By Lina Meruane
Translated by Megan McDowell
There are verses in Mahmoud Darwish’s “Mural,” one of the great Palestinian poet’s late works, that perfectly describe the uncanny 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 language accumulates it also recedes into eternity:
There’s no one to ask:
where now is my where?
Where is the city of death
Where am I?
In this no-here …
The speaker’s certainty is further diminished in the next verse, which begins, “As if I had died already.”
In “Nervous System,” the Chilean author Lina Meruane’s second novel to be translated into English (in both cases by Megan McDowell), the narrator, Ella, archives the loss of her unnamed homeland, “the country of the past,” and her subsequent, confused launch elsewhere, in a nested structure not unlike Darwish’s. We begin with a section titled “Black Holes,” set in the “country of the present,” where the immigrant narrator’s ambitions to write a doctoral thesis on the “pulverized physical universe” are thwarted by “years without writing”; what emerges in the place of 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: illness.
The sections are titled to reveal the narrator’s engagement with celestial systems (“Milky Way,” “stardust,” “gravity”), and organized in such a way that to read forward into the book is to move backward in time. Ella’s mysterious, hand-numbing ailment sends her mind back to her politically troubled homeland, in order to remember and catalog her relationships to those who have vanished, or those who are seized by disease. In the process, Ella recalls her habit of stockpiling in clear glass jars salvaged body parts (hair, nails) of her father before he died, the father who used his life savings to fund her failed dissertation, her already foreclosed migrant future.
Meruane does not draw a firm line between the living and the dead. The novel is haunted by those who were disappeared during Latin America’s murderous “epidemic of dictatorship,” and by migrants who die working toward a better life. The latter are buried in the kinds of mass graves that Ella’s boyfriend, a forensic scientist named El, spends his life studying, “identifying bones in order to put an end to violence.” There’s something ancient, biblical, in the central characters’ names, the generic masculine and feminine pronouns in Spanish. But there is also something alien and mechanic about this couple, calling each other by the pet names “Electron” and “Positron” as they ask each other, in rare moments of tenderness, if they are sufficiently “charged.”
While at times the quick transitions from one scene to another 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 eye for microscopic precision and a pliant poetic imagination, her sentences move between the two poles of scientific detail (Ella’s friend “laughed low at her slow, fat grandmother with her lipstick melted in the heat of her mouth”) and metaphysical sensibility (“even dead, those stars continued emitting their preterit gleam”).
A restless novel, “Nervous System” burns in the mind long after one has read it, not unlike the ghosts who circumnavigate our psyches, and the winding corridors of history, to hammer us on the head with the raw truth that time is not linear. The distance between the deep past and the present, Meruane shows, is much shorter than we might be inclined to think.