The Illumination of Santiago

Nona Fernández
translated by
Idra Novey
Illustration by Claire Hungerford

It was a german company, she said. One that had arrived to install the light. There were many workers and tech­nicians who disembarked with cables, light bulbs, and pliers in the Plaza de Armas, the first in all of Santiago to be illuminated. She said the work went on throughout the city for some years. She didn’t specify how many, but I guess it was long enough for one of those German electricians to meet a woman and have four Chilean children with her. Two dark-skinned kids with blue eyes, a girl with straight blond hair, and, finally, a redhead.

One night, the mother of the children told them that they were going to the city center. The father had completed a section of his citywide project and they were going to celebrate with a special ceremony in the plaza. The two dark-skinned children, the blond girl, and the redhead set out, walking along the half-dark streets lined with gas lamps, which were lit each day at dusk. The blond girl was holding her mother’s hand, she told me. Their shadows lengthened up the walls and across the ground, extending their backs without disconnecting from their feet. Her mother’s shadow was small and thin. Her redheaded brother’s shadow was in con­stant motion, darting in front of the others. Hers, tiny with skinny legs, was a shadow so dark that she got scared just looking at it, she told me. It didn’t matter how much they hurried or how fast they turned the corners, the shadows were always there behind them, following the same route they followed, stepping on their steps, swallowing each moment as it ended.

After a long walk, the girl arrived with her mother and siblings at the Plaza de Armas, where they met up with other women, men, and children waiting to see the spectacle of electric lights. The place was packed. Grandparents sat on the benches and used the cathe­dral stairs for extra seats. Perched on their fathers’ shoulders, kids peered out, straining to see. There were animals, too. Dogs, chick­ens, and a few mules, she told me. Nobody wanted to be left out. Hundreds of heads and bodies with their respective shadows stood together, expectant, waiting in the public square for illumination.

She told me the electric light played tricks with time and that no one, not even someone with an illuminated mind, could do that.

I don’t know how things started. I don’t remember if she told me. Maybe there was a ceremony, like her mother said there would be. Somebody gave a speech, standing on a dais made for the occa­sion or on top of the existing cathedral stands. Maybe they talked about progress, a new era, the future about to arrive and present itself that very night, in the penumbra at the center of the city, the belly button of the country. Or maybe there was nothing ceremo­nial at all and a white-haired German man just counted out loud to three:

eins, zwei, drei.

Maybe he hit the switch then, and swiftly, to prevent anyone from seeing how it happened, each of the streetlights installed in the plaza clicking on at once, an act of magic unlike any trick the public had ever witnessed.

The people went silent.

We stood with our mouths open, she told me.

Not even a fly moved, everything was quiet while we stared up at the lit bulbs.

The light was much brighter than the flames in the gas lamps. It was all-encompassing and didn’t leave anyone out. Intrusive and surprising, it made people’s faces appear in the darkness. People in Santiago had never seen each other this way. Under the electric lights, the redheaded brother looked even more redheaded. His hair glowed like an ember in the wood-fed heater they lighted in the winter. The light moved between people’s bodies, intensifying colors, shapes, and designs. It grasped onto people’s waists, tan­gled their hair, narrowed their hands, shoulders, torsos, backs. It brought out a new dimension of each one. People drew closer to the lights and smiled under the bulbs, looking at their own illumi­nated bodies, turning around to show others, like a person show­ing off a new suit.

The blond girl was very small, and she told me she took it all in without letting go of her mother’s hand because she didn’t understand what was going on. The brightness of the light bulbs was so potent it caused all the shadows in the plaza to disappear. Wherever they looked, not a single shadow remained, she told me, the light had swallowed them all. The blond child, in her childish­ness, thought that the night had abruptly ended and that sunrise had arrived. She thought the hours that were normally dark for sleeping had been dissipated under the lights, that those hours were gone, and at any moment she would have to head to school again. The light resuscitated the day, making it appear from com­plete darkness with the flick of the switch. She told me she got scared. She told me the first thing she thought was that the electric light must be dangerous, given how fast it got rid of the shadows. She told me the electric light played tricks with time and that no one, not even someone with an illuminated mind, could do that.

After a few minutes somebody applauded, and the applause caught on. Others joined in, and then everyone began to clap their palms, stunned and incredulous at what they were seeing. What happened after that she never told me, but I can guess that there was a party, a drunken spree with guitars and dancing, and the festivities lasted all night in the plaza, where time no longer passed, where the new lights halted it to allow the parties to continue.

The German company continued spreading light through the city. In the following years, they put thick cement poles along the rest of the streets, poles that carried the new streetlights and cables. A whole block would switch on in some central neighborhood. The next month another one, and then another, and another. The city began appearing gradually, its darkest corners, once shadowed even in daylight, exposed, revealing the design that still emerges now, each day and night.

Through windows, the light entered houses, rooms, lit first the pillows of the most fortunate, who from then on began to imagine in their twisted dreams a city that had become limitless. With its neon lights—little brightly colored ones, and security spotlights. An alert city, always switched on, an insomniac city. The streetlight poles, the first ones, bore the name of the German company that had erected them. It was a circular logo with an acronym inside. Three or four indecipherable letters JTR, or GSBM, or CETA. I think it was CETA. These poles lasted in Santiago for many years. On a walk for a kilo of bread, or a quart of oil, holding hands with the blond girl, who with time had transformed into my grand­mother, I saw this acronym imprinted on the poles of the street where I was born. That’s the company where my father used to work, she told me, and she showed me the logo with her wrinkled, pale hand, like a testimony of the night when, according to her, we began cheating with time.

Nona Fernández was born in Santiago, Chile. She is an actress and writer and has published two plays, a collection of short stories, and six novels, including Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Idra Novey is a writer and translator. Her most recent novel is Take What You Need.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023


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