Autobiographical fiction is a fraught category, particularly when combined with a first-person narrative. Readers are naturally predisposed to believe that an author is recycling the material of her own life into a novel. Having that confirmed, without being told where the line has been drawn, can be a distraction. It becomes a guessing game. What is true? What is made up? Even more confusing when the heroine and the author share a name. But while the central conceit of Seeing Red has its basis in an incident Meruane’s own life, she expands and transforms that incident into a story that’s merely a reflection of the actual event written in a flowing, dark prose that veers sharply from descriptions of daily life into moments of sadistic fantasy.
Lina Meruane is a contemporary Chilean writer, part of the new generation of authors redefining the Latin American literary scene. She has won a number of awards including the Mexican Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize for Seeing Red. She’s been the recipient of grants from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been published in Spanish, English, German, and French. She currently lives in New York City and Seeing Red is her first novel to be translated into English. Meruane and her translator Megan McDowell make a formidable team. The final book they have created is both a brilliant exploration of the human condition and exercise in experimental prose.
Seeing Red opens with a description of a loud, smoky, drunken, boisterous party with too many people crammed into a tiny NYC apartment—the neighbors are pounding on the walls, someone’s about to throw a punch, and the cops are on their way. And then, just when things are really getting good and the celebration is reaching epic proportions, a curtain of red descends. The narrator Lina is blind. The party breaks up and the people tumble into the street. Meruane perfectly captures the moment—that slow dissolution of sound and bodies into the night. On the precarious walk home only Lina is aware of the severity of her situation.
For her, and for us, it’s not entirely a surprise. “They’d been warning me about it for a long time…” we’re told in almost the first sentence. She’s suffered a long-expected stroke which has caused the blood vessels behind her corneas to burst. It was never a question of if, we understand, but when. What follows are doctor visits, negotiations with well-meaning family members, the pragmatic advice of friends and the emotional limits of a supportive boyfriend’s endurance. Lina blindly navigates all of this while attempting to maintain a facsimile of normalcy. These are the accoutrements of sickness. Personal affliction comes with an entourage of loved ones who demand attention.
And Lina allows them all within her orbit, weighing their usefulness with cold, mercenary intent. Along with her sight the curtain of blood seems to have washed away all empathy. There’s no gentleness in her. She’s fierce and angry and often terrifying. On an airplane she transforms into a sightless parasite, a succubus whose desires are entirely ocular.
I rested your head on my shoulder and I went against the only prohibition you had imposed on me. Following a protocol I was improvising as I went, I ran my fingers calmly, greedily, over your sleeping eyelids, feeling on my fingertips the soft touch of the eyelashes, feeling your skin opening and letting me touch the cornea, damp, rubbery exquisite, and then my avid fingers ignited, they ignited but you didn’t realise it, and I couldn’t tell you now that I couldn’t stop. I separated your eyelids and I ran the tip of my tongue along the naked edge that I felt like my own nakedness, and soon I was liking the whole thing. I was sucking on your whole eye softly, with my lips, with my teeth, making it mine, delicately, intimately, secretly, but also passionately, your eye, Ignacio, until the stewardess came down the aisle imposing breakfast on us and I thought you would wake up.
Meruane incorporates these surreal moments into her story with judicious restraint, careful not to push the bounds of credibility too far. In contrast she is unrelenting in her portrayal of her fictional self. Fictional Lina is not a character anyone will call relatable or even comfortable. She’s dark and determined, calculating and self-absorbed—a flawed heroine by any standard. Lina is the complete opposite of Beth March and Helen Burns, those fictional representations of a Victorian ideal of the dying angel, radiating patience and goodness and resigned to their lot (perhaps even welcoming it as a chance to become a better person) that unbelievably persists to this day. Meruane intelligently undermines the stereotype and allows her heroine’s personality to be entirely dominated by her desire to regain her sight. Fictional Lina gets to be selfish, powerful, and monstrous in ways that Meruane likely never did. In this way, Seeing Red is a subversive and feminist text.
It speaks to Meruane’s talent that as driven as Lina is she never becomes a caricature. There are still instances of vulnerability that draw out readers’ compassion. The evening before the operation that may restore her eyesight her friend Manuela visits. The momentous party that opened the book was at Manuela’s apartment. “Optimism personified, absolutely unfamiliar with sadness” is how Lina describes her.
Manuela stands behind me, and leaning over my shoulders she intones again a girl, how crazy, what happened to you! And right in my house, at that party, when we were having such a great time! Yes, I say, but I don’t remember that happiness until she mentions it.
What is and isn’t true in Seeing Red, ultimately, doesn’t really matter. That small reminder of forgotten happiness coming when it does penetrates your bones like a blast of wind in January. Seeing Red does this repeatedly and consistently, revealing one emotional truth after another, not all of them pretty or easy, and weaving them into a larger story that may or may not have happened as it was written down.