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In Lina Meruane’s new novel, Writer’s Block is a symptom of migrant trauma

By on May 18, 2021 0

By Lina Meruane
Translated by Megan McDowell

There are verses in Mahmoud Darwish’s “Mural”, one of the last works of the great Palestinian poet, which perfectly describes the strange disorientation of collective exile and disappearance. To capture the layers of such loss, Darwish nests one verse within another like Russian dolls, so that as the tongue builds up it also recedes into eternity:

There is no one to ask:
where is now my where?
Where is the city of death
Where am I?
In this not-here …
no time
and nothingness.

The speaker’s certainty is further diminished in the next verse, which begins with “As if I were already dead”.

In “Nervous System”, the second novel by Chilean author Lina Meruane to be translated into English (in both cases by Megan McDowell), the narrator, Ella, archives the loss of her unnamed homeland, “the land of the past And its subsequent and confused launch elsewhere, in a nested structure much like Darwish’s. We start with a section called “Black Holes”, located in the “land of the present”, where the ambitions of the immigrant narrator to write a doctoral thesis on “the pulverized physical universe” are thwarted by “years without writing” ; what emerges instead of the sentences is a “desire to get sick”. Ella’s unfinished thesis on the “bottomless holes” of the cosmos is supplanted by the novel itself, which speaks the language of the body: disease.

The sections are titled to reveal the narrator’s engagement with celestial systems (“Milky Way,” “stardust,” “gravity”), and organized in such a way that reading forward in the book is like stepping back into the time. Ella’s mysterious and mind-numbing illness sends her mind back to her politically troubled homeland, in order to remember and catalog her relationships with those who have passed away or those who are ill. In the process, Ella recalls her habit of storing in clear glass jars the body parts collected (hair, nails) of her father before his death, the father who used his savings to finance his failed thesis, his future. migrant already seized.

Meruane does not draw a firm border between the living and the dead. The novel is haunted by those who disappeared during the murderous “dictatorship epidemic” in Latin America and by the migrants who die working for a better life. They are buried in the kind of mass graves that Ella’s boyfriend, a medical examiner named El, spends his life studying, “identifying the bones in order to end the violence.” There is something old, biblical, in the names of the central characters, the generic masculine and feminine pronouns in Spanish. But there is also something extraterrestrial and mechanical about this couple, calling each other by the nicknames “Electron” and “Positron” as they wonder, in rare moments of tenderness, if they are enough ” loaded “.

While at times the rapid transitions from scene to scene can make the novel feel slightly overcrowded, Meruane is a deliberate and immensely gifted writer who understands how political trauma is forever stored in the human body. Betraying a keen sense of microscopic precision and a supple poetic imagination, her sentences oscillate between the two poles of scientific detail (Ella’s friend “laughs low at her slow fat grandmother with her lipstick melted in the dark. warmth of his mouth ”) and metaphysical sensitivity (“ even dead, these stars continued to emit their preteritized glow ”).

A restless novel, “Nervous System” burns in the mind long after reading it, much like the ghosts that circle our psyche and the winding corridors of history, to hammer our heads with the raw truth. that time is not linear. The distance between the deep past and the present, Meruane shows, is much shorter than one might be inclined to think.