The Unpleasant Ill

Reading Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red While Disabled

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red is not exactly autofiction, even though the narrator is a Chilean writer named Lina Meruane, and the narrative is a fictionalized maturation of an event in the author’s own life. While at a friend’s party in New York, aforementioned narrator Lina suffers a mild stroke that leaves her completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other.

“[…] a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was going to retch, and even so […]”

Lina has to navigate through a few major life events which are difficult (but not impossible) and many small, daily life events which become more and more so. She not only has to learn for herself what it means not just to be blind, she has to teach her loved ones as well–when she literally and figuratively can’t see the future ahead of her.

I have read a few reviews of this work, but none from a disabled person. And so. I am not blind. But I have chronic migraines and occipital neuralgia, a persistent pain in my neck and shoulders resulting from nerve damage to my occipital nerve. Neither are permanently debilitating, but only occasionally so. Like Lina’s vision sometimes comes and goes, so does my pain come in waves; I have to manage constant pain by degree. And management of chronic illness has rules.

“[…] admonitions impossible to follow. Stop smoking first of all, and don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not, for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst.”

Do not enjoy luxuries. Do not get sick, do not work, do not move, do not enjoy leisure activities, do not love. To avoid the disaster means living in a prison. Lina not only breaks all of these rules, but she does so with careless abandon. Life is risk.

What healthy people superficially know, but do not understand is that disability is transformative.

“And how was I supposed to know what kind of face I had, when I’d misplaced my lips and my mole, when my earlobes had gotten lost. All I had left were a couple of blind eyes.”

The metamorphic body horror does not stop there. Throughout the novel, fingertips morph into eyes, the eyes of others become delicacies to be devoured.

Lina is no fool. She is aware of the people around her, and they make her curt and resentful. Meruane’s prose (and Meghan McDowell’s translation) contributes to the acridity of the narrator. The prose is composed of short scenes, rather than chapters, with titles that are impressionistic rather than episodic. Entire sentences burn away rather than conclude. Lina resents her family members for discussing her operation as an inevitability without considering that she is trying to discover her blindness. They are trying to repair something broken while she is grieving a loss. Their inability to speak the same emotional language is foretold in a scene in an airplane during which Lina endures a panic attack, making her unable to communicate with a woman even though they speak the same language. Lina eventually lashes out at her mother for packing her suitcase for her when Lina just learned how to pack it by touch. She remembers her older brother’s refusal to be her caretaker when she was younger. Her boyfriend is bombarded with sympathy for his burden by their friends.

The Rumpus review claims “Fictional Lina is not a character anyone will call relatable or even comfortable.” How adorably reductive. I am quite comfortable with fictional Lina; I can relate quite well. Because “fictional Lina” is “real Jan.” Personally, I do not care if Meruane experimented with the emotional brutality of fictional Lina in some sort of cold thought experiment. Factual truths don’t matter when emotional reality is no less true. Or should I not consider that which reflects my own reality to be a “true” story? Claiming this is not a true story erases my true story. It is easy to dismiss a fictional character. But readers are real people, and less conscientiously able to boot. Yes, fictional Lina is unpleasant, caustic, and manipulative. But she is also sincere and independent. Try to get in the mindset of an independent-minded dependent. If it helps, Meruane spells it out: the English title of this book is Seeing Red*; I cannot imagine why a reader would expect a pleasant main character when an on-the-nose metaphor for an angry or hostile person/personality is the title of the book.

Like Lina, I have lived with illness my entire life. “I don’t remember having even a moment of childhood. Not an instant of calm. Not a second when I wasn’t wondering when the hand of tragedy was going to touch me.” Like Lina, I have faced doctors who do not remember my name or condition.

Like Lina, I have a mother who works in a medical profession. My childhood migraines went (officially) undiagnosed until I was nine years old because my mother treated them at home. While she did a great (and selfless and often dirty) job–she never condescended to me or refused to believe I was in pain (unlike, oh, every other adult)–I wonder if I might have a clearer grasp on my pain if I was allowed more doctor visits. To this day, I really don’t know how to talk to a doctor about my pain. I just expect them to know (because she just knew) even though I suffer from one of the least understood neurological disorders. Sometimes helping is helping. Sometimes it is diminishing and infantilizing. “Your help invalidates me, I repeat, giving no quarter to my mother, who is innocent, but also, in a way, terribly guilty.” I forgive Lina for blowing up on her mother. I have done the same. (And our mothers, being our mothers, forgive us.)

Like Lina, I have a brother who refuses to acknowledge my disability because of the burden on himself. Like Lina’s brother, my own brother does not have time for me.

“He was handing in his resignation and they accepted it because they weren’t brave enough to make him be my nurse and my school tutor in addition to having to be my brother which he hadn’t even agreed to. No one had ever consulted him.”

I wished I could be struck blind after reading this. He has his own life. We do not speak. (Unlike Lina, I do not have another compassionate, morbidly humorous sibling.)

Like Lina, my partner is a supportive aid and ally. It comes from pure love. He often gets lauded at work (we both work for the same company) for his sensitivity and consideration for employees’ self-care because “he knows.” Much of the time I am deeply, bone-throbbingly grateful. I never asked someone to love me this much. But I beg him to understand. “You make me feel terribly alone. (But that’s what we are, two strangers brought together by accident in the impossible riddle of illness.)” I am resentful. “He knows” because of me. He gets to be the martyr who adjusts his normal life to my abnormal life. (Keep reading, I will address “normality” in a moment.) Other healthy people can empathize only with his suffering because it is a way that they can express kindness while distancing themselves from the ill.

“It was one thing to theorize strategies of the subaltern and resistance from the margin, and quite another, radically opposed, to empathize.”

Yes, I am grateful for this ally. Yes, I am grateful for this love. Yes, this is a test.

Perhaps this story is a thought experiment on how a different Lina Meruane would deal with a chronic condition–something that may never have become of the writer Lina Meruane. Good for her. Not so for me. But I believe that Meruane understands what it is liked to be watched and to be unable to watch back. The ill not only have to manage our own illness, but also teach those around us how they are supposed to love us. For the ill, illness is normal. What I mean by this is that this illness originated inside of my body. As part of me. It cannot be cured, only managed. As the essayist Susan Sontag wrote

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”**

Reader, do you think that you, yourself, are not only one doctor’s visit away from standing in my place? Seeing from my eyes?

And yet, we live. And that’s what this is about: not a diseased death, but a differently-abled life. Lina continues to consume literature (books on tape), moves house, travels internationally, initiates intercourse with her boyfriend, navigates hometown avenues by memory for a foreign driver, writes. While I want to advocate for those with chronic illness, I don’t want that the be the only thing anyone ever knows about me. By focusing on the unpleasantness of the character of Lina Meruane, one is metaphorically (forgive me, Sontag) blinding one’s self to Lina’s other life experiences. As Lina’s mother, who removes Lina’s one social visitor, does.

I have spent a lot of time on personal illness, and less time on other dimensions of the book such as the health of nations as depicted in the dual September 11 crises in both the United States (2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks) and Chile (1973 coup d’etat and overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende leading to years of military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet)–both events leaving permanent scars on their respective cityscapes. Coincidental tragedies deeply tie both home countries to the narrator, and imply that healing is not underway.


*the Spanish title is Sangre en el ojo, blood in the eye. If this has a specific metaphorical or idiomatic meaning beyond the literal translation, I am unaware.

**Susan Sontag, Illness As Metaphor. 1978.

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