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Monday, 11 July 2016

Seeing Red - Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

For myself Spanish Literature Month is now in full swing, the “to be read” pile has been sorted, with Spanish titles put in their own pile and I can assure you I will not be getting through them all. Without any semblance of a plan for getting through the works I thought I’d just start and see where my journey took me – I’ve landed in Chile (via a quick bizarre “autobiography” from Mexico) and am going to stay here for a little while.


Another input that briefly crossed my mind was the amount (or lack) of female representation in the Spanish language (primarily middle and South America) books in my pile. Under no circumstance do I want to delay any reading of female authored books, just so I can have a “women only” exclusive month in August for “Women In Translation” Month. It defeats the purpose if I simply avoid female writers for eleven months of the year and prop up the statistics with a one month focus. The issue is I’ll be reviewing at about the 70/30 ratio as per standard publication rates for translated fiction.


“Seeing Red” has a simple premise, a Chilean girl, Lina, our narrator (and our novelist’s name), who is studying in New York has her eyes suddenly fill with blood, causing her sight to be impaired, so severely she cannot see. This event was not unexpected, it was always on the cards, but it still comes as a sudden event…

Only a few days until the eye doctor comes back from his conference and sees the terminal state of my retinas. Maybe Friday. It’s only Tuesday. Three days during which we have to resolve the rest of our lives.

A simple premise yes, but this is not simply a novel about blindness. Our narrator has recently begun a relationship with a new boyfriend, she has been up front and honest about the potential loss of sight, she also has a trip back to Santiago, Chile planned, how will this latest event impact her relationship and ability to travel?

Again, these are all just inputs into a linear plot, this novel is so much more than that.  There is plenty of material that talks about this being an autobiographical novel, apparently Lina Meruane being struck blind whilst living in New York, and the eyes filling with blood happens on the first page of this short book, not having sight is the start of Lina’s journey.

On the shore stood Fate and he was raising a question, an admonition. What did you come here looking for? he said, pointing one finger. What did you lose on this island?

To highlight the effect of no sight, all of the other senses are explored, and the heightened reliance on sounds and touch come to the fore, this is a novel of the senses, although being a necessity there is also a celebration in the strength of hearing, the reliance on memory.

He makes his breakfast and my coffee with milk as I rummage among the black clothes in the closet, zip up my boots, adjust my glasses—also dark—and we head out like commandos on a secret mission: he’s describing obstacles on the sidewalks and giving clues to the initiate, he’s the militia leader who supplies street names for her to memorize, inserts the metro card into a slot before she can move through the turnstile. He is the one who instructs her on the number of steps leading to the platform, and he announces a long step to cross the gap.

Switching between first person and third person narrative as our narrator “sees” herself from a distance when struggling with the reality of her predicament, the unreality of a doctor explaining the long term blindness is projected onto somebody else. A visit back to Santiago, Lina’s learned parents distancing themselves from the reality of the situation, one brother avoiding the situation completely, the other attempting to understand, all build as the question of familial love bubbles to the top.

As mentioned in my “Distant Star” review by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews) there are also the feelings of being in exile, a Chilean with no home;

In New Jersey I’d forgotten all my Spanish. Later, in Santiago, I’d forgotten English. Now I’m forgetting myself, I thought.

And of course there is a hint of the political;

The car shot through the city like a meteor until we reached La Moneda palace, which appeared to me white, immaculate, the way it was before military helicopters flying overhead dropped bombs on it, and in the midst of the imagined offensive, with the soundtrack of the dictator’s voice announcing his ignominious victory in the background.

A novel constructed in single paragraph chapters, each with a heading, the reality of a bleak situation slowly unpeels, we learn of the years of knowledge and treatment to avoid this potential physical deterioration that happens on page one, instead of a journey into blindness the immediacy of the situation makes it a journey into understanding and life beyond being able to see.  

Having said all that, at the core this really is a love story, an exploration of what it means to “unconditionally” love somebody, would a parent actually give up an eye for their child?  The “it depends on how much you love me” statements starting to pepper our narrator’s thoughts as the reality of her situation becomes darker by the day. Conversations happen as recollections of Lina’s and are transposed into the diary style memoir, we only learn of our narrator’s side to event.

And our narrator is a writer too, struggling with the reality that to write without sight is going to require retraining of habits;

Even now, even here, in this very passage, I confess it was not difficult to stop writing. It was much more arduous to find a pen, wrap my fingers around it, know that crooked words unreadable even by Ignacio were falling onto the page. Because as the world went black, everything that belonged to it was also left in the dark.

A book that works on so many levels, physical, metaphysical, familial, relationships, exiled writers, this is another fine release from Dallas not-for-profit independent publisher Deep Vellum, who in such a short period of time have unearthed a wonderful collection of translated books.

 Copy courtesy of Deep Vellum.


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