There are times reading Lina Meruane’s semi-autobiographical novel Seeing Red when you want to look away. It is a raw, sexy, visceral and sometimes brutal account of a woman losing her sight and it explores the immediate effects on her relationships with her lover, family, surroundings and her own body with an unflinching gaze.
The protagonist shares a first name with the author, and she too is a Chilean writer who has moved to New York to pursue an academic career. In the opening lines of the novel a long-anticipated and dreaded haemorrhage in Lina’s eyes occurs as she leans over in a bedroom of a friend’s apartment where a party is taking place. The diabetes she suffers from has long made her wary of excessive physical exercise but here she is merely stretching for an insulin syringe for a regular injection.
As blood floods her vision in first one eye and then the other she is plunged, in seconds, into a world of near blindness, dragging the reader with her. “The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened. I saw the pressure rise, I didn’t straighten up or move an inch while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.”
The change in her relationship with her boyfriend Ignacio is immediate: the two cling together but she increasingly seeks his sacrifice and tests the limits of his selflessness, “suctioning him like a leech stubbornly stuck to its victim.”
Her eye specialist, Lekz, is surely the embodiment of everything wrong with the American healthcare system; Lina has been his patient for years but he can’t remember her name. Her insurance company threatens to reject her claim for the eye operation when the procedure is revised on the operating table.
A planned trip back to Santiago to see her family has Lina, who left seeking independence through learning, arriving home in a wheelchair, hammering home her appalling loss of self-determination.
Her parents, both doctors, are “armed to the teeth with love” but aside from wanting her to have an operation in Chile, “a punishment to which I didn’t plan to subject myself” they can offer little. Her mother is self-centred, and both suffocating and emotionally absent. She is described as: “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me.”
This return to infancy in the eyes of her parents is an effect of illness or disability which many will recognise but Lina faces it with grim humour and an iron determination.
Instead she turns to Ignacio and he becomes her eyes. They go sightseeing around Santiago, and she directs him through streets unfamiliar to him, the vividness of both her senses and her memory acting as guides. Smells, sounds and textures become her landscape.
In using her memories to navigate she also highlights the duality of her existence, divided between New York and Chile. In her blindness she sees “the hollow left by the twin Manhattan towers” and the damage of the Chilean 9/11, the military coup in 1973. When memory replaces sight, you see a richer tapestry.
From her vantage point inside the character Lina’s head Meruane plays with syntax, letting sentences trail off to be completed by the reader. In speaking to Ignacio, Lina’s mother says: “But don’t thank us dear, it’s the least we.” The inference left hanging is that he should be thanked for taking on the burden that is now their daughter.
This is an astonishing novel, and Megan McDowell, the translator, has interpreted it beautifully.
Seeing Red (trans. Megan McDowell) is published by Atlantic, £12.99