Layne Hilyer

Layne Hilyer received his BA in English and Teaching English as Second Language from Asbury University in Lexington, Kentucky. He currently lives there with his wife Lauren.

A Review of Seeing Red

“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.

The Musical Brain: Detectives of Infinity

“How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?” – Jorge Luis Borges in “The Aleph”

In the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction, Between Parenthesis, there is an unfinished speech titled “Sevilla Kills Me.” Here the Chilean author of major novels (i.e. By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives and 2666) discusses new Latin American literature and lists important writers of the Spanish language. The list: Daniel Sada, César Aira, Juan Villoro, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ibsen Martínez, Carmen Boullosa, Antonio Ungar, Gonzalo Contreras, Pedro Lemebel, Jaime Collyer, Alberto Fuguet, María Moreno, and Mario Bellatin. Although the speech was written in 2003 it didn’t appear in English until 2011. Perhaps Bolaño hints at the expanse in time created by the work of translation when he punctuates the list saying, “The river is wide and mighty and its surface is broken by the heads of at least twenty-five writers, under fifty, under forty, under thirty. How many will drown? I’d say all of them.”

Bolaño, fortunately, was wrong. One writer who has made it across the translation gap multiple times is the eccentric César Aira. In contrast to previous slim books, like the nebulous Shantytown or the brainy sci-fi The Literary Conference, New Directions published a stout collection of translated short stories named The Musical Brain earlier this year. Within its pages Aira unveils a dazzling reality that eludes predictability.

Consider “Picasso”: a puzzle and roundabout homage to the Cubist patriarch. While visiting the Picasso Museum the narrator is presented a choice by a magic milk-bottle genie: be Picasso or own a Picasso? The narrator, a writer, decides via rational hoops and hypotheses to have a Picasso. A painting appears on the table before him. As quick as it came, the painting gives him what he really wants: the possibility of a new reality. Selling the Picasso would give him money to stop working and start writing. In this purchased-space he can become a “one and only.” Autonomous reality bursts in at the last moment, and thus demands he (and the reader) abandon scientific rationality. How does he suppose that he can leave the Picasso Museum with a Picasso under his arm?

Throughout The Musical Brain reality takes on myriad forms beginning with a fiction manifesto cloaked as a tale of childhood. The narrator in “Brick Wall,” el memorioso, recalls with obsessive precision the multitude of films he saw as a child. The “perfect economy of signs” formed a compact mass of meaning that kept him, and his childhood friend Miguel, returning to films.  “To us [movies] seemed like a super-reality, or, rather, reality itself seemed diffused, disorganized, deprived of that rare, elegant concision that was the secret of cinema.”  What the narrator sees in cinematic fictions are signs of a broader context—an expanding reality within a sign, a look, a word. “Brick Wall” reveals what the reality of Aira’s stories  demands of us: that we become a detective. Every detail is a clue, every narrative was a detective story, inviting us to become a detective that inspects with a black light what lies hidden in the deep fibers of our worlds. Like the narrator in “No Witnesses” the reader must develop the detective’s sight: “The corner was very dark, but accustomed as I was to gloomy places, I could see fairly well.”

Reality in The Musical Brain is a dizzying constellation of images, words and signs. Such a limitless atmosphere overwhelms characters searching for their identity among the stars. The fame-seeking narrator (suspiciously named César Aira) of “The Spy” questions:

“Was I a misunderstood genius or some barely half-talented writer lost in the ambiguous meanders of the avant-garde? Impossible to say. The suspicion that gags and paralyzes me in the theater, with its layering of real and virtual spaces, also suspends the question of my life or death as a writer.”

This paralysis is the result of the narrator’s attempt at living in two realities by acting out two roles: character and writer. In the end, he no longer knows himself from the other. This in-story César sees the abysmal constellation around him and responds “Who am I?” In contrast, the real César, like a true detective, peers into the infinite and asks “Who are you?”

Through “The Infinite” Aira shows that despite reality’s savage and terrible autonomy, it is beautiful. Two boys create a game that names numbers ad infinitum. Each tries to say a larger number than the other. Eventually they realize that numbers are an infinite in the infinite reality of words. An infinity of infinity. One of the boys says, “We distanced ourselves from [words] so that we could see how beautiful, funny, and amazingly effective they were. Words were magical jewels with unlimited powers, all we had to do was reach out and take them. But that feeling was an effect of the distance…” Mastering reality is impossible in the face of the infinite. Colossal conceptions turn to atoms in comparison with the reality of things. But, along with the boys in “The Infinite”, the detective, the writer, the reader, the artist, the human says, “We knew that, and yet some strange perversion, or the lure of danger, sustained our crazy longing to try…”

Out of the stories in The Musical Brain Aira materializes reality as it is: an infinite polyhedron. Multiple faces and images, words and signs, constitute an enigmatic reality that is simultaneously a “chaotic muddle of signs and meaning”and “a whirl, an abyss of irrational atoms.” Aira transcends genre classification and hides the unimaginable universe beneath the stairs of simple prose. Roberto Bolaño remarks: “Once you’ve read Aira, you don’t want to stop.” Even so, César Aira is one name on an infinite list of writers from Latin America and et cetera who have tried, are trying, and will try to circumnavigate an infinite reality with words.

Stepping Outside

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” —Baudelaire 

In his essay “Exiles,” Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño writes, “All literature carries exiles within it, whether the writer has had to pack and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.” In the (often self-imposed) exile of the young writer, few wellsprings are as welcome as Bolaño’s fiction. His stories contain life.

Beginning to read Bolaño requires a certain posture; it is like being in a country, city or room where you do not speak the common language. His stories are littered with characters displaced from their origins: a Chilean detective in Italy, a Russian porn-star in America, a Chilean student in Mexico. Characters are placed in the unknown where the unfamiliar landscape naturally creates tension. Bolaño explains, “Sometimes exile simply means that Chileans tell me I talk like a Spaniard. Mexicans tell me I talk like a Chilean, and Spaniards tell me I talk like an Argentine: it’s a question of accents.” In these kinds of moments, exile encompasses external as well as internal landscapes. Not only can we not recognize the faces around us, but the very mind inside our skull seems strange and extraterrestrial. The foreign mirror of exile reflects the question: Who am I?

Bolaño’s fiction packs a peculiar jab, creating what Francine Prose defined as “microclimates” that obliterate everything outside the narrative. He crafts a universe fogged with the mysteries and paradoxes of a detective novel using deceptively simple prose. Bolaño’s stories are an expanse of complexities against an entrancing atmosphere, with sinister forms of evil casting shadows behind every sentence. Reading Bolaño, we become exiles in his universe.

Bolaño’s stories are an expanse of complexities against an entrancing atmosphere, with sinister forms of evil casting shadows behind every sentence. Reading Bolaño, we become exiles in his universe.

Bolaño’s fiction often focuses on youth, not just physical or temporal development, but an intellectual and spiritual coming-of-age. Youthful openness in Bolaño’s characters does not simply mean readiness for amoral promiscuity. Parties, sex and drugs happen as a part of youth, but these experiences are neither the heart of the matter nor merely outliers. They just are: experiences free of the over-interpretation that torments many of Bolaño’s characters, and many writers during the editing process. Herein lies an eerie paradox: Bolaño promotes openness that is both active and passive. Characters must be open to ethical demands, like a rescue or a courageous brawl, but that openness to act requires the contemplative stillness of a detective. Through the haze of eroticism, Bolaño promotes the kind of openness—both destructive and worthwhile—that so often thrives in youth but barely survives adulthood.

This particular openness contrasts with social aging: the slow, peer-encouraged disenchantment with one’s youthful aspirations. More often than not, fear dries up dreams. For a young writer (or any writer) failure is a guarantee. For the character in The Savage Detectives who claims, “Youth is a scam,” maturing means failing less and less often; it means giving up writing—the youthful mirage—for a more certain future with fewer mishaps. In comparison, Arturo Belano, even in his forties, could be described as immature. He has cut his hair but he is still immature. He has a son but is still immature. He has grown up but is still immature. Adulthood proves a difficult task: How does the writer converse with a childlike imagination continually while actively resisting the illusions there?

True artists in Bolaño’s fiction exhibit a childlike seriousness of play but still pause at the terror of uncertainties. Giving up a promising future for the writing life takes a kind of confidence and courage Bolaño maintained his entire life despite mounting hardship. What really matters for the writer, according to Bolaño scholar and translator Chris Andrews, is “to lose oneself more fully in the construction of an imaginary world, as children often do in play, while using the written word to stabilize that construction over time.”

Loss of self is key to genius: children are at their most creative in the self-forgetfulness of play, complete with frights, and it is this forgoing of self that is frequently lost after the coming-of-age. We become caught in a kind of voyeurism, watching ourselves from a removed, safe distance, addicted to over-interpreting details that push us further from ourselves with every thought. Bolaño thinks that we must become exiles of our own head, like children, to truly create. And herein lies the genius of his fiction: we leave the home of our head.

Therefore, confidence for Bolaño is not synonymous with self-assurance. Confidence is not the certainty of achievement, nor the denial of fears. Consider Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, who, along with Arturo Belano, leads a revival of the “visceral-realist” movement among Mexico’s young poets: When a fictional Octavio Paz asks his secretary to compile a list of the most important visceral-realists, even among the hundreds of names, Ulises Lima is not included. Lima is a failure if recognition equals success. True success, for Lima and Bolaño, is a deep, concentrated effort to exile the writer’s mind, to disappear from the anxiety of success.

True success, for Lima and Bolaño, is a deep, concentrated effort to exile the writer’s mind, to disappear from the anxiety of success.

In the end, Bolaño employs fear, failure and exile together with his subtle admiration of life. He encourages artists to return to a child’s unfettered imagination. As he writes in his iconic novel 2666, “The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered with sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other words we never stop clinging to life because we are life.”

 

Be sure to read this piece alongside Trevor Logan’s review of Monica Maristain’s new book Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, published on Monday.