First published in Chile back in 2012, Meruane’s semi-autobiographical novel has just been published in the UK in an English translation by Megan McDowell. Featuring a protagonist also named Lina Meruane, also a Chilean writer, it does read a little as pure autobiography but the events are fictional (drawn from Meruane’s real experience of going temporarily blind).
Lina, a Chilean writer living in New York, is at a party when her eyes haemorrhage. This is not expected; she has already been seeing a doctor who has warned her that this could happen at any time. Blood fills her vision and leaves her practically blind, barely able to make out shapes and outlines. She has just moved to a new apartment with her partner, Ignacio, and everything is new and prone to being bumped into. The doctor tells her she must wait one month for her eyes to settle before he can determine whether there is any chance to save her sight.
Thwacks against half-closed doors, all of their edges blunt. A nose mashed against a shelf. Scratched fingers, broken nails, twisted ankles almost sprained. Ignacio took note of every mishap and tried to clear the boxes still only half-emptied, he moved the open bags from the hallway and cleared away orphan shoes, but then I got tangled up in rugs, I knocked over posters leaning against walls, I toppled trash cans. I was buried in open boxes with table legs between my fingers. The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged.
Lina has already planned to travel to Santiago to visit her family, and takes us on the terrifying journey as a newly blind person navigating air travel. Ignacio cannot travel with her so organises a wheelchair for Lina at the airport, an action she sees as humiliating. Her parents don’t understand why she can’t get her eyes operated on in Chile and this period is marked by Lina trying to rediscover the city that she used to know. When Ignacio arrives later, she navigates him by memory. She teaches him the words for common items that his Galician Spanish give other names to. Even as Lina becomes more dependent on Ignacio, she becomes more irritated and worried about how she would cope without him.
The final section of this, quite short, novel – around 150 pages – is the most urgent. Lina returns to New York and is admitted to hospital to have her surgery. The reader is forced to wait with her as the doctor explains that the operation more complex than he had anticipated; she will have to wait several weeks to know if she will see again. No spoilers from me, but these few pages were by far the most gripping, watching Lina and Ignacio on tenterhooks, Lina making ever greater demands on his loyalty.
This book won’t be for everyone but it reads as an incredibly personal journal. For anyone who loves memoir or autofiction, this should be an ideal read.