Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

For myself Spanish Literature Month is now in full swing, the “to be read” pile has been sorted, with Spanish titles put in their own pile and I can assure you I will not be getting through them all. Without any semblance of a plan for getting through the works I thought I’d just start and see where my journey took me – I’ve landed in Chile (via a quick bizarre “autobiography” from Mexico) and am going to stay here for a little while.


Another input that briefly crossed my mind was the amount (or lack) of female representation in the Spanish language (primarily middle and South America) books in my pile. Under no circumstance do I want to delay any reading of female authored books, just so I can have a “women only” exclusive month in August for “Women In Translation” Month. It defeats the purpose if I simply avoid female writers for eleven months of the year and prop up the statistics with a one month focus. The issue is I’ll be reviewing at about the 70/30 ratio as per standard publication rates for translated fiction.


“Seeing Red” has a simple premise, a Chilean girl, Lina, our narrator (and our novelist’s name), who is studying in New York has her eyes suddenly fill with blood, causing her sight to be impaired, so severely she cannot see. This event was not unexpected, it was always on the cards, but it still comes as a sudden event…

Only a few days until the eye doctor comes back from his conference and sees the terminal state of my retinas. Maybe Friday. It’s only Tuesday. Three days during which we have to resolve the rest of our lives.

A simple premise yes, but this is not simply a novel about blindness. Our narrator has recently begun a relationship with a new boyfriend, she has been up front and honest about the potential loss of sight, she also has a trip back to Santiago, Chile planned, how will this latest event impact her relationship and ability to travel?

Again, these are all just inputs into a linear plot, this novel is so much more than that.  There is plenty of material that talks about this being an autobiographical novel, apparently Lina Meruane being struck blind whilst living in New York, and the eyes filling with blood happens on the first page of this short book, not having sight is the start of Lina’s journey.

On the shore stood Fate and he was raising a question, an admonition. What did you come here looking for? he said, pointing one finger. What did you lose on this island?

To highlight the effect of no sight, all of the other senses are explored, and the heightened reliance on sounds and touch come to the fore, this is a novel of the senses, although being a necessity there is also a celebration in the strength of hearing, the reliance on memory.

He makes his breakfast and my coffee with milk as I rummage among the black clothes in the closet, zip up my boots, adjust my glasses—also dark—and we head out like commandos on a secret mission: he’s describing obstacles on the sidewalks and giving clues to the initiate, he’s the militia leader who supplies street names for her to memorize, inserts the metro card into a slot before she can move through the turnstile. He is the one who instructs her on the number of steps leading to the platform, and he announces a long step to cross the gap.

Switching between first person and third person narrative as our narrator “sees” herself from a distance when struggling with the reality of her predicament, the unreality of a doctor explaining the long term blindness is projected onto somebody else. A visit back to Santiago, Lina’s learned parents distancing themselves from the reality of the situation, one brother avoiding the situation completely, the other attempting to understand, all build as the question of familial love bubbles to the top.

As mentioned in my “Distant Star” review by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews) there are also the feelings of being in exile, a Chilean with no home;

In New Jersey I’d forgotten all my Spanish. Later, in Santiago, I’d forgotten English. Now I’m forgetting myself, I thought.

And of course there is a hint of the political;

The car shot through the city like a meteor until we reached La Moneda palace, which appeared to me white, immaculate, the way it was before military helicopters flying overhead dropped bombs on it, and in the midst of the imagined offensive, with the soundtrack of the dictator’s voice announcing his ignominious victory in the background.

A novel constructed in single paragraph chapters, each with a heading, the reality of a bleak situation slowly unpeels, we learn of the years of knowledge and treatment to avoid this potential physical deterioration that happens on page one, instead of a journey into blindness the immediacy of the situation makes it a journey into understanding and life beyond being able to see.  

Having said all that, at the core this really is a love story, an exploration of what it means to “unconditionally” love somebody, would a parent actually give up an eye for their child?  The “it depends on how much you love me” statements starting to pepper our narrator’s thoughts as the reality of her situation becomes darker by the day. Conversations happen as recollections of Lina’s and are transposed into the diary style memoir, we only learn of our narrator’s side to event.

And our narrator is a writer too, struggling with the reality that to write without sight is going to require retraining of habits;

Even now, even here, in this very passage, I confess it was not difficult to stop writing. It was much more arduous to find a pen, wrap my fingers around it, know that crooked words unreadable even by Ignacio were falling onto the page. Because as the world went black, everything that belonged to it was also left in the dark.

A book that works on so many levels, physical, metaphysical, familial, relationships, exiled writers, this is another fine release from Dallas not-for-profit independent publisher Deep Vellum, who in such a short period of time have unearthed a wonderful collection of translated books.

 Copy courtesy of Deep Vellum.



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Distant Star – Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

I was gradually being drawn into the story of Carlos Wieder, which was also the story of something more – exactly what I couldn’t tell.

I have referred to the recent Publisher’s Weekly list of “ten essential Spanish-language books”, compiled by Daniel Saldaña Paris a few times over the last two weeks, primarily because I am working my way through the list (the books that are still in print) and secondarily as it is Spanish Literature Month (hosted by Richard and Stu) and what a great place to start your reading, with a list of somebody else’s recommendations. And what would Spanish Literature Month be without a Bolaño reading? With the, self-inflicted, pressure to consistently read and review new books via this blog, the time I would need to take off to read Bolaño’s 2666 would mean possibly a month without reviews, weighing in at over 900 pages it would take some dedication to get through it. Possibly one for July 2017, next year’s Spanish Literature Month???
I have chosen a much shorter work of Roberto Bolaño, “Distant Star” (translated by Chris Andrews), from Daniel Saldaña Paris’ list of “essential Spanish-language books” to commence a stay in Chile for a little while. Yes there will be a couple more reviews of Chilean books in the coming week.
From the first page we know we are in Bolaño’s world (only if you’ve read him before, and especially if you have read “The Savage Detectives”);
Most of us there talked a lot, not just about poetry, but politics, travel (little did we know what our travels would be like), painting, architecture, photography, revolution and the armed struggle that would usher in a new life and a new era, so we thought, but which, for most of us, was like a dream, or rather the key that would open the door into a world of dreams, the only dreams worth living for. And even though we were vaguely aware that dreams often turn into nightmares, we didn’t let that bother us.
This novel follows the plight of the mysterious autodidact Alberto Ruiz-Tagle, who we know is also known as Carlos Wieder, a member of the same poetry group as our narrator and his friend Bibiano. The air of mystery around Ruiz-Tagle deepens by his living quarters; “what was missing from Ruiz-Tagle’s flat was something unnameable…as if the host had amputated parts of the interior” as well as Ruiz-Tagle’s detached reading of his own poetry. Is the poetry actually his?
As in other Bolaño works, we have long rambling discussions about the state and quality of poetry, that last pages, suddenly interrupted by the realist sentence; “A few days later the army seized power and the government collapsed”. Although very much a political novel, looking at the period after Pinochet’s rise to power and the impact that has on writers, artists, poets, this book blends the regime and the avant garde, with ancient war planes writing poetry in the sky, “experimental, quintessential” photography, film, fascist publications, pamphlets and modern poetry all in the front seat whilst the horror is reduced to short factual statements.
A book that has numerous characters fleeing Chile, constantly wandering, peoples in exile. The reality of Pinochet’s regime not far from the action;
Once upon a time in Chile, there was a poor little boy…I think the boy was called Lorenzo, I’m not sure, and I’ve forgotten his surname, but some readers may remember it, and he liked to play, and climb trees and high-tension pylons. One day he climbed up a pylon and got such a shock that he lost both his arms. They had to amputate them just below the shoulders. So Lorenzo grew up in Chile without arms, an unfortunate situation for any child, but he also grew up in Pinochet’s Chile, which turned unfortunate situations into desperate ones, on top of which he soon discovered that he was homosexual, which made his already desperate situation inconceivable and indescribable.
Half way through the novel, we have “But let us return to the beginning”, the linear being less important than the uncovering of the monster Alberto Ruiz-Tagle AKA Carlos Wieder. Even the obsession in tracking down the mysterious poet, war criminal, larger than life Wieder, by our un-named narrator’s best friend Bibiano becomes a mystery in itself. With our narrator telling us “it was the last letter I received from him”, but a short chapter or two later the letter writing and contact returns. Are we simply disoriented?
Bibiano’s account of Wieder and his poetics is faltering, as if the presence of the aviator-poet had disturbed and disoriented him.
Could our un-named narrator be the mysterious aviator-poet himself? As our narrator searches for character and meaning, not only in himself but in other writers, friends, acquaintances, teachers, and of course the aviator-poet, the lines of reality become blurred. As a reader we are at our narrator’s mercy, we are wandering, lost, in exile, like the Chilean people under Pinochet.
Suddenly the book switches to an homage to noir thrillers, and becomes a dark detective novel, taking place in the shadowy streets of Barcelona, with marginal literature and publications, pornographic films, dead starlets, all blended with a search for our missing poet/aviator/photographer/camera man.
Another wonderful work from Roberto Bolaño, described in Daniel Saldaña Paris’ article thus;
In Distant Star, a poet and a Chilean military pilot bring poetic experimentation to the threshold of horror, putting murder at the center of their aesthetic interests. The force of this book, its ethical implications, its way of obliquely addressing history: it’s Bolaño in his purest form, without ornament or excess.
Fans will have plenty to chew over here, extending their reading lists of Central and South American fiction and poetry, new readers to Bolaño will have a nice entry point into his world of writers, dingy bars, coffee shops, political exile, and imprisonment and you can do so by reading only 149 pages to see if his style takes your fancy, instead of committing to the larger “The Savage Detectives” or “2666”.
My personal book shelf at home contains a large number of Bolaño’s books and with only three reviewed at the blog here, and the enjoyable time I had reading this book, it is probably about time they made it onto the “to be read” pile, if only there were 30 hours in each day!!!

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