Review: Viral Voyages

Viral Voyages: A Reading by Lina Meruane 

Seropositivo. HIV-positive. For some Latin American authors, this was a death sentence. In her nonfiction book Viajes virales (“Viral Voyages”), Chilean author Lina Meruane explores the literature of AIDS in Latin America. Meruane describes her new work as a “libro mapa,” in which the books of landmark writers like Severo Sarduy and Reinaldo Arenas—Cubans who lived with AIDS and struggled against homophobia—echo throughout the text.

Meruane herself comes from a rich literary background suited to this exploration. As a teacher at NYU’s Liberal Studies Program and the author of several novels, she most recently won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize for her novel Sangre en el ojo. Sylvia Molloy, the great Argentine novelist and critic, as well as the holder of the NYU Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities, advised Meruane’s PhD dissertation that became, after a decade of work, Viajes virales.

On Thursday, March 14, Molloy masterfully guided a discussion in Spanish with Meruane at McNally Jackson Books.

In her introduction, Molloy called Meruane’s work an investigation of “los cuerpos—y el corpus—seropositivo.” The linguistic play in cuerpos/corpus(literally, bodies/body of work) is appropriate, for in Viajes virales, the connotations, etymologies, and echoes of words take on extreme significance.

As the evening progressed, Meruane took us through the actual and metaphorical journey of Latin Americans during the AIDS crisis. As in many parts of the world, the prevailing opinion in Latin America was that homosexuality was a disease. As a result, many gays traveled to Europe and the United States, to cities like Paris and New York, seeking the freedom to be themselves. Instead, they found AIDS. Sometimes, Meruane explained, these “exiled” bodies would return to Latin America, but she rejected the term “return” (“el retorno”). It was, instead, more like a “repatriación.” People may return, but it is “remains” that are repatriated. This was not a homecoming but a journey toward death, in which HIV-positive Latin Americans sought not only “hospitality” but also “hospice” in their home countries. The meeting of metaphor and reality—of homosexuality-as-illness and the real illness of AIDS—was, in Meruane’s words, “la gran tragedia del SIDA.”

The Q&A part of the talk revealed some of the unfortunate details of the linguistic miscommunications that occurred during the AIDS crisis. For example, Meruane pointed out that the States would send health pamphlets to Chile, but they would be in English and therefore useless until those at risk for contracting HIV learned English. Meanwhile, statistics gathered in the Caribbean were faulty in part because many Caribbean cultures only defined the “penetrated” male as gay.

Words and word choice, echoes and definitions—the layers of meaning added up to a heartbreaking portrait of Latin American AIDS literature and of the destruction wrought by the disease itself. It was a complex and compelling discussion of Meruane’s critical investigation.

Viajes virales is out from Fondo de Cultura Ecónomica. It is available in Spanish.

Gina Rodriguez, Layout Editor