“Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’ I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger…than I intended. Such a word means more than it says, makes me, still alive, play the ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.”—André Breton in Nadja
Reading begins with loss. We are strangers in a strange universe built by and upon letters. Every detail is a novelty; every narration is a compelling accent. By our loss of contextual landscape, of comfortable familiarity, we are made blind. In this subtraction the world pulls away and a stranger emerges: the self.
Blindness, both physical and metaphysical, is where Chilean writer Lina Meruane begins Seeing Red, her English language debut. In it, past, present, and future tumble over each other with bloody repetition. From beginning to end, the chaos of time swirls around each word on the page until, like a vaguely luminous mist, it disappears.
Temporal reality gives way to linguistic reality as words become the translator between Lina, the character (and the author), and the slowly disappearing outside world. She fumbles in the spaces between the eye doctor’s waiting room, her apartment, and the airport on her way to and from her hometown, Santiago, Chile. Tension fills the darkening void: waiting for doctor’s reports, waiting for impossible healing, waiting for an unpredictable surgery from a foreign optometrist who cannot remember her name. Her partner Ignacio remains beside her on the streets between places she can no longer go, and her walkman recites the books she can no longer see.
“Who can know himself more than a blind man?” prods Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer who went blind at 55, in a work entitled “Blindness.” As Borges sight ceased, he saw his interior more clearly—and he found himself in a new language. This foreign language, Anglo-Saxon English, was made of symbols that “…have a prestige that they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply the strangeness of them.” Interacting with a language through translation transforms not only the word, but the reader.
Language is entangled in the physical and metaphysical self. Words are as biological as saliva. Blurring the lines between physical and linguistic realities conjures a biographical curiosity in Seeing Red. Lina Meruane, the author (not the character), experienced temporary blindness after suffering a stroke. She, with Borges, turns the Western hymn on its side singing, “I am blind, now I see.” Blindness not only deepens adoration of the word, but widens the scope of reading.
Lina Meruane focuses on eyes over and over in the opening pages of Seeing Red. Like a magician with skillful poise, she pulls in the reader: are you watching? Keep your eyes open. While her physical vision fades to red, Meruane tumbles down into the abysmal interior life full of sounds, accents, sighs, and images: in short, all that makes up language. For Lina, loss of sight means her pupils are covered by a blood-fabric pulled like infinite handkerchiefs from the sleeves of her eye’s vessels. Then, as if sensing the crawling red nightfall, words illuminate in Lina’s mind with strange newness.
Vision. See. I.
In the fog of absence, any word that refers to the eyes, vision or seeing is charged with irony and, in the end, substance. Commonplace phrases, in this context, become full of loss and pain. There is subtle but sharp pain in the eye doctor’s waiting room where “there were a lot of people waiting to be seen” and to see. There is a sarcastic bite in harmless questions like “weren’t you going to go to Chile to see your family?”
On a flight to Chile, Lina muses on the verge of a panic attack,
This is just what I need, I thought, separating from myself and grabbing hold of Lucina, the Lucina who was me as I moved closer to Chile…In New Jersey I’d forgotten all my Spanish. Later, in Santiago, I’d forgotten English. Now, I’m forgetting myself, I thought.
Returning to her Chilean hometown resurfaces past complications for Lucina-hija: a mother who is oppressively helpful, a father who is present at a distance, a younger brother who takes on the weight of his suffering sister, and a successful older brother who sends his presence through an assistant. Lina, for a moment, is present.
Literally, the present tense washes over her language as she reconnects with her father. “I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s in there, inside his body.” Like a flash of bright light, the present tense adds an intensification of the words flowing between the characters. Past and future disappear from view, a sudden calm covers Lina’s reality. What brought Lina into the present? Was it her father’s voice? Was it the cold feeling of Santiago? Again, literally, it was language. As she exits her father’s Dodge and goes into the home, the present is again replaced from the mournful past.
Memory, the “mind’s eye”, is the fountain of blood that spills over the writer’s eyes as they put word to page. Reading, like loving, involves a removal of self from self. Reading is, in a sense, a demand to give up one pair of eyes for another. These are Lina’s demands of Ignacio, who gave “his arms to guide me, his legs to direct me, his voice to warn me.” In a moment of desolate introspection Lina thinks, “I wouldn’t have [Ignacio’s] sight to make up for the absence of my own. I would be left more blind.” Sacrifice demands intentional loss. Reading demands intentional blindness, and language is our faithful translator of what remains: a strange reality.