Lina Meruane is one of Chile’s most renowned younger contemporary writers. Born in Santiago in 1970, she has lived in New York since 2000, where she teaches at NYU. She is also founder and director of the independent publishing house Brutas Editoras, based in New York. She published her debut volume of stories, titled “Las Infantas,” in 1998; since then, her range has matured and expanded, now including genres such as novels, essays on Palestine (“Volverse palestina,” 2013) and an anthology that explores the traces of AIDS in the literature of Latin America. In a way, “Las Infantas” provides the key to understanding her oeuvre, covering a diverse array of topics still present in her work: With a structure evocative of children’s fairytales, all of the book’s stories revolve around the hijinks of two young princesses. The book plumbs the deep well we call childhood, which in this case is revealed to be a deceptive abyss. As the literary scientist Rike Bolte notes, “At their core, Meruane’s texts ask whether life is even capable of offering us a safe space: In all of the works discussed, the physical and mental integrity of their subjects is at risk. (…) In turn, this can primarily be situated in a post-dictatorial – and even post-paternal – context”. Similarly, her second novel, titled “Fruta Podrida” (2008), also offers the reader a dystopian snapshot of the Chilean people below the surface of its neo-Baroque, exuberant symbolism: On its face, the novel is about two sisters – one suffering from diabetes, the other a director of a local fruit company – who live in the small Chilean city called Ojo Seco, where they defend their lives in a world increasingly under threat. In the novel, illness and decline serve as an allegory for the battlefield where conflicts of modernity are played out. Meruane paints a critical picture of prosperity in Chile during the post-Pinochet era. The country pursues a neoliberal economic strategy that marches in lockstep with global market mechanisms. In her work, Meruane shines a light on the underbelly of a society marked by bourgeoning affluence, where international corporations disregard the most minimal ethical standards after radical commercialization is introduced, sometimes with dramatic results. This also holds true for the way she uses language in the novel to show how it can become a tool when used by the powers that be; after all, control over language translates into the power to either defend or subvert the ruling order. And, just as fruit and organic matter decompose, so too can language when it is solely a tool used by and to preserve hegemonic powers. With “Fruta Podrida,” Meruane thus joins the ranks of Chile’s female authors who became a force to reckon with in the country’s literary landscape since the end of the 1980s, and who use the figure of the body to contend with challenges facing Latin American modernity through the local effects of global economic events and developments: They reimagine the bio-politic sphere and place it in a world in which bodies are no longer subjected to categories of sex and gender. Meruane won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for her third novel, titled “Sangre en el ojo” (2012); the year before that she won the Anna Seghers-Prize awarded by Akademie der Künste in Berlin. “Sangre en el ojo” opens with a medical emergency when the character, a young writer named Lina living in New York, suddenly has a hemorrhage in her eye while at a party. After that, she is convinced that she is going blind. Threatened from loss of vision, at the same time she urgently seeks to change her surroundings, first finding a new apartment with her boyfriend, then setting off with him to Chile to visit her parents – changes that unsettle relationships both old and new. Seeing becomes a metaphor for being – and also for language, and for writing as an act that has the potential to transform us. For the protagonist, the question of identity is not just physical, but also cultural; it is literarily investigated at the intersection between seeing and not seeing – that is, between knowing and not knowing – and between heritage and identity. Lina, who not only grew up bilingual speaking English and Spanish, is really named Lucina, but denies this part of herself as an author. The novel plays the part of a protocol of a woman’s indignation with a breathless cascade of short chapters, in which language sometimes fails the first-person narrator. Just like all of the author’s works, “Sangre en el ojo” offers razor-sharp prose with a sometimes ragged precision, which is at the same time as porous and as penetrable as the world she describes.
Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Amy Pradell
Photo: Daniel Mordzinski