By Lina Meruane
Reviewed by Forrest Roth
If her compelling Seeing Red (Sangre en el ojo, 2012) is any indication, Lina Meruane knows the spectacle and monstrosity of blood, and its psychology. Blood, as she recognizes at the outset of this novel-in-fragments, turns horrendous only when the fascination with it ends, when its unexpected appearance remains past its anxious welcome. An event always forms wherever blood is spilled, especially when we recognize that, though the blood may belong to someone else, it could be—or will be—ours instead in turn. Blood seeks attention, it repulses. It wrests control of life away from the physical unease accompanying it. And, as Meruane considers throughout this highly introspective work, it is the least expendable part of the body, projecting for the beholder all that a body needs for its relief, if not reclamation.
Seeing Red concerns a diabetic narrator who has been stricken near-blind from microtears in her retinal veins, and the quiet resentment she bears when other people cannot deal with her condition. Blindness, she soon discovers, must traverse all her personal relationships because of this "shockingly beautiful blood" no one else can be affected by, save her own reactions to it. "I raised an eyelid and then the other and to my astonishment there was light, a bit of light . . . I was only half-blind," she indirectly addresses her partner and fellow academic Ignacio, staking out her new everyday reality of obfuscation and self-projection. "And so I accepted your coffee and raised it to my lips without hesitation, and I even smiled . . . you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn't understand what had happened. You couldn't calculate the gravity. You couldn't bring yourself to ask all the questions."
Employing an auto-fictional mode based on her own experience with a congenital eye defect, Meruane creates in Seeing Red something resembling an interior cross-cultural exposé which blends the contrarian with the quotidian, all the while avoiding any whimpering air of the victim's plight while she learns her trade of "professional blind woman," as she facetiously puts it. The willing participants of Meruane the writer, the woman, the frustrated doctoral student in New York City, and the jaded Chilean expatriate in alter ego, are presented in a series of skillful paragraphs relying more on the mind's eye instead of the partial vision of her actual ones, asking uneasy questions of the reader that parallel her own fierce discomfort with Ignacio, her family, and others. As the story travels from New York to Santiago and back again, in her vain attempt to give the appearance she can recover her sight, her almost imperious critical view to compensate for both its loss and the dubious hope it may be restored, leads her to carefully manipulate all those around her, most notably Ignacio who, with his evident shortcoming of mixing emotional distance with good intentions, becomes an oblivious captive to her preying whims and desires in the midst of his faltering attempts to help her:
I know he stood there looking at me because I felt his eyes on mine, like snails steeping me in their slime. Lina, he sighed, sunk in a sudden sadness or shyness. Lina, now even softer, holding my chin, his slimy eyes everywhere, you're blind and you are a dangerous blind woman. Yes, I replied slowly. Yes, but I'm only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambition in the trade, and yes, almost blind and dangerous. But I'm not going to sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.
Fabricating this complicated ruse in lieu of the reality she cannot fully see, the narrator's willing complicity in it, though turning perverse for its deliberate cruelty, grants a full understanding of the self's potential. This doesn't occur through the demarcating limits of the body, however, but through a heightened perception of the deficiencies of other people in their base attempts at relative social mobility, such as Ignacio guiding Lina inside their newly-remodeled apartment in New York as her body collects fresh bruises from bumping into the walls. An occupation which Meruane eventually abhors, blindness becomes only another discovery without adventure, a beautiful room she cannot enjoy because others do despite her presence.
The failure of people to understand her body's needs, those who witness the outward sign of blindness but are unable to perceive the blood's effect in her eyes, and Meruane's own resentment toward her dependence on others through their constant attempts to dissolve her identity sustain the primary critique of this novel. Medical science—doctors, in general, who should heed their patients' requests but consistently fail to do so—is singled out in this regard, mostly in the form of Meruane's optometrist Lekz and his indifferent office staff. Lekz's peculiar inability to ascertain or yield to Lina's request for immediate surgery dovetails with her family's meddling efforts in Santiago and with her thesis director's prodding to continue writing a set-aside "lost novel" ("Too much paper and so little furniture," Meruane sardonically notes). Opposed to these stifling figures, Seeing Red silently accuses those who are unwilling to accommodate Meruane as well as those who work too hard to please her body while missing what is essential to it. Little can be done for her sight in the meantime, she realizes, and her resigned acceptance of this while awaiting surgery implicates everyone through this pooled veil of blood as she spends most of her time listening to audio books, her daily thoughts drifting through an unyielding, albeit delayed, longing to be whole once again.
As Meruane constructs her troubled view by this not-seeing, the notion of doubling is also put forward in the narrative as a historical reappraisal of the present, that there are no coincidences as surely as there is no circular history. This is especially evident when Lina visits her home country for a reprieve. Sensing that some people have more of their bodies to spare without harm to themselves, the narrator ruminates how much is wasted in excess, including life itself. In one instance, the 9/11 attacks and what she deems the inherent futility of the response to them ("Towers are monuments in decline, you only have to build them and someone comes and knocks them down.") are only another image of Pinochet's regime in the 1970's. In Meruane's blood-afflicted view, older buildings in Santiago pock-marked by bullets are more than a mere backdrop to a fashionable lunch with friends, one of whom is likely dying of AIDS but won't tell his companions. Lina recognizes she will never see him again in any sense, while his current lover tries keeping him socially sedate, much to her displeasure. Meruane allows her blindness to indict the doubled world and everyone in it, then, not from bitter misery but from the body's removal of a decorum that means nothing to her. From blood comes an extended portrait of disgust with the dreary gringos of New York, with Ignacio, and with the already-dead world. Meruane's faulty eyes show how life is a poor facsimile of a prosperous one that those who are not afflicted believe they reside in.
Seeing Red marks Meruane's English-language debut, and those readers already familiar with contemporary South American luminaries such as Roberto Bolaño and Clarice Lispector, will find here why she is a rising name in Chilean letters by virtue of her international award-winning work. Aided by the fine translation from Megan McDowell, newcomers to Meruane's spare prose and caustic wit, which carefully tiptoe the fine line between insight and bleakness, will admire the strange force and clarity of this novel that is as painstaking as it is wryly painful.