Location USA

In which Lina Meruane asks why I read

Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?

Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)

Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.

Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.

Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books

Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?

Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.

By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.

If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.

The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.

I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.

However, I had to admit that I did like the writing

I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?

Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.

As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.

Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.

The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.

As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.

Seeing Red haunted me…

…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?

I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.

Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.

Did I just want to be a literary tourist?

Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.

Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless

Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.

Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness

Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.

I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.

Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.

I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.

Part eight of the repatriation ordeal (in which there is no hotel shuttle)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
This is what a real coffee looks like.
Peruvian coffee, Peru
January 2020

Miami airport is large. I’m not sure that it’s as large as Madrid airport where you can stand in the hall without seeing the other end of the building because it’s just so incredibly far away from you. However when you leave immigration and exit alone into an empty hall and walk through an empty corridor to find an empty set of facilities, pass alone up and down in some large empty lifts and through some more empty halls, completely lost, Miami airport feels very large indeed.

I sat down and called my dad, he said there was a hotel shuttle.

I called the hotel, a chap said there was no hotel shuttle because of coronavirus.

I went in search of a taxi

There were no taxi’s but a cheerful chap assured me that he could find me a taxi and what’s more I could pay with any card I liked. A bright yellow cab turned up. It was so yellow I laughed. The man who had called it up looked at me as if I might be mad.

I asked the driver to take me to the hotel. He tried. He got a bit lost. He tried some more. I paid. I walked into the hotel. I checked in. I looked for a lift. I found the elevator. I counted the numbers and found my room. I collapsed on the bed.

A short while later I decided that the best thing to do would be to have a shower and go back downstairs and find a cup of coffee. The shower was a good idea, the coffee less so.

I ordered my coffee, which came in a furry plastic cup, and found some of those small UHT plastic carton things which are supposed to contain milk.

This was when my brain finally conked out and I realised that I was going mad. I stared at the plastic carton whilst sipping my plastic coffee and I read the label.

Non-Dairy. Contains Milk.

I read it again

I asked the waitress. She read the label for me and said that she didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was supposed to be healthier than the alternative option, but she wasn’t sure. English wasn’t her first language. I told her that this English wasn’t my first language either because in my English milk is a dairy product.

At this point my day got suddenly much better because we switched to Spanish and everything seemed to make a lot more sense. Suddenly I was having a very real Latin American-esque conversation where I learnt about Cuba and how a certain ‘politician’ has caused some frustration for the Cuban residents of Miami as he’s made going home to visit their mothers a whole lot harder. I sympathised, I was on my way home to see my mother and had unexpectedly found myself spending a night in Miami. Going straight home would have been a whole lot more convenient.  

I then returned to my room and ask the rain fell in Miami, I slept.

Part seven of the repatriation ordeal (in which my apple is incinerated)

By Posted on Location: 3min read
You can’t take photos in immigration, so here’s a random purple flower.
Tuscany, Italy
May 2018

I landed in the United States of America very early on the Sunday morning. The sun had just risen.

The aeroplane had landed smoothly enough and silently I’d dragged myself from my seat and like obedient cattle we all filed off the plane and trotted down the corridors to immigration control. Here, two men, one in either half of the hall stood and shouted at us in Spanish and English, ordering us what to do, where to stand, when to move etc.

I was exhausted and my little brain wasn’t processing information very well as I put my details into the computer and got ushered into the next queue. I moved along, socially distanced from the rest of the queue, listening to the shouting repeating itself over and over.

It dawned on me at some point in one of the queues that in my rucksack somewhere…

I probably had an apple

I wasn’t sure if I did have an apple or not. I’d certainly eaten one of my apples which I’d bought less than 24 hours previously. I’d bought them for the bus journey. The bus I reflected, would be leaving in a couple of hours, trundling down the Pan-American highway from La Serena to Santiago, my seat empty because I was now in the United States of America.

Maybe, I concluded, I did have an apple. But I couldn’t be sure. In fact, I seemed to have barely any memory of what I’d stuffed in my rucksack on leaving. It had all been such a rush.

I told the security chap who wanted to check all my papers and know exactly which plane I would be escaping the United States of American on. Although he didn’t use the word escape. The security chap explained that apples were banned. Apples were not allowed in the United States of America and as such, my apple must be incinerated.

“How do I incinerate it?” I asked

He tried to explain to me where to go. I was tired. I didn’t understand. He decided that the best thing was to escort me to the special baggage reclaim area for people who accidentally forget to eat their apples before finding themselves in the United States of America.

I collected my suitcase and wheeled it through the door to customs, where a cheerful chap kindly asked me a question. I didn’t understand him, but I said I’d like to please have my apple incinerated because apples are illegal.

He asked me if there was anything else

I shrugged and said I had no idea. Maybe I owned some biscuits, I wasn’t entirely sure. And what about a cereal bar. I might have had a cereal bar in there. I told him I was very tired and that I couldn’t be 100 percent sure.

Thankfully the chap in charge of putting apples in the incinerator said not to worry. He smiled and told me just to pop my luggage through the machine. A Chilean chap who appeared behind me offered to lift my heavy suitcase for me. The bags rolled through the scanner.

Very sure of himself, the security chap told me my apple was in the side pocket of my rucksack.

“It’s not,” I said. “That’s a bottle of water.”

He let me keep my water. He took the apple, remarked upon its large size and told me I was free to go. I could keep my biscuits.

Part six of the repatriation ordeal (In which I compare airlines)

Torres del Paine, Chile
February 2020
This was on the eighth day of continuous hiking (in the same clothes).

In February I went hiking in the beautiful Torres Del Paine National park in the Patagonia region of Chile. My flight back to Santiago was with the airline LatAm. Shortly into the flight, the pilot came on the tannoy system and cheerfully told us that what with it being a really beautiful day, with perfect flying conditions, and a perfect view over the national park, he was going to just take a few minutes and twizzle the plane around a bit so that everyone on the flight could get a good look at the iconic stone towers for which the national park is so famous.

It was quiet flight to Miami with LatAm, but the staff checked we were okay, and they gave us food which to my surprise seemed like real food on what looked like a plate. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I started eating. I had the entire row to myself as the staff gave us freedom to sit where we wanted to help us keep socially distanced and make use of the available space.

I don’t remember the food on the American Airlines flight to London, except for that when I got off the flight I was hungry and there was an awkward moment where I had to go to the kitchen at the back of the plane and ask for water because we’d been given so little.

The LatAm staff acknowledged the unpleasantness of wearing masks, but they wore their own mask correctly and set a good example.

On the American Airlines flight, I saw one senior looking member of staff not bothering to wear any mask at all, despite it being an obligation for everyone. He walked up and down the aisle from one end of the plane to the other, mask-less, a number of times throughout the night.

You’ll understand therefore if I now have a bias towards LatAm. I was exhausted, anxious, afraid and alone and the staff bothered to recognised it. No surprise that I slept much better on the LatAm flight that the American Airways flight.


On my return I did write to the booking agent, Opodo, explaining the situation. They have still not responded. There has been no apology for their screw up.

My father called British Airways about the first cancelled flight. Nobody ever picked up.

‘Tannoy’ is apparently, like hoover, a brand. I think it looks ugly capitalised mid sentence.