A Last Supper of Queer Apostles Jeremy Lybarger

Pedro Lemebel wields a sharp tongue and stylistic excess in crónicas that are both reckoning and reclamation.

A Last Supper of Queer Apostles: Selected Essays, by Pedro Lemebel, translated by Gwendolyn Harper, Penguin Books, 224 pages, $18

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When he felt charitable, Roberto Bolaño described Chilean literature as an “endless nightmare” or a backwater infested with sycophantic vipers. “[It] can boast of only five names worth citing,” he wrote. Pedro Lemebel was often among them. “No one goes deeper than Lemebel . . . In my opinion, [he] is one of Chile’s best writers and the best poet of my generation, though he doesn’t write poetry.” Bolaño fled Chile for Mexico and Europe and, eventually, immortality. Lemebel stayed behind—and found, if not immortality, then the kind of holiness a tyrannized country reserves for its bomb-throwers.

Lemebel, who died of cancer in 2015, made a career of lobbing incendiaries both literary and political. See, for example, A Last Supper of Queer Apostles, a new collection of mordant and at times feverish essays culled from volumes originally published between 1995 and 2013. Translated by Gwendolyn Harper, Last Supper is only the second of Lemebel’s books to appear in English. (A novel, My Tender Matador, was translated in 2005.) These works confirm Lemebel as an extraordinary—a necessary—voice in world literature.

“I speak from my difference,” Lemebel declares in what amounts to his ars poetica. Those differences included being a “poor faggot” in a country whose leftists often derided queers, and whose storm troopers either disappeared them or treated them to evenings of state-sponsored torture and execution. He took his mother’s surname in “alliance with all that is feminine” and hovered defiantly between genders. Unlike Bolaño, he harbored no romantic sentiment for the West. Writing about invitations to European symposia, Lemebel notes, “They pay for the flights and the rooms, show us their civilized world, annex us in the name of their dominant pedagogy, and, when we leave, scrub our muddy footprints off their wall-to-wall carpets.”

Lemebel’s essays—or crónicas, as they’re known in Latin America—are incantatory and mutant. Many of them begin with the conjunction And, in medias res, like an epic poem or a hallucination. Part memoir, part reportage, part fantasia, they narrate history as it was experienced underground. Lemebel’s protagonists are locas, a pejorative for cross-dressers, trans women, and effete gay men, some of whom are sex workers, all of whom live hand to mouth. His great subject is Chile itself, particularly Chile under Pinochet’s sadistic regime, when an estimated three thousand dissidents were murdered. The concurrent horror of the AIDS crisis (“the shadow,” Lemebel calls it) was another trauma. A final insult emerged after Chile’s ostensible democratic transition in 1990, when a haze of mass denial about the country’s madness wafted like insecticide among those who knew better. “Half the country refuses to believe and wants to turn the page, look to the future, act like nothing happened, dream it never could,” Lemebel writes.

Against the self-inflicted amnesia of his compatriots and the indifference of nearly everyone else, Lemebel wages a guerilla reckoning. Genet once wrote that “fascism is theater,” but for Lemebel, who was also a performance artist, testimonies of life under fascism can be equally theatrical. The point is to reclaim one’s agency, and to fluoresce the dim rubble of memory. By design, his style is florid to the point of camp, as when, for example, he describes men cruising a park at night:

Cock in hand, hand in hand and cock askew, they form a round that collectivizes the rejected act in a carousel of fondling, in a blindman’s bluff of touches and grasps. A tribal dance where anyone can hook their caboose to the midnight express, its rails the warp for a cocoon woven in the penetrating and being penetrated beneath the swirling acacia trees.

This stylistic excess bolsters narrative ones. In “Loba Lamar’s Last Kiss,” a transgender sex worker dying of AIDS-related illnesses dispatches her sisters on increasingly quixotic errands: for fresh peaches, for tangerine ice cream, for melon. Deranged by sickness, she confides that what’s really hatching inside her is “a child incubated in her anus by her lost love’s fatal semen.” When she finally succumbs, her mouth gapes ajar in “the immense ‘AH’ of a silent opera.” In a burlesque of last rites, another queen dons lucha libre attire and pummels poor Loba’s face (“Suck your molars, dearie, suck your molars like Marilyn Monroe”) until the mouth squishes shut like a trampled orchid.

In radically queer prose, the decorative impulse relieves itself in mercenary indulgence. Aestheticism is put in service of a general vengeance. Lemebel’s barrage of images and hyperbole enacts one of his political credos—namely, to testify in his native tongue. “I could improve my language, shoving every last corroded metaphor up my ass, along with my stinking desires and hysterical mind . . . so that I go global, exportable, translated even into Greek, which sings to me about as much as a blossoming fart,” he writes. He aims to jackhammer through Chile’s bureaucratic and communal silence, while also evading the pasteurization of English. His AIDS narratives stand in stark contrast to their standard American counterparts, those earnest elegies for gay white men in which pathos is the major key. Just the title of a Lemebel essay—“Hot Pants at the Sodomy Disco,” for instance—suggests his characteristic mix of tenderness and subversion. His protagonists compliment each other by crowing, “That sarcoma looks fabulous on you, girl!” They bless each other with nicknames such as “La Voilà Kaposi” and “La Gone with the Wind.”

But humor is ultimately an indictment. “AIDS speaks English,” one of his protagonists remarks. For Lemebel, the West is to blame for exporting the plague to Chile and, later, for popularizing retail machismo—otherwise known as Calvin Klein—that gave death an international label. In “New York Chronicles,” he recounts a visit to the Stonewall Inn, that “gay Grotto of Lourdes,” where he feels alienated from the “Olympus of beefy, virile homosexuals” and the atmosphere of “blond sex.” He concludes that Americans have “commercialize[d] their political history” and diluted radicalism into sentimentality (e.g., the rainbow flag). Not that Chile is exempt from its own capitalist mythmaking. In a piece about Che Guevara, Lemebel recalls the beloved revolutionary’s homophobia and chauvinism, which haven’t dampened his global commodification. The people who idolize Che are clotted with nostalgia and the backwash of their own impotence—the suspicion that whatever heroism he represented is available to them only vicariously, and as affectation.

In the book’s final essay, Lemebel revisits the strange case of Miguel Ángel Poblete, a teenager who, in the early 1980s, claimed to see and speak to the Virgin Mary on a hill outside Valparaíso. Thousands made pilgrimages to the site; the church investigated and then debunked the reports. Miguel Ángel eventually left Chile and returned years later—now as a woman named Karol Romanoff, supposed heiress to a Russian dynasty. Did God ordain this transformation? Or was Miguel Ángel, as some suspected, a stooge for Pinochet? Lemebel ends the story before the denouement that edges it from folklore to myth: Romanoff became an alcoholic and drank herself to an early grave. At her funeral, a cult of forty nuns dressed in purple (the “Apostles of the Last Times”) accompanied the body to its final resting place in Santiago’s general cemetery. The nuns told the local papers that Miguel Ángel had guided Chile toward salvation—a miracle that was easier to swallow than the truth.

Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. He has written for the New Yorker, Art in America, the Paris Review, the Baffler, the Nation, and more.

Pedro Lemebel wields a sharp tongue and stylistic excess in crónicas that are both reckoning and reclamation.
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