My first book from Deep Vellum Publishing (Texas) was the terrific The Art of Flight by Mexican diplomat Sergio Pitol (posted in August, 2016). I’ve been reading another great volume in their catalogue: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane. Meruane (born 1970)—a novelist, essayist, short story writer, cultural journalist and academic—is one of the most prominent contemporary female voices in Chile. A recipient of numerous prestigious international prizes (including the Anna Seghers Prize awarded by the Akademie der Künste, Germany and the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize, Mexico), she lives across New York City and Santiago.
Sangre en el ojo—Seeing Red—is a taut autobiographical novel about a young Chilean doctoral student Lina (also known as Lucina) in New York who suffers a stroke that leaves her blind in one eye. The last powerful story about bodily weakness that I read was Magda Szabó’s The Door but there deterioration was concentrated around just one major episode. In Seeing Red, decline is pervasive, which makes the narrative very claustrophobic.
The stroke occurs right at the beginning and the rest of the book is about Lucina’s subsequent challenges. Meruane’s language of blood, blackness, capillaries and conduits is so direct and naked that I found myself taking my spectacles off, shutting and rubbing my eyes in squeamishness multiple times.
As her defective eye collapses, Lucina sees red—and then nothing more. From that point on she must rely on others, particularly her lover Ignacio. But she must not get physical with him, or her veins might just burst. Things that Lucina had probably taken for granted before—potholes, manholes, doorknobs, bookcases, thresholds, staircases—make themselves violently known to her. Obstacles crouch in corners. Items of furniture swap places to confuse her. She must learn to patiently sit in a wheelchair and pass immigration checks in airports. She must get accustomed to expressions of pity.
She is plagued by a thousand anxieties, her illness certainly, and with it her insurance, her university grant, her troubled relationships with Ignacio, her parents, her doctor. She has aged without warning, her flesh is full now of aches and pains, needles and nails. Electrical discharges run across her being, leaving her desperate, almost insane. The end of this oppressive clinical book is both funny and frightening, a swift meditation on vision, memory, the human soul itself. Very cinematic in its execution, bold in its content, Seeing Red ultimately forces us to give good thought to the great wonder and blessing that is a properly functioning body.
And the trip toward my fate was long, but eventually the train stopped at the station and we were walking again along a thunderous route that threatened to leave us deaf as subway rats. But we arrived and we got off the train and went up stairs without holding the railing because who knows what fingers, what saliva and hair have slid over it and coated it in misery. We held hands as we walked. Swept along by the tumult of bodies that pushed us and stepped on the heels of our shoes, just that, that touch of our fingers, was the most intimate thing that could happen.
Ignacio never stopped squeezing my hand to announce obstacles and to warn me of pedestrians who were running across on the yellow or even the red light. Now we had reached the reach pretzel smell of Madison and 37th. A dog barked, standing still amid screeching brakes. The river soaked the air in low, frayed clouds that left the pigeons breathless. I went along asking for atmospheric pictures to fill in the holes in my imagination, and I asked questions that grated on Ignacio. Is the north still to my left? Yes, there it was, the north was where it always was, with its thick sky. I couldn’t lose focus, my entire being demanded a multiplied concentration, an absolute dedication to the geography of things. And my head was buzzing, it was heating up with the images that every one of Ignacio’s words stirred up in my memory.