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Book Review: Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

The semi-autobiographical book by Lina Meruane is the story of an ocular hemorrhage suffered by Lina, novel’s diabetic heroine. Like the novel’s author, Lina is also a Chilean writer currently in New York pursuing an academic career. It has been long known that there is a time bomb ticking in her eyes, but as to whether it has a long or a short fuse, is not known. She has been asked to take precautions, modify her day-to-day life style, and refrain from jerky movements because any sudden move can rupture her veins and tear asunder her retina leaving her blind. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens.

Lina will now have to make use of the eyes of Ignacio, her new boyfriend, who becomes her guide, helping her navigate the narrow confines of the house, the chaotic traffic on the roads, and the elbowing people on the streets. And when he is not around, she has to teach herself to connect with the world in all sorts of different ways – through sound, memory, and touch.

In a flight to Chile she bristles when annoyance of fellow travelers turns to pity once they realize that her bumbling progress in the aisle is brought about by her blindness. Alluding to the alternate faculties that visually impaired can recruit to manage their lives, she exclaims to herself:

“I am a blind woman capable of detecting flashes of light, and, from afar, also the compassion of others that came after surprise. Blind?”

It will be a while before her doctor Lekz can take her up for surgery. So, he advises her to proceed on her pre-planned vacation to Chile to meet her parents - her emotionally deaf mother, and an ineffective father, both of them medical professionals themselves. But, they cannot offer her much except abundance of love. During her short stay in Chile she relies on her memory to help Ignacio navigate around urban landscape riddled by pot holes and gaps blown in the buildings in the aftermath of Chilean 9/11 moment - the military coup in 1973. During her brief sojourn in Santiago, her lacerated childhood memories coalesce together with her current blindness to alienate her further from her stifling family, a burnt-out friendship, and a city coming to terms with its new political identity.

She returns to New York to undergo surgery that holds no promise. Lekz, her phlegmatic physician, tells her that she may or may not regain sight, and should the surgery not go well, science cannot yet come to her rescue. After her surgery and the most agonizing wait, Lekz probes around her eyes to find out if it is a success or not – a verdict that Lina awaits in terror:

“I wanted to close my eye-lids, both at the same time, and return to the refuge of darkness. That light illuminated emptiness, solitude, my absolute helplessness. I’m still blind, doctor, but now everything is white.”

The novel essentially examines how her illness progressively transforms Lina, her boyfriend, and her elderly mother. Blindness, after all, is a corrosive affliction that threatens all assumptions, routines, and protocols around which they had built the edifice of their lives. And when blindness detonates amidst them, they must confront the questions that fall out as debris.

Lina has to resolve many things in her mind: how to avoid becoming a passive victim of her misfortune, how to turn the adversity to her advantage, and how to dwell amongst the seeing with her invisible present. She will have to borrow eyes from others, eyes that see but impose their own set of realities. How to conform to this reality, to subordinate her senses to others? Ignacio has to confront the limits of her love for Lina and the Rubicon that it may entail crossing. And as regards her mother, she has to choose between two roles - one that is demanded by her daughter’s illness, and the other, that stems out of her responsibilities towards her patients.

Lina’s gut wrenching fury, her debilitating grief, and her instinct for self-preservation combine together to propel the novel towards a climax that is as unexpected as it is shattering.

Ms. Meruane writing is brutal, chilling, and piercing: it claws with its talons, it frazzles you, and it tears you apart with its raw power. There is no hiding because where ever you turn, there is Lina’s world that has vanished, but she is not yet prepared to let it go.

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