#20BooksofSummer and #SpanishLitMonth: Lina Meruane

Lina Meruane: Seeing Red, transl. Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2017)

I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!

When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.

But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.

The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:

It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.

You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.

I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:

… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?

There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.

Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.

 

 

#20BooksofSummer: No. 15 Holiday Heart (vs. Fleishman Is In Trouble)

Margarita Garcia Robayo: Holiday Heart, transl. Charlotte Coombe

This book ticks three boxes: #SpanishLitMonth, #20BooksofSummer and #WomeninTranslation.

I didn’t read this one in time for the Borderless Book Club in June, but I nevertheless enjoyed hearing the discussions around it. I think quite a few struggled with the unlikability of the main characters, but I felt like that was the point of the book. It offers a different perspective on the life of privileged Colombian immigrants to the US. All too often Latinos are perceived as racially inferior, uneducated, relegated to menial jobs or (if they are lucky) entertainment – but what about those immigrants who are wealthy, well-educated and feel superior to those with a darker skin colour than themselves and to those coming from other Latin American countries?

There is a far greater variety among immigrants, even when they come from the same linguistic background or the same continent, than we are typically shown in films or literature. It was this aspect of the story which I found most interesting: the chasing after a new cultural identity, the ambiguous feelings towards the home country, feeling second-rate in a host culture when you were used to feeling first-rate at home. Just because you are an immigrant and discriminated against doesn’t mean that you cannot find others even lower than you, so that you too can discriminate (or merely quietly envy). Snobbery and racism are rife, as well as resentment for the way they are treated in their new environment.

Being brown isn’t an advantage, thinks Pablo, and he thinks about himself, his mother and his sisters, even Lucia. Being black gets you further. A brown man is a watered-down man, stuck halfway between identities. It’s impossible to construct a strong identity if you are brown.

It is also the story of a marriage breaking down, where a sense of common identity is not enough to keep them together. Lucia was forced to move around a lot as a child, following her father’s job with oil companies, so she wants to integrate fully, to raise their children as Americans, and can be quite sarcastic or bored about her origins. Meanwhile, Pablo has a nostalgia about ‘our country’ and resents this uprooting:

‘…one day you’ll realise that a man without roots is a dead man.’ He couldn’t remember Lucia’s response. Something seething and spiteful. Something about how much his argument sounded like a lyric from an Ismael Rivera song.

When Pablo develops a ‘holiday heart’ syndrome (a severe heart condition usually associated with over-indulgence of food, drink, sex and the like during the holidays), the couple’s contrasting attitudes towards life become ever clearer. Pablo is going through a midlife crisis and having several affairs, including one with a pupil of his. Lucia goes off to Miami with the kids and flirts with a celebrity football player who is also there on vacation. These shenanigans got a little bit tedious, but they were revealing of character. There is an emptiness at the heart of this relationship and in their own hearts. When reading this book, I get the same sense of alienation as in watching a film like Antonioni’s The Eclipse.

Almost immediately after reading this book, I read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (although this was a library book and adjacent to my #20booksofsummer reading plans). It is also about the breakdown of a marriage, but set in the well-heeled milieu of New York doctors, bankers and celebrity agents, with summer homes in the Hamptons and an endless round of private schools, tennis lessons, piano lessons, holiday camps and what not else. I wondered whether the readers who had found the Holiday Heart characters unlikable thought that these ones were more relatable because they were white.

The book was funny in parts, especially when describing the sex-fuelled haze of online dating, or the reactions of other people to the news that a couple is divorcing ‘people pretended to care for him when they were really asking after themselves’). Instead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, this one reminded me of the TV series Sex and the City. There are some sharp observations about modern life and gender relationships, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a lifestyle article in Vanity Fair or New York Times. I couldn’t care deeply about either Toby or his wife Rachel, or their respective midlife crises, or any of the characters who seem to relish their respective well-furnished prisons even though they complain about them. Although some of the rants were really spot-on, I couldn’t help remembering the critique I got on an excerpt of my novel in progress a few years back – that it was too much of a rant, the whingeing of a privileged white Mum that nobody would be interested in reading. Yes, this is exactly what this book felt like (although we get two for the price of one, rants from both genders).

I watched a couple go by, burrowing into each other… I pitied them… in a few years, that girl would be just some guy’s wife. She would be someone her husband referred to as angry – as angry and a dour and a nag. He would wonder where her worship went; he would wonder where her smiles were. He would wonder why she never broke out in laughter; why she never wore lingerie,; why her underwear, once lacy and dangerous, was now cotton and white; why she ddn’t like it from behind anymore; why she never got on top… The fortress where they kept their secrets would begin to crack, and he would push water through those cracks when he would begin to confide in his friends. He would get enough empathy and nods of understanding so that he would begin to wonder exactly what he had to gain from remaining with someone so bitter, someone who no longer appreciated him for who he was, and life’s too short, man, life’s too short.

Although I flagged quite a few passages that made me nod and smile wryly in recognition, overall I felt I’d heard the story a hundred times before and the style was too pedestrian to rescue it. It was an entertaining enough way to spend a weekend, but I choose Holiday Heart over this one. The Colombian novel gives a more lasting feeling of unease, raises provocative questions, and has a more precise, clearcut style where you feel every word counts (plus, it has been carefully and lovingly translated).

Liliana Colanzi: Our Dead World

This is my most recent #20BooksofSummer read (No. 12 in actual fact), but I am somersaulting over the earlier ones I read and placing it at No. 10, so that I can have at least one review this week for #SpanishLitMonth initiated by Stu Jallen (which is not just literature from Spain but literature in the Spanish language).

Liliana Colanzi is a Bolivian writer, considered one of the most promising young voices in Latin America today, but so far Our Dead World is her only book that has been translated into English (by Jessica Sequeira and published by Dalkey Archive Press). I heard Colanzi speak at the Hay Festival two years ago, as part of the Bogota39 initiative, and bought her book then and there (and of course got it signed). The stories are unusual, surreal, captivating and show a great deal of courage, in the sense of not worrying about making the reader feel comfortable or of fitting under one convenient genre or label.

The first story The Eye, for example, could be described as a more realistic, coming-of-age type story, with a girl in her first year of college struggling with her feelings for a male classmate, who lets her down by buggering off with another girl at the last minute while working on a group project for class. Her mother is deeply religious and traditional, her professor chides her for not being brave enough to think for herself, and she compensates for all of her disappointments by cutting herself. So far, so conventional, you might think, but then the story and the language takes on a surreal turn, as we follow the protagonist into something like a nervous breakdown (or illumination?).

And that is the hallmark of Colanzi’s style: taking the mundane and well-trodden set-ups and then twisting them completely beyond recognition. You sit and read breathlessly  and wonder how the author will manage to conclude the story and exit from the impossible situation in which she has placed herself and her characters. Usually, this is done through altered states, which the author is very good at conveying through repetitive, mesmerising language, which is often like watching a film playing at double the speed in someone’s head.

Each story (bar one) has a different but realistic setting – a Bolivian village preparing for a funeral, an East Coast college campus, a Paris hotel, a photographic studio, a house hidden in a sugar-cane plantation. But then a curveball gets thrown into the apparently familiar set-up: a family starts quarreling as they remember past frustrations while having their portrait taken, a meteorite is ready to hit the earth, a mysterious wave-type weather pattern drives students to suicide, a cannibal is on the loose, the corpse at a funeral seems to start breathing, you stumble across a place in the jungle where indigenous slavery still exists. There are hints at secret traumas and a side serving of horror in most of these tales.

The story which is the exception has more of a sci-fi premise: it’s set on Mars. A young woman has joined the colonising workforce on Mars but still yearns for the life and man she loved on Earth. While she and her fellow workers are doomed to either go mad or die of cancer, she becomes obsessed by the idea of life perpetuating itself even in the most hostile of environments.

These are the kind of stories which pack so much into their tiny frame that I’m not sure I’ve completely understood them. I also like the way in which Colanzi alludes to her cultural background but is not limited by it. I want to reread and analyse these stories – but above all, they give me permission to go forth and be bolder and more experimental in my own writing.