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I discovered Lina Meruane’sSeeing Red‘ when I stopped by at the bookshop a few days back. The cover grabbed my attention and refused to let me go. Then I read a quote by Roberto BolaƱo on the back cover raving about Lina Meruane – well, who can resist that. I started reading it a couple of days back and finished reading it yesterday.

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Seeing Red‘ tells the story of a woman, who has a delicate health condition. Her eyes are in a delicate state – her blood vessels in her eyes can burst any time and she can go blind. Her doctor warns her that she has to be very careful during her everyday life – she can’t drink, smoke, make love to her boyfriend, can’t even bend down. There are so many other things she can’t do, simple everyday things, that we normally take for granted. She lives life in this careful way, avoiding anything which can result in the unfortunate event happening. But one day she is at a party and the dreadful thing happens – the blood vessels in her eyes explode and she becomes blind. She is able to see vague shapes and some light and shadow though. She tries meeting the doctor but she is able to get an appointment only a few days later. When she meets the doctor, he says it is hard to say anything. He says they need to wait for a month and then can think about an operation. He asks her to go on a holiday and spend time with her family in Chile. Well, I won’t go into the rest of the story. How her reunion with her family goes, what kind of support her boyfriend gives, does the operation help her – for answers to these questions, you have to read the story.

The heroine of our story, has the same name as the writer, Lina Meruane. I later discovered that the novel is based on the writer’s own experience. It shows in the story, because the way Meruane describes the way blindness explodes into our heroine’s world and plunges her into despair – it feels so real. The relationship between the heroine and her boyfriend is so beautifully depicted. The reunion scenes with her family, her very different relationship with her mother and her father, her two different brothers – they are all beautifully portrayed. I loved the character of her doctor. I loved this particular description of him –

“I never noticed Lekz rushing a single syllable or discreetly checking the time; there wasn’t a single clock on the walls of his office, no phone ever rang, he didn’t have a cell phone. No one ever interrupted him. He was an absolutely dedicated specialist, true Russian fanaticism inculcated by his Soviet lineage.”

That doctor was a no-nonsense character, dedicated to his work,  never made any promises that he could’t keep.

I love the way the book describes our heroine’s descent into blindness, how navigating everyday things becomes a challenge for her, for example in this passage –

“I got tangled up in rugs, I knocked over posters leaning against walls, I toppled trashcans. I was buried in open boxes with table legs between my fingers. The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged. It changed shape, the house, the rooms castled, the furniture swapped places to confuse me. With one eye blind with blood and the other clouded over at my every movement, I was lost, a blindfolded chicken, dizzy and witless.”

– how simple things she took for granted are now challenging or impossible, how for someone who is a reader and a writer and a researcher, this is a kind of irreparable loss. Our heart goes out to the heroine and we sink when her heart sinks. But the book also descibes how our heroine handles these challenges with style and aplomb – it is inspiring. For example, in this sentence –

“As the car set off and began to gather speed, I looked into the rearview mirror with my mind’s eye…”

– and this passage –

“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 just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.”

– and this passage –

“when he opened the door Ignacio exclaimed joder, the sun is coming up. But the word sunrise evoked nothing. Nothing even close to a sunrise. My eyes were emptying of all the things they’d seen. And it occurred to me that words and their rhythms would remain, but not landscapes, not colors or faces, not those black eyes of Ignacio’s that I had seen spill out a love at times wary, sullen, cutting, but above all an open love, expectant, full of mirages that the crossword puzzle would define as hallucinations.”

There is a scene in the book where our heroine kisses her boyfriend’s eye – it is so beautiful, sensual, even erotic. It was amazing, because I never thought that a description of a person kissing someone’s eye could be that way.

The description of Chile in the book is fascinating and beautiful and takes us a little bit into Chilean history of the past half century and makes us want to read more about that period. The ending of the book is unexpected and stunning – I didn’t see that coming. Then I stepped back by a chapter and discovered that there were clues strewn around by the author. It was like watching ‘The Sixth Sense‘.

I loved the structure of the book. It is not very long at 157 pages. It is divided into short chapters, between two and four pages long. Each chapter has a title. Interestingly, each chapter is also made up of only one paragraph. Punctuation is used minimally. There is no distinction between a statement, a question, a dialogue. Sometimes the speaker of the first sentence is different from the speaker of the second sentence and there is no signpost to indicate that the speaker has changed. This kind of stuff might bother some readers. It didn’t bother me. I loved it and the story flowed naturally for me. Lina Meruane’s prose is soft, gentle and smooth and flows beautifully and quietly like a river. Reading the book is a meditative experience, which is very fascinating, because the main theme it addresses is a bit dark and bleak. Meruane’s prose softens the blow and makes us turn the page.

There are places in the book where I couldn’t help wonder how a particular passage would have read in Spanish, how it would have been even more beautiful and poetic in the original. For example, this description –

“That accent, so unmistakably Chilean, harbored the glacial poem of the mountain peaks and their snows in eternal mid-thaw, the dark whisper of the south dotted with giant rhubarbs, the mourning of roadside shrines, the herb-garden smell, the rough salts of the desert, the sulfurous copper shell of the mine open to the sky.”

– and this phrase –

“to interrupt the peace of the worried”

– and this sentence –

“While outside the street revives – a gust or a whisper in the distance – and the sun peers indignantly through the gaps in the curtains to track us with its flame”

If you get to read this book in Spanish, I will envy you.

I also loved the fact that there was a lot of white space surrounding the words in a page – a beautiful place where the reader can write comments and notes. I love a book when it has that.

I loved ‘Seeing Red‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I hope to read it again one of these days, more slowly, focussing on my favourite passages.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“I’m the heroine who resists her tragedy, I thought, the heroine trying to drive destiny crazy with her own hands.”

Good was a word Lekz sometimes slid out like a crutch, and other times it seemed to weigh heavy on his tongue, like a rock that sinks in silence, leaving only ripples. The word had an expansive effect in the room.”

“The lyrics of the song explain : what makes you live can kill you in excess. The refrain repeats : too much sun, too much sugar, too much water, too much oxygen. Too much maternal love. Too much truth.”

“The finger is no longer there. My hand isn’t there and neither is my arm. I’m not me anymore. Lucina vanished, her being is suspended somewhere in the hospital. What is left of her now is pure biology : a heart that beats and beats, a lung that inflates, an anesthetized brain incapable of dreaming, while the hair goes on growing, slowly, beneath the cap.”

Have you read Lina Meruane’sSeeing Red‘? What do you think about it?

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