Sunday, May 28th, 2023

A Chilean Puig

Pedro Segundo Mardones Lemebel (1952- 2015) was a flamboyantly homosexual Chilean writer and dissident, My Tender Matador (Tengo Miedo Torero , 2001, translation 2003) is more a hopeless romance than a thriller, although it centers on setting up a 1986 ambush to slay the dictator Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) returning to the capital after one of his Trump-like weekends of wallowing, lashing out, and feeling elsewhere than in the Palacio de la Moneda (the Chilean White House). Though regretting her incessant chatter, Pinochet takes his wife Lucia along, while ignoring everything she says.

Back in the slums of Santiago, a balding 40-something sometimes drag queen, usually referred to as Queen of the Corner, tired of cruising allows a handsome young student, Carlos, to store boxes in her apartment and meet secretly on her roof with his co-conspirators. She knows that the boxes do not contain, and there is what looks like a missile. Carlos says he will tell her later, which in a way might offer some protection if the arms are found in her apartment.

Even more than Valentin, the militant in Manuel Puig Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carlos consciously using her knowledge that the queen is smitten by him. Well, she is generally content to have an attractive young man who is polite to her about, though she eventually molests him in a drunken stupor.

As with Day of the Jackal, the reader knows the target is going to survive the assassination attempt, though Matador is far less suspenseful, far less a thriller than Jackal. And far less compelling a narrative about preparations for ambushing a dictator (Trujillo of the Dominican Republic) on the road than Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat.

The book seems derivative of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), which stirred some readers and shocked others. Moreover, Puig strove to provide information about homosexuality to an audience knowing nothing or next to nothing about the subject.

Puig’s queen was transfixed by movies; Lemebel’s by songs (heard mostly on the radio). For other reasons, Molina is both a more complex and a more romantic character than the Queen of the Corner. There is still some bond with the macho revolutionary, and she is evacuated after the plot fails (blowing up a car of guards rather than Pinochet). And there is another household of drag queens, one of whom taught the Queen to embroider (what she now does for a living, albeit with a client base of generals’ wives).

The novel is short (170) pages, whereas I gather that Lemebel’s Chronicles of gays and trannies in Santiago is long (six published volumes). Perhaps a selection of entries will appear in English with the enthusiasm for Lemembel exoress by the rising Chilean literary star, Alejandro Zambra (born in 1975, author of Ways of Going Home about growing up in Pinochet’s Chile). I hope so!

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.