Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
Translated by Megan McDowell
Out 3 August from Atlantic Books
£12.99 hardback, and eBook
(In Edinburgh? Lina’s at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26th August)
Writing this in tearing haste, as the saying goes, but with the strong recommendation that you read this energetic, gripping novel by one of the stars of Chilean literature, Lina Meruane. It’s been beautifully translated by Megan McDowell, into English that’s vivid, striking, urgent and occasionally stomach-churning.
Seeing Red begins with a long-anticipated catastrophe: at a party in New York, the narrator suffers a haemorrhage in her eye. “And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. . . . With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy . . . and even so I didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.”
Lina the narrator, like Lina the author, is a Chilean writer, living in New York while pursuing a PhD and working on a novel. She is diabetic. The novel’s Lina has recently moved in with her boyfriend, Ignacio. (The real Lina received a PhD in Latin American Literature from NYU, where she is Professor of World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing.)
Ignacio cannot see what lies behind her eyes, but he’s swept up in the drama. Part of this story is an exploration of how illness can transform us into demanding, self-centred creatures, and diminish our ability to empathise. Thus when, late in the novel, Ignacio proposes marriage, Lina’s reaction is: “It depends, I tell you, in a moment of suspense filled with love and vileness; it depends on how much you love me, on how much more you’re willing to do for me.”
Lina borrows Ignacio’s sight in more ways than one, living through his descriptions, allowing him to navigate her through the streets and through their new flat, even stroking his eyeballs — and by the end, threatening to pluck them out as replacements for her broken eyes, so that she’ll no longer move around “like a disoriented bat,” so that she can read, instead of listen to audio books, so that she can write her own books again.
The specialist, Lekz, has been her doctor for years but cannot remember her name. He never forgets a retina or a cornea, though. The prognosis is iffy, and she has a month to wait before they can contemplate the possibility of surgical intervention. During that time Lina flies back to Santiago, while Ignacio goes to Buenos Aires on business, ahead of joining her at her family home. There is friction between Lina and her parents — both doctors, which is exacerbated by their concern for her health and her mother’s need to star in every family drama. Lina’s determined individualism ultimately wins the day. This is a family dynamic everyone will recognise, whatever their circumstances, and the frustrations of becoming an infantilised adult in the presence of people you adore and can’t stand are beautifully rendered.
Lina takes Ignacio sightseeing, navigating by memory. She predicts the weather by smelling the air. She’s rehearsing blindness. Because she cannot see, Lina projects visions and memories onto her mind’s eye, noting her father’s long femur, experiencing her mother as “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me.”
This is the sort of chewy prose to set the heart alight. But fair warning, there are equally vivid, visceral descriptions of her operation and bodily functions, which can be bracing if you’re the least bit squeamish. Her frustrations with the American healthcare system, notably the insurance requirements, are as funny as they are horrifying.
Meruane’s writing crackles with electricity (it reminded me of reading This Side of Paradise, which for all its flaws, crackles with life). She plays with syntax, ending sentences where they would in your head, if not on the page. For example: “. . . even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.” She describes Lekz running his hand through his hair “in search of his future baldness.” There are countless other felicitous moments, but you must discover them for yourselves. Trust me, you’ll enjoy this treasure hunt!