By Lina Meruane
Deep Vellum Publishing
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Based on her sudden rise in the past few months, I wouldn't blame you for thinking Lina Meruane was a relative newcomer. That was my first thought, but the Chilean-born Meruane debuted in 1998 and has since won rave reviews in her native country; no less than the late Roberto Bolaño described her as "one of the one or two greats in the new generation of Chilean writers who promise to have it all." The Bolaño endorsement is enough to make me curious about the rest of her work, yet this is her first book to get an English translation. If I had to speculate about why, I'd say it's because she doesn't write in the magical realist style so many English-speaking readers associate with Latin American fiction. I hope the success of Bolaño and Valeria Luiselli break this stereotype, since it seems to me like a lot of great fiction out of Latin America has nothing to do with magical realism.
Maybe Seeing Red will also help reverse that trend, because it's won a lot of acclaim lately and I'd like to throw my own hat into that ring. Seeing Red chronicles Meruane's experience with blindness, caused by a stroke that left one eye completely filled with blood and another useless whenever she moved. I'm not sure to what degree the book is factual and to what degree it's fiction - although the narrator's own name is Lina Meruane, I believe she's admitted to fabricating a certain degree of this book. Not like that has any effect on my opinion, of course. The way I see it, most memoirs have a degree of fiction to them and most novels have a degree of memoir, so it makes a lot of sense to me that she should combine them. What matters isn't what's real and what's not, but how well she writes, and Meruane writes about her experience with expertise, focusing not just on her own blindness but its effect on her relationships with her boyfriend, family, professors and doctors.
As others have pointed out before me, Meruane's narrator is not a pleasant or patient sufferer. She's demanding, frank, impatient and rude, and she often acts in a way that goes against her best interests. Readers who prefer more sympathetic characters will probably find her off-putting, but look, reating characters readers can empathize with is so, so much more important than sympathetic ones. I've probably said this at least once, but it takes a better writer to make me empathize with an unsympathetic character than to sympathize with a nice one, and Meruane made me empathize with her character by showing me the fear and frustration behind these unpleasant traits. Needless to say, Meruane's voice is searing, and her form fits its well. She broke this book into paragraph-long fragments of two to five pages. Someone less generous might call them rants, especially if they're not as impressed with Meruane's narrative voice. I'd call them more blasts of her consciousness, though, short transmissions of her world if you will. It's an effective device for conveying her narrator's worldview, and in a novel like this, those gestures are quite important. It sometimes feels like it's spinning on narrative wheels, but otherwise, it's hard to complain about.
Out of 10: 8.5