Nona Fernández’s new book, Voyager: The Constellations of Memory, translated by Natasha Wimmer, combines astronomy’s physics with astrology’s storytelling to express the importance of memory, family and record-keeping.
‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’
‘Even in your world my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
What comes to mind when you look at the night sky? The zodiac’s starry bestiary? Constellations of mythical heroes? Space travel? Astronauts in cumbersome suits? Do you think of the past: the old light of stars, the shapes traced by our ancestors? Or the future: minerals mined from asteroids, a commercial settlement on the moon?
Do you think of astrology or astronomy? These two fields, united in the celestial plane, are often viewed today as diametrically opposed, one signifying humancentric credulity and the other intrepid scientific complexity. Chilean author Nona Fernández’s new book, Voyager: The Constellations of Memory (Daunt Books Originals), translated by Natasha Wimmer, combines astronomy’s physics with astrology’s storytelling to express the importance of memory, family and record-keeping for individuals, nations, and the global (cosmic) community.
In a work that particularly celebrates the maternal line, Voyager‘s first pages sees Fernández locate the night sky in her mother’s brain. During a hospital scan, a monitor shows Fernández a ‘network of hundreds of thousands of neurons interwoven with millions of axons and dendrites exchanging messages via a connective system of multiple transmitters’. When the doctor suggests her mother think of a happy memory, Fernández sees a ‘starscape’, an ‘imaginary chorus of stars twinkling softly […] A network stitching together familiar and comforting sensory details […] A neuronal circuit like the most complex stellar tapestry.’ The past lives as a mother ‘revives a scene from her past, and the brain process is a present act as complex as the vast fabric of the cosmos that knits itself mysteriously over our heads, enthralling and confounding us.’ The memory: the moment of Fernández’s birth.
This connection prompts one of Fernández’s own childhood memories, of her mother telling her that the stars were ‘little people trying to send messages with mirrors.’ Fernández envisaged these messages as greetings and reassurances, ‘despite the distance and the darkness.’ Their imagined words, ‘Hello, here we are, the little people, don’t forget us’, is a crucial refrain throughout the book. It accompanies Fernández’s exploration of the cosmos as a navigational metaphor to investigate the importance of communities and intergenerational bonds to anchor individuals. Concurrently, Fernández is concerned with the dense ‘black holes’ of history, when institutional memory fails to confront fully the past’s crimes, as demonstrated by her son’s teachers, who pressure him to omit references to the ongoing political influence of former dictator General Pinochet’s supporters in a speech at school. Chile has yet to agree a new constitution completely free of the military regime’s legacy; a document drawn up by a democratically-chosen Convention following public protests in 2019 was recently rejected by voters.
In Voyager, people turn into stars. Star HD70523 is Mario Argüelles Toro, one of 26 people murdered in the Atacama Desert in 1973, one of the best places in the world for stargazing. The perpetrators became known as the Caravan of Death, punishing ‘dissidents’ after the coup that established Pinochet’s rule. While the victims’ female relatives and loved ones still search for their bodies, moved by the army to cover their tracks, a commemoration is planned to name 26 stars after each of them, creating a new constellation. Fernández becomes involved as ‘godmother’ to Mario, signing the petition to the International Astronomical Union and writing a letter to his family and wife Violeta.
Another star is Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance scholar, astronomer and philosopher burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600. During a moving scene at the memorial ceremony in the desert, a young astronomer relates Bruno’s story to Fernández and the gathered families. They all begin to weep. Tragedies of persecution reach across time via the night sky, in a consolation of stars. In one of the infinite worlds that Bruno heretically hypothesised, Fernández thinks of the stars as ‘bonfires, cosmic blazes, celestial statues raised there in the night like a monument to stubborn memory.’
Fernández’s greatest achievement in Voyager is her ability to make space extraordinarily intimate. For a while now, I’ve viewed it with a degree of trepidation. It is linked increasingly in my mind to the acquisitive desires of aspiring space capitalists like Elon Musk or Richard Branson. When the International Space Treaty was signed in 1967, declaring space the ‘province of all mankind’, a loophole left open the possibility of commercial development. In 2020, US President Trump built on legislation passed by the Obama administration to issue an executive order promoting ‘commercial participation in the long-term exploration, scientific discovery, and use of the Moon, Mars, or other celestial bodies’. I worry about the exploitation of space as the destructive sequel to the exploitation of Earth, ecological and then cosmological damage justified by a narrative that humanity simply ‘outgrew’ their first home. I catch myself thinking that humankind should just leave outer space alone, not inflict ourselves upon it any more than we already have.
Yet Voyager collapses my sense of distance between us and the cosmos. Fernández reveals that there is no separation. Humanity and space have always been entwined, culturally, spiritually, physically, scientifically. Stars provided the necessary conditions for life on earth; the sun is our ‘mother star’. Indigenous people of South America view the astral realm as a dwelling place for their ancestors: for the Mapuche it is ‘journey’s end’ for people who turn into sun falcons or sun condors; the Selk’nam sing to Ham-nia, the western skies, in mourning for those who are gone. Space probes Voyager 1 and 2, launched by NASA in 1977, contain a ‘golden record’ phonograph intended to convey the best of humanity to any life they might encounter, including samples of music like Peruvian panpipes, Mozart, Chuck Berry, and whale sounds. Greetings recorded in myriad languages carry messages back to Fernández’s ‘little people’ in the skies: ‘Hello, good wishes to you all … Friends in the stars, may we meet someday … Please, be in touch. We’re here, we say hello. We are the people of Earth.’
This intimacy is reinforced by Fernández’s frequent use of textile vocabulary, evoking softness and nurture. The cosmos ‘knits itself mysteriously over our heads’; a neuronal network ‘stitching’ details into a ‘stellar tapestry’. At the memorial for Mario and the twenty-five other people-stars, a quilters’ collective brings ‘a delicately stitched wall hanging showing the constellation of the fallen in the desert sky.’ Knitting and stitching also makes me think of medicine, the need for healing and repair, or the way that the pieces of our infant skulls gradually fuse together after birth.
Voyager conjures fierce love from many corners. From Violeta’s search for Mario’s remains to Fernández‘s mother and grandmother dressing impeccably to vote in the 1988 plebiscite for democratic presidential elections. From the protective motherhood of Aphrodite in the Pisces myth to the Voyagers, ‘two perfect huntresses’ tasked to ‘record’ and ‘store fragments of stellar memory’. This love expands in ripples of attachment, from immediate family to the whole universe. Voyager gives the gift of imagining the ‘starscape’ inside each of us. Each time we re-experience our happiest memories, we spark to life a panel of Fernández’s cosmic stellar tapestry.
Nona Fernández’s The Constellations of Memory (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is published by Daunt Book Originals and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Feature image includes a photograph of the author by Sergio López Isla.