- Viajes virales by Lina Meruane
Catastrophic illness and the ways it bears upon both personal and cultural life is the emblematic theme of contemporary Chilean writer Lina Meruane (b. 1970). Her two most recent novels, Fruta podrida (2007) and Sangre en el ojo (2012), conscript in different ways her own struggle with diabetes. Now, in the elegant critical study Viajes virales, she turns to the scourge of AIDS to analyze how Spanish American writers have represented AIDS since its outbreak in Latin America in 1983.
Fruta podrida, which allegorizes Chile as a diabetic teen who rebels against a coercive medical establishment, is a furiously partisan book. In it, Meruane inveighs against Chile’s sellout to a global capitalism she sees as malevolent. Although Meruane’s political views occasionally color Viajes virales, in the main she is objective in appraising the scores of AIDS-related works she surveys. Beyond bringing together this corpus of what she calls textos seropositivos, a contribution in itself, her study demonstrates how much Latin Americans’ ways of thinking about AIDS have been shaped by broader trends – neoliberalism and the consumer culture it promotes; resistance to dictatorships in the Southern Cone; the collapse of Cuban socialism during the Período Especial; and the technological revolution.
Meruane finds a remarkable crossover of metaphors from ideologically fraught fields – most especially neoliberal economics and politics – into the novels, plays and autobiographical vignettes whose authors, over a period of thirty years, conceptualize the epidemic and assign it meaning. Following in the footsteps of Michel Foucault and Susan Sontag, she uncovers in the discourse writers use to depict the illness a complex set of cultural prejudices and beliefs. Many of these beliefs bespeak (and renegotiate) assumptions about the relationship of nation to male sexual dissidents, the group most devastated by AIDS.
Meruane divides her study into two parts, the first a chronological overview of the epidemic and the second a focused look at works that exemplify [End Page 141] particular facets of AIDS texts. Although Part I, “Bitácora de un viaje seropositivo,” treats many of the same works that anchor her discussion in chapters later in the book, the two parts complement one another usefully. Among the works she examines most closely are Severo Sarduy’s Pájaros de la playa (1993), Pedro Lemebel’s Loco afán (1996), Reinaldo Arenas’s El color del verano o Nuevo jardín de las delicias (1999), and Mario Bellatin’s Salón de belleza (2000).
Meruane’s title refers not just to HIV’s circulation through Latin America or to her own journey through AIDS-related texts, but more importantly to two stages in the experience of the continent’s male sexual dissidents. The first, which antedates AIDS, saw the migration of many homosexuals away from their homeland in a hopeful search for communities of sexual affinity. This flight from nation has been called by some “sexilio,” but Meruane views it as a heady, utopian impulse which, for a time, held out the promise of sexual libertarianism – globalization avant-la-lettre. Cruelly, AIDS ravaged these enclaves. It occasioned a reverse journey, the return home, in reality or in mind, of very sick victims who claimed acknowledgment as part of the nation. Even as they advocated for better medical care, writers reimagined patria as a home or clinic or hospice imprisoning the sick and hastening them toward death.
Meruane identifies three distinct phases: the homosexual diaspora of the 1960s and ‘70s, the bleak period of 1983–1996 when AIDS was incurable, and the years after 1996, when a three-part cocktail of drugs turned HIV from a death sentence to a grave chronic disease. Just as writers in the first of these stages tended to associate sexual freedom with a beneficent capitalism, those who chronicled the precipitous die-off of sexual dissidents often saw AIDS, which arrived from First World centers like New York, Paris and San Francisco, as “el perfecto reflejo de una penetración poscolonial … en territories abiertos y vírgenes” (67). For many, the virus proved a convenient “arma metafórica de cuestionamiento del...