A Chilean writer who defies categories
Lina Meruane is an astonishingly original Chilean writer with a postmodern narrative voice like no other. This 51-year-old writer teaches literature at New York University, but her thinking is never too far from the chaotic streets of Santiago, where her parents raised her under Augusto Pinochet’s heinous dictatorship. Meruane seems reticent to confess too many personal details about herself, but does offer us some clues.
She’s spoken about her parents, both physicians whom she describes as ‘analytically oriented,’ as being surprised by her decision to become a writer. She probably, reluctantly, means to say they felt disappointed. She does concede that her mother refrains from reading much of her work because she finds it too sad. Doctors diagnosed Meruane with childhood diabetes at six, which seems to have influenced her greatly. She learned too early how vulnerable the body is to all sorts of unwanted intrusions.
In her ambitious new novel, Nervous System, Meruane tries to express the agonies she’s endured living the life of a perpetual exile through the disembodied voice of her protagonist Ella, in many ways an alter-ego. In an almost Sebaldian fashion, she has Ella try to express her hurts without directly addressing them. She lusciously couches her language inside elaborate metaphors and flurries of rhythmic poetic prose that force the reader into the role of a detective searching for secret clues. A narrative tension tenvelops the novel as it floats between past and present often speaking to them both simultaneously. Both Meruane and Ella wish to be heard, noticed, and understood. But both author and character are not seeking our affirmation. A stoicism in Meruane’s prose resists vying for sympathy.
Ella is an astrophysicist who no longer lives in the unnamed country in which she was born. She lives in another country also ruled by a tyrannical regime that threatens the life of it’s people. She’s married to El, a forensic scientist, who was recently injured in an unexpected explosion at a mass grave excavation site, leaving him with unbearably high-pitched noises in his ears that drive him to the brink of madness.
El leaves Ella alone in the apartment each night to join other protestors who are still fighting for the freedoms that the government denies them. Ella relishes the aloneness after he goes, staring into her blank computer screen, where she has sat for years trying to write her dissertation on the cosmos that keeps disappearing from her view. She’s been growing weaker and a host of ailments have ransacked her body. The insomnia and migraines are intolerable. But worse still is the severe neck pain and the numbness in her hands. She barely can stand in front of her students teaching and notices how strange their faces become as they watch her struggling to speak.
She and her husband and her have grown alienated from each and no longer speak much or make love. In desperation, she goes for medical tests and as she lays quietly under the MRI machine, she tries to decipher what she is witnessing: “The radiant constellation, the pulverized physical universe that she couldn’t manage to capture in the dissertation she’d been writing for years on the star systems closest to earth. One thing led to another, each refuting the thing before, obliging her to start all over again.” The doctors find nothing conclusive on her test scans, just some inexplicable shadows about which they are unsure.
Meruane begins to make the inevitable leap inside her mind; seeing her illnesses as some sort of divine punishment. Ella feels guilty that her mother died from excessive hemorrhaging giving birth to her, describing herself as the “foreign body that rends and wounds another body that never stops bleeding.” That is what her brother would repeat to her when they fought, which was frequently, whispering into her ear, maliciously, “Did you forget that you killed her?” Soon enough, a stepmother was present in their family home, along with her own two children who ignored Ella and her brother, determined o whitewash their existence out of the new family she had created with Ella’s father. Her father was always kind but distant, lost in his own mourning, much like Ella herself.
Meruane explained in a recent interview how she developed Ella. She claims “As I was writing this novel, Ella-whose professional identity and trajectory was unknown to me from the start-‘became’ an astrophysicist and I began writing astrophysics. I fell in love with this scientific but also conjectural and poetic discipline, and discovered that in the cosmos, time and space cannot be measured or even reasoned about in the way we know.” Meruane magically infuses this cosmic fusion of past and present into her novels with a masterful sleight of hand. We surrender to the lack of boundaries in which she operates.
In an earlier autobiographically-laced novel of Meruane’s, Seeing Red, a terrifying episode of temporary blindness caused by diabetic retinopathy strikes her protagonist, Lina. She based the novel on her own experience in New York when she was a young graduate student, which left her suddenly helpless in ways she’d never before known. Meruane’s Lina worries about whether she will ever regain her eyesight, and if her boyfriend will stand by her during her duress.
Lina seems in so many ways like Ella. Both protagonists struggle with worries about their own vulnerabilities, have trouble trusting anyone, and seem to live in two places, and two sets of time, as they straddle recollections from their Chilean homeland with the new alien places where they have landed, where treacheries fester undetected. The world has denied Lina and Ella entrance to any sort of promised land, and they remains landlocked instead to their memories. In her new novel, Meruane hypnotizes us with the alluringness that envelops her sentences, but also with the raw ugliness that seeps out from beneath them.