Examining Pain With Kahloesque Fascination
One of Chile’s most brilliant writers finally in English
Lina Meruane’s semi-autobiographical Seeing Red is full of rhythmical jolts. At times, the reader is thrown to the end of a sentence, where she unexpectedly stops and teeters there, waiting. Then the next sentence reaches out and draws the reader on, plunging her into the smells, sounds, and spatial imbalances of the worlds around our protagonist, sometimes in the New York City where the fictional and real Lina Meruanes both earned their PhDs, and sometimes in Santiago de Chile, where the fictional and real Lina Meruanes both have Arab-Chilean families.
The book, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, opens with a very small, but urgent, explosion:
It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet.
On the first page, blood vessels burst inside Lina’s fragile eyes, submerging her gaze first in blood, then in darkness. This isn’t entirely a surprise. For years, Lina has been having small explosions inside her eyes. Because of the brittleness of her veins, Lina’s doctors had asked her to follow a litany of impossible rules:
Stop smoking, first of all, and then don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst.
So this explosion is not unexpected, and yet blindness was also impossible until it happened.
From this moment of darkness, the narrative hurtles forward, obsessed by Lina’s physical and emotional pains, which are examined with a vibrant, Kahloesque fascination. The narrative is also interested in how Lina’s pain stretches out, changing her relationships with the objects and people around her.
The plot of this short, tight novel is simple: Woman loses vision, woman waits, woman has operation. The sharply wrought and attentive prose, crafted here into compelling English, would probably be enough to keep our attention. But it’s the threat of what Lina will do next — amongst the obstacles thrown up by her family, the insurance company, the university, her love — that makes this novel un-put-downable.
At the opening, Lina’s relationship with her boyfriend, Ignacio, is held in a loose fist. She doesn’t even tell him, in these first moments, what has happened to her vision. They’re at a loud, raucous party, and he urges her to stay a while longer. She acquiesces. In the following days, as he discovers the extent of her loss, she simultaneously grips their relationship more tightly and hurls it away. She winds Ignacio in guilt and tries to shove him off. She both needs him and hates the smell of her neediness.
Just as Lina’s relationship with Ignacio grows more fraught, so does her relationship with the medical establishment. Both her parents are doctors, and no, she doesn’t want their advice. No, she will not have the operation done in Chile. She trusts only one doctor, Lekz.
In the beginning, Lekz is a cold, remote character who sits behind his instruments. He is a barrier, full of prohibitions and instructions, standing between Lina and the life she wants to live. After she loses her vision, she begins to rail against this barrier. Ignacio hushes her as she insists on reminding Lekz of her name:
Lucina, doctor, I told him officiously, knowing he’d be unable to pronounce it, while I reached out my hand, but you can call me Lina. He doesn’t know who the hell I am, I murmured then in Spanish to Ignacio, he doesn’t have the damnedest idea, this doctor to whom I’ve handed myself over in body and practically soul for two whole years.
As Lina’s prognosis worsens, she grows fiercer. By the end, she is so furious and demanding that she becomes something of a vengeful goddess. She demands increasingly more of Ignacio, and also of Lekz, whose position now changes. As Lina’s condition grows worse, Lekz becomes more vulnerable:
Lowering his voice impossibly, Lekz asked me to forgive him, it wasn’t me he forgot. I was everyone. Much as he struggled, he watched them enter his office and he didn’t have the slightest idea who they were, that’s what he told me, clearing his throat continuously, the magnifying lens raised before my eyes but still without examining me. With his hand suspended in the air, he confessed that patient after patient would come in and he would greet them all by name, something he’d learned to do mechanically.
In the end, Lekz shrinks before a furious, wronged Lina. The doctor reeks of cigarettes and exhaustion, and Lina asks him: “Am I going to die, doctor, or are you?” They are no longer in his office, with her quiescent behind his instruments. They are around a table, now equals, and the doctor is tied to Lina’s grief.
Lina’s mother is the only one among her inner circle to escape, pushed off by Lina’s desperate need for independence. Lina also knows too much about her mother to bear her presence. More than with any other character, Lina can see past her mother’s exterior. Just before her mother returns to Chile, post-surgery, Lina watches her sightlessly.
My mother trembled, while the doctor part of her demanded she get hold of herself, dry her tears on the sleeve of her blouse, not be late for her plane. We have to go, my mother’s other was saying, right now; and yes, I thought, both of you go, but especially the doctor you.
Lina’s observations are endlessly rich. Even when deprived of her sight, and relying on Ignacio’s eyes, she can still manage to paint us a detailed picture. Yet there is no facile conclusion that because Lina loses one sense, the others grow stronger. It is not Lina’s blindness that gives her x-ray vision, but her gifts as an author, her grief, and her fury. Lina might be blind, but she is desperate enough to see.