Trauma likes to stick around. It likes to burrow its way under our skin and nestle there, getting comfortable without your knowing—or maybe you do know, maybe you can feel it setting its claws into you and taking hold. Either way, the trauma is there to stay, not rearing its head or making itself known until the very worst time. Maybe it’s something like your body holding onto memories while your brain goes on handling the day to day lives we all have to lead, something like your nervous system remembering the pains and shocks that the world has caused to our very own bodies, the thing we’re supposed to keep safe and protected. Lina Meruane—in her second novel in English, Nervous System, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell—deftly and insightfully looks back at what happens to the mind and body under years of dictatorship in her home country of Chile, while writing and memorializing from the present.
Meruane divides the novel into four parts following the main character, Ella, with each part centering on a different character and the illnesses that plague them. At one point, Ella’s Father lies in a hospital bed and she recalls:
“Another day he said that people live better when they don’t remember their suffering. I’m learning to rid my head of the past, he said. His forgetful daughter agreed.”
The first section follows Ella as she works on her doctoral thesis in astrophysics (“This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.”) As she fails over and over to even begin her work, she begins to pray for illnesses to beset her, to give her a break from the demands of life so she can hole herself up and finally write.
Yet when mysterious symptoms begin to occur, she is still unable to write, instead locked into familial and relational struggles with all those around her. Ella’s father, a doctor, gives unrelenting advice on her conditions, second-guessing her doctors at every opportunity. El, her boyfriend, continues to support and believe in her, knowing full well she’ll never finish her thesis. And her stepmom and step-siblings float around her, offering critiques and unasked for advice, pestering her with their own mundane anecdotes and distractions, all the while as Ella tries to deal with her newfound ailments.
“Turning off the electric pillow and getting out of bed, Ella thought about first-degree burns; an unbearable stinging had settled into her shoulder neck ember. Sitting at her computer she felt an invisible wound wrapping up and suffocating her.”
The repetition in italics in the quote above is an effect Meruane employs throughout the novel, this kind of waterfall of words that evokes a sensation in the reader of having fully understood the depth of feelings Ella is experiencing. The repetitive nature of Meruane’s stylistic choices—the italicized groupings, beginning paragraphs with the same couple of words—reinforce the blunt nature of Ella’s path in this novel, from a country of trauma and the past, to the newfound present she so desperately clings to.
Soon after her shoulders start to go numb, the lack of feeling radiating out to her hands and up her neck to her face. Ella’s nervous system attacks her, and in turn she wonders if it’s her body trying to remember the past, her Father’s past, and her real mother’s past, or if it’s really some mysterious disease coursing through her veins. Yet there’s no resolution to Ella’s story. The next two sections backtrack, detailing El’s injuries months before after an explosion at his job site, and Ella’s mother’s battle with breast cancer that she would ultimately lose. Meruane fills in the gaps of Ella’s life, explaining how her and El met, how he became a forensic scientist studying the bones of the disappeared and murdered from the dictatorship, and how they both find themselves in their “country of the present” not their “country of the past.”
“This country is finished and it’s going to finish us. Ella looked at him in astonishment: I don’t have any future in my country of the past.
But that wasn’t true either.
The only true thing was that Ella was starting to doubt.”
The third section deepens familial tensions that underpin the novel, exacerbated by their living in two different countries, one of the past and one of the present; pushing the plot away from the dictatorship, and into an exploration of how family is affected by illness and change, and how lies can become something for everyone to believe in so that the familial structure can remain intact. Ella harbors the secret that her Father has paid for her entire schooling, unbeknownst to either her biological mother or stepmother, and she has done nothing with it, not ever finishing her thesis or becoming a full-fledged doctor like she vowed she would. Meruane dissects this feeling of familial failure, of trying to explain and convey the goals of your life to your parents, trying to define your life in a couple of sentences so as to convey the worthiness of it, the worthiness of their having brought you up into the world.
This comes to a head in the fourth section, when Ella’s Father falls ill, and she forgets, or buries, the lies she’s told and returns to her “country of the past” to be with him. Outside, students are in the streets protesting, and students of the present in her new country are in their chairs. Inside her head, Ella worries about where El is, not answering her texts or calls, as she tries to handle her family while they orbit around her Father in his bed.
“And is bone boy coming to see you? Who knows, replied the daughter, shrinking from the truth. Everything had been twisted up between them. El hasn’t called again and doesn’t reply to the messages she sends, much as he receives reads tears them into a thousand pieces, and Ella is afraid he’s thrown his phone against a door, that he’s shattered the screen, but she knows that’s not what has happened.
Emptiness has opened up between them, and there is no filling it.”
Like any world-altering event, the dictatorship sorted everything into a before and after for Ella, neither of the categories overlapping, always their own distinct realms of time. Yet this novel allows the specter of the trauma of the past to present itself in the actions of the characters of the present, rather than it specifically running and shaping the story. This is where Meruane defines herself away from recent work of other Chilean novelists, like Nona Fernandez or Alejandro Zambra.
The dictatorship isn’t the defining aspect or character of this novel, and it shouldn’t be; instead, the novel accounts for how the task of keeping family together can trump almost anything, even health and telling the truth. By the end, her Father has confided in her that he of course knew she hadn’t become a doctor, that she hadn’t finished her thesis. This isn’t the end of Ella’s goals though; the same way that the trauma they experience isn’t over, it’s always there. When her Father is finally released from the hospital, Ella stands outside and attempts to hail a cab, only to realize the transportation workers are on strike. In this moment it’s like a flood washes over Ella, of the realization of what this country is to her, of all the pain and turmoil here and in the rest of the world, and so her and her Father agree to fly off to a new planet of the present, far far away from this one of the past. Then maybe their nervous systems will forget, if they can just get far enough away.
by Lina Meruane, tr. Megan McDowell
Published May 18th, 2021