TagDeep Vellum Publishing

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane

August is Women in Translation Month, and that’s going to be my main focus on the blog this month. But Spanish Lit Month has also been extended to August (and expanded to cover Portuguese lit) – so I thought I’d start the month off with a book that falls under both headings. 

Lina Meruane is a Chilean writer and academic living and working in New York. Seeing Red is her fourth novel, but the first to be translated into English. It’s also semi-autobiographical: Meruane’s protagonist has the same name as her; and the book revolves around a medical condition that the author herself lived with. 

It begins at a house party. Lina is on her own in the bedroom when suddenly blood fills her eye: juvenile diabetes had meant that her retinal veins were fragile, and now one has burst. Immediately, Lina starts wondering about the future: is this going to lead to “the dark passage where only anonymous, besieged cries could be heard,” or is there a way out? Lina won’t have any answers until she sees her doctor in a few days, by which time there’s enough blood in her second eye to leave her effectively blind when she moves. The doctor suggests that it may be possible to restore Lina’s sight with an operation – an option she leaps at – but not for another month at least. Much to her consternation, Lina has no choice but to wait. 

Naturally, her sudden sight loss affects Lina’s life in many ways. A flavour of some is given in this passage, where Lina has travelled back to Chile on vacation and is met by her father at the airport:

My father comes to the rescue and pulls me out of my introspection. It’s his bony tourniquet hand that falls onto my shoulder. His debilitated skeleton, his long femur I hold onto. He leans over to kiss my forehead and I extend my fingers to run them over his face, trying to trace his face into my palm. I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s alive in there, inside his body. Then his voice, the word daughter, winds its way through the crush of passengers waiting for suitcases, and in my ear drum his relieved words echo: I had to insist before they’d let me come in and look for you. 
(translation by Megan McDowell) 

Here we have a clamour of sensory information, as well as a laborious process of working it all out, something that’s increasingly familiar to Lina (that wry “professional blind woman” comment). I’ve quoted at some length here because that’s the nature of the book: each chapter is presented as a single long paragraph. This has the effect of bringing the reader down to Lina’s pace, having to work through situations slowly. It also heightens the sense that there’s no escape from Lina’s circumstances, no short cut to recovery – especially in the sections concerning Lina’s treatment, when it’s unclear whether the operation will work, and she has to take extreme care to avoid causing damage while her eyes heal. 
Megan McDowell’s translation is superb, so much rhythm, sound and colour. Here, for example, is Lina in bed with her partner Ignacio:

I started by putting my tongue in a corner of his eyelid, slowly, and as my mouth covered his eyes I felt a savage desire to suck them, hard, to take possession of them on my palate as if they were little eggs or enormous and excited roe, hard, but Ignacio, half-asleep or now half-awake, refused to open them, he refused to give himself to that newly discovered desire, and instead of giving me what I wanted he pushed me back onto the bed and put his tongue in my ear and between my lips although he didn’t dare lick my sick eyes when I asked him to… 

That sentence goes on still further, evoking the slow unwinding of Lina’s desire. There are strong feelings throughout Seeing Red, as Lina’s relationships with her loved ones come under strain, and she fixated on the possibility of a cure for her blindness. Strong feelings on the page turn into an intense experience for the reader; a fine English-language debut for Meruane.

Book details 

Seeing Red (2012) by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell (2016), Deep Vellum Publishing, 162 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The UK edition of Seeing Red is published by Atlantic Books

Classics Club: Sphinx by Anne Garréta

SphinxWhen I put together my Classics Club list, I included a few recent translations of books which had appeared in their original languages over 25 years ago. It stretches my timescale guidelines a little bit (or feels as though it does), but it was a way of catching some particular books that I wanted to read.

Published in French in 1986, Sphinx was Anne Garréta’s first novel; Emma Ramadan’s English translation was released by Deep Vellum in 2015. Garréta is a member of the Oulipo (the French literary group that explores writing under particular restrictions); though Sphinx predates her joining, the book still has its own stylistic constraint. It would be nice to keep that a secret here, because you’d get a different experience if you read Sphinx without knowing the stricture. However, I can’t talk about my own reading experience without revealing it; so that’s what I’m going to do.

Sphinx is a love story between two characters: the nameless narrator, a theology student who abruptly becomes the DJ at a Paris club when the previous one is found dead mid-shift; and a dancer known only as A***, with whom the narrator grows infatuated. What’s notable is that neither character’s gender is identified  over teh course of the novel.

It felt a little strange to read Sphinx knowing this, because in English at least, you might hardly notice (I would assume it’s more obvious in French; if anyone has read the original, I’d be interested to know). In her afterword, Ramadan talks about some of the implications that Garréta’s techniques had for the translation: for example, the narrative voice can tend towards pomposity, because that enabled Garréta to use a more formal version of the past tense, one that doesn’t require gender agreement. The narrator’s personality trait persists in English, though it’s not doing the same job of disguising gender.

I’m trying to avoid using pronouns in this post to refer the main characters, because to me the point about Sphinx is not that A*** and the narrator have particular gender identities which happen to remain unrevealed, but that they have no gender identity at all within the novel. I tried to read Sphinx in that way, and found that it’s difficult: when there’s a gap like that in my knowledge of a character’s identity, an assumption is only too ready to fill it – which is, of course, part of what Garréta’s novel is challenging.

One of Garréta’s other techniques in French was to have her narrator describe features and characteristics of A***, rather than describing A*** directly – because then the pronoun agrees with the gender of the feature, not that of the person whose feature it is. This leads to an intense focus on surfaces:

In a sudden rush of vertigo, I was tantalized by the idea of contact with A***’s skin. I wanted to dismiss, destroy all those who were thronging around A***. keeping this presence from me. I wanted to wrest A*** from their company, from the intrusive glances clinging to us there, and hide us both away. With an unknowingly crazed look, I was always watching this irresistible body. But my gaze was narrowing and stiffening under the tension of carnal desire. That night, A*** was wearing a black silk shirt and white pleated leather pants that showed off a firm behind. A***’s hair, shaved not long ago for the show, was beginning to grow back, materializing as a light shadow.

A*** seems to be less a person to the narrator than a body, a collection of attributes. This pays off to brilliant effect as the novel goes on (and that’s where I’m not going to elaborate). But, when it comes down to it, the narrator is also just a voice on the page; and both characters scatter apart before our eyes.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Sphinx (1986) by Anne Garréta, tr. Emma Ramadan (2015), Deep Vellum paperback

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

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