Chilean electric, by Nona Fernández – Maria Rossi
translated from Italian by Donald Stang and Helen Wickes
The work of Chilean writer Nona Fernández has arrived in Italy with her most recent novel, Chilean Electric, recognized as the best novel published in Chile in 2016. Her previous book, Space Invader (2013), was also published by Edicola edizioni, in its series Al tiro. That series, and the publishing house, are valued for hosting a new generation of Chilean writers, among them, in addition to Fernandez, Alejandra Costamagna, Natalia Berbelagua, Ileana Elordi – a generation that finds its point of reference in Roberto Bolaño. In the issue n. 1 of our Italian language online journal, we republished an essay by Spanish writer Ricardo de Querol, “The Children of the Chilean Repression Fill Up the Silences,” which makes this point about the situation of contemporary literary output in Chile: “The young people who grew up during the Pinochet dictatorship now constitute a well-known literary generation. They share a reconstruction of memory combining the personal and the political.” In the same article, the journalist states that these writers do not feel the need to produce long novels, but that their work, often consisting of short novels, can be read as a puzzle, leading piece by piece, to the emergence of a history that has been kept in a fragmented state for a long time.
We find these elements again in Chilean Electric, a novel in which the past is neither recounted nor honored, but reconstituted. Actual puzzle pieces, “the pieces of a past which we do not know how to remember” (p. 26, Italian edition), require both the reader and the author to put them in order and fit them together, The novel is the container for these pieces of the past and of memory — the historical memory assigned to the grandmother, who introduces the novel, about the coming of electricity to the Plaza de Armas of Santiago. She relates that she had been present at the opening ceremony, only to discover later that the date of the historical event did not coincide with her memory. Why then, does she feel the need to invent a memory?
And with electricity arriving in the city, the faces of the people are illuminated. Also brought to light are the shadowy areas, even the darkest ones, those that have been filtered by the grandmother’s memory. Because of her employment at the labor ministry, she has spent her life transcribing official documents on her typewriter (which, in an ideal passage of consignment of collective memory, comes into the grandson’s possession). These images and memories intertwine with the author’s disordered memories of the years of the dictatorship, causing small short-circuits, “glimmers of light which would draw the attention and would force one to shine a light on dark areas, invisible terrains”. We meet the writer as a child in the Plaza de Armas dressed as a South American god clasping a wooden horse; we see her during a demonstration alongside a child who has lost an eye to the blows of a policeman; we retrace with her the story of the disappeared members of the Recabarren family. We also witness her memory of the last instants of Salvador Allende’s life, a man she had known only by his voice, from recordings that circulated clandestinely, during the years in which that history was filled out only in the imagination. The fragmented memories of the grandmother, or their invention, are the clues from which to begin reconstructing the past, to illuminate “the fearsome darkness.” The light illustrates a divide between the time of shadow and that of reconstruction, comparable to the way, for Pasolini, the fireflies and their disappearance in Italy signaled the separation between the end of the Second World War and the era which followed.
Chilean Electric features temporal displacements, shifting viewpoints, and diverse structural elements, oscillating among the interconnected history of the country, the stories of the thousands of people “disappeared” by the regime, and of the personal history of the author. No detail in the book is left to chance, just as no decorative element interrupts the concision of the writing; every piece, by the end of the book, finds its place in the reconstruction of the puzzle of the past.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1971, Nona Fernández is a writer, screenwriter and actress. In 2011, at the Nona Fernández Exhibition of the Book in Guadalajara, she was included in the shortlist of the 25 “secret” best custodians of Latin American literature.
Maria Rossi has a Ph.D in Cultures of Countries of Iberian and Iberian-American Languages from the Oriental, one of the oldest and most prestigious branches of the University of Naples. International migration of people from Central and South America have been the focus of her research and scholarly writing. She is the author of the book Napoli barrio latino, Arcoiris 2011, and has curated several anthologies and translations for that publisher. She takes a multidisciplinary approach to her analysis including sociological, cultural and literary methodological tools. One of her main focus has been on Latin American writers who live elsewhere, exploring their identities and hybrid cultures. She is particularly interested in Ecuador, the country at the middle of the world. Maria Rossi works as a translator and editor for Arcoiris, a small press focusing on Latin American writings. She s a founding member of La Macchina Sognante and currently one of its editors.
Featured image: photo by Micaela Contoli.