one into the disturbing place he inhabited. He didn’t seem like a monster or an evil giant, or some psychopath you had to run away from. He didn’t even look like the national police in boots, helmet, and shield who charged at us with batons during street protests. The man who tortured people could have been anybody. Even our teacher.

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I remember a scene I came up with in my head after reading some article. On the cover of the magazine was a drawing of a blindfolded man in a chair.

The second time I saw him was twenty-five years later. I was working as a writer for a television series, and one of the main characters was based on him. It was a fictional series with lots of romance, of course, which is a requirement on TV, plus plenty of persecution and death, in keeping with the subject matter and the period.

The character we constructed was an intelligence agent who took part in detention and torture operations and then went home and listened to a mix tape of love songs and read Spiderman comics with his son at bedtime. For twelve episodes we followed his double life up close, the absolute divide between the personal and the professional that was secretly crushing him. He wasn’t comfortable in his job anymore, he was starting to lose his nerve, the tranquilizers had stopped working, he couldn’t eat or sleep, he had stopped talking to his wife, stopped being affectionate with his son, stopped spending time with his friends. He felt sick, despairing, feared his superiors, was trapped in a reality he didn’t know how to escape. At the climax of the series he put himself in front of his own enemies, presenting them with the brutal testimony of what he’d done as an intelligence agent in a desperate gesture of catharsis and unburdening.

To write the series I had to confront the interview I’d last read as an adolescent.

There he was again, on the cover.

His bushy mustache, his dark eyes staring at me from the page, and that line printed over his photograph: I Tortured People.

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The spell remained intact. His face loomed again, and like a rat I was ready to follow wherever his testimony led. I pored over every word. Twenty-five years later my hazy map was gradually coming into focus. Now I had a clear sense of the identity and roles of the people whose names and nicknames he mentioned. Air Force Colonel Edgar Ceballos Jones; Air Force Intelligence Director General Enrique Ruiz Bunger; Communist Party leader José Weibel Navarrete; Communist Party member Quila Rodríguez Gallardo, known for his bravery; El Wally, civilian officer of the Joint Command; El Fanta, ex–Communist Party member turned informer and persecutor; El Fifo Palma, Carlos Contreras Maluje, Yuri Gahona, Carol Flores, Guillermo Bratti, René Basoa, El Coño Molina, Mr. Velasco, El Patán, El Yerko, El Lutti, La Firma, Peldehue, Remo Cero, Nido 18, Nido 20, Nido 22, the Juan Antonio Ríos Intelligence Center. The list is endless. I reentered that dark zone, but this time with a lamp that I had been fueling for years, which made it easier for me to find my way once I was inside. The lamp lit my path, and I became convinced that every bit of information delivered by the man who tortured people had been put out there not just to shock readers and open their eyes to the nightmare, but also to halt the machinery of evil. It was clear and concrete proof, a message from the other side of the looking glass, genuine and incontrovertible, demonstrating that the whole of that parallel and invisible universe was real, not some fantastic invention, as was often said.

The second time I saw him was twenty-five years later. I was working as a writer for a television series, and one of the main characters was based on him.

I last saw him a few weeks ago. I’d been working on the script for a documentary by some friends. It was about the Vicariate of Solidarity, an agency of the Catholic Church created in the midst of the dictatorship to assist victims. The film was a record of counterintelligence work, carried out mostly by the agency’s lawyers and social workers. From testimonies and material collected for each case of forcible disappearance, detention, abduction, torture, and any other abuses they handled, they were able to put together a kind of panorama of repression. By obsessively studying this landscape, the Vicariate team tried to expose the sinister logic at work in the hope of getting a step ahead of the agents and saving lives.

We’d been working on the film for years and the material was so intense it made us a little queasy. My friends, the creators of the documentary, recorded hours and hours of interviews. Each person described on camera how they joined the Vicariate, their work, and the strange way they gradually became detectives, spies, secret investigators. They all ended up analyzing information, asking questions, planning operations, building a mirror image of the enemy’s security services, but to nobler ends. The interviews were utterly engrossing and thorough, making the editing process very difficult. Which is why I had to make sure to prepare for our meetings first thing in the morning, with a strong cup of coffee so that I was as sharp as possible.

I want to describe one such morning. Shower, coffee, notebook, pencil, and then pushing the Play button to queue up new material to review. As I watched I took notes, paused images, tested cuts in my head, listened over and over to clips in order to decide whether they were necessary or not. That’s where I was, in the middle of testimonies, interviews, and stock images viewed millions of times, when he appeared: the man who tortured people.

There he was in front of me, no longer just a still image printed in a magazine.

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His face came to life onscreen, the old spell was revived, and for the first time he was in motion. His eyes blinked on camera, his eyebrows shifted a little. I could even see the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

My friends explained to me that while he was briefly back in Chile they had managed to secure an interview. He hadn’t been back since he snuck out of the country after giving his testimony in the eighties. Thirty years later he had returned to appear in court and present further evidence, this time to a judge or multiple judges. It was his idea; he hadn’t been summoned. Even the French interior ministry and the agents charged with his safety all these years had tried to dissuade him. What I saw on my screen that morning was the image of a man who had come home after a long time, hoping to bring a chapter to a close. In fact, he said as much in the only interview he gave to the press at the time.

I last saw him a few weeks ago. I’d been working on the script for a documentary by some friends.

As I write now, I pull up the image on my screen again. It’s him. There he is, on the other side of the glass. The man who tortured people looks me in the face as if it’s really me he’s talking to. He has the same bushy mustache, but it’s no longer black; it’s closer to gray, like his hair. Thirty years have gone by since that photograph on the cover of Cauce magazine. Thirty years, betrayed by the wrinkles furrowing his brow, his tinted glasses, the now-gray hair.

He’s speaking in a voice I’ve not heard before. It’s a calm voice, very different from what it must have been when he turned up to give testimony in eighty-four.

Soft and timid, even; nothing like what I had imagined. It’s as if he’s answering my friends’ questions despite himself, reluctantly, but with the conviction that it’s his duty, as though he’s following orders.

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I look at him and consider that: the secret compulsion to be constantly obeying some superior.

Now it’s all just part of an old story, and he keeps repeating the phrase “I remember” as his eyes reveal the workings of memory. Only a few moments from the interview capture my attention. Things I haven’t read elsewhere, spoken calmly, released into the air for me to gather and write down.

I remember the first marches.

People came out with posters of disappeared family members.

Sometimes I walked past them.

I saw those women, those men.

I looked at the photographs they were carrying and I said to myself: they don’t realize that I know where that person is, I know what happened to him.

I look at him and consider that: the secret compulsion to be constantly obeying some superior.

My face is reflected in the television screen and my face merges with his. I see myself behind him, or maybe in front of him. I look like a ghost in the picture, a shadow lurking, a spy watching him though he doesn’t know it. Which is partly what I am now, as I sit here observing him, I think: a spy watching him though he doesn’t know it. He’s so close I could whisper in his ear. Pass on some message he would mistake for a thought of his own, because he doesn’t see me, doesn’t know I’m here, intent on speaking to him. Or writing to him, actually, which is the only thing I know how to do. It could be a couple of sentences on the screen that he’ll read like a ghostly apparition before his eyes. A sign from beyond the grave, which is something he must be used to. A message in a glass bottle tossed into the black sea where all those who ever lived in that dark parallel zone are shipwrecked.


Excerpted from The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer. Excerpted with the permission of Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2021 by Nona Fernández and Natasha Wimmer.

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