August was Women In Translation month. Sorry, I mean #WITMonth – that time in late summer when book lovers come together to chip away at the UK publishing industry’s ignominious stats on two fronts: foreigners and female authors. What a perfect opportunity to discover that South American lady writers exist. As an erstwhile student of South American literature, it took some googling and a few rounds of intense Wikipedia surfing to be convinced that women not named Isabel Allende have ever picked up a pen anywhere on the continent. I’m not sure my professors are aware of them to this day.
We’ve come a long, albeit insufficient, way. Courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing, the English speaking world can finally enjoy Lina Meruane, one of Chile’s most accomplished contemporary writers, in Megan McDowell’s excellent translation. Seeing Red is “Blood in the eye” in the original Spanish and this is how this livewire of a novel bursts from the narrator’s blood flooded retina in front of our own eyes.
Lucina, Lina for short, is a Chilean writer living in New York. She goes blind instantly, though not unexpectedly. She’s been living with the threat of diabetes-induced blindness for a while, but that takes nothing away from the gripping fear that’s unleashed once the blood vessels behind her corneas rupture in the middle of a party. From thereon, we follow Lina into the dark and down the intense paths of her mind as she’s fighting to keep a semblance of control and regain her sight.
Literature has a long history of romanticism and metaphor woven around blindness, from Homer to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. You won’t find much of it in Seeing Red. Lina fights her blindness. Lina wants her life and her autonomy and her writing career back, and she wants to have sex with her loving, dependable boyfriend without her mother knocking on the door to remind her it’s dangerous for her recovery (it is).
Fear coils around the core of this slim novel. You can feel it snaking around Lina, a woman who becomes steelier as she becomes needier, but also more powerful, more calculating and more determined. She navigates hospital corridors, as well as a frustrating reunion with her well-meaning but overbearing family in Santiago, guided by the “lidless eyes” of her fingertips and Ignacio, the fiancé whose eyeballs she wants to suck out and make her own in a fantastic airplane scene that will leave you reeling.
I am a reader who thrives in that realm where our most uncomfortable thoughts, our most disquieting (and at times suffocating) emotions go to hide. Fiction that captures it well has always gripped me. Lina Meruane is a master at leading us through the maze of Uncomfortableville, but this is not a bleak novel. No, really. I might have made it sound too much like the tale of a Chilean eyeball-munching zombie on a rampage for its own good, but there is light in Lina’s darkness and plenty to cheer for throughout. If you’d rather be on the safe side, it’s enough to turn to page 57 and linger on Lina taking a car ride through her native Santiago together with her little brother Félix.
“I let loose pieces of the city sprinkled over my visual memory, Santiago’s dirty avenues and the contours of its corners, handwritten signs with grammatical mistakes, shops selling used American clothes, the dubious cafe con piernas in the city center, certain streets that every Chilean knows…”
Anyone who’s lived with a disability or shared a moment like this with a disabled loved one will understand why the journey through the dark is worth it.
(For those of you who have made it this far, Scott Esposito has further recommendations for South American lady writers.