Voices from the margins: Mundo Cruel by Luis Negrón

There seems to be considerable debate these days about where the line should be drawn between the literary license to imagine and the appropriation of  voices of those of different genders, sexualities, cultures, ethnicities and racial identities. What was once considered acceptable is now questioned. And, although race is often considered a boundary to be respected or only be crossed with exceptional care, in a highly stratified cultures, class or caste or ethnic heritage may also come in to play. The concern is that the dominant voice will not only be given more attention, but that others risk being reduced to stereotypes and caricatures.

I recently abandoned a book that, despite some very witty and engaging writing, seemed to be freely exploiting mental illness, poverty and family dysfunction as justification for a smart-assed narrator with all the warmth of a sociopath. Anyone who has been suicidal or lost a loved one to suicide will know it is no laughing matter. The charm quickly fizzled and turned to distaste for me. Apparently the poor and mentally ill are still fair game for slapstick humour and humiliation.

However, it is entirely different when the humour, social commentary or complex stories are owned from within a community, told by its members. That is, I would argue, the importance of supporting and encouraging contributions to literature, theatre, film and the arts from marginal voices.

Cue Mundo Cruel, a series of short, sharp stories that take you into the heart of a small community peopled with eccentric, mostly queer characters—a world that Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón knows well. It is his own:

Santurce, Puerto Rico, once known as Cangrejos, meaning Crabs, but no longer. Santurce. Blocks and blocks full of doctor’s offices and temples—Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, Rosicrucian, Espiritista, Jewish, and yoga-ist, if that’s what you call it. The stench of sewers 24/7. Unbearable heat. Reggaeton, old school salsa, boleros, bachatas, jukeboxes, pool halls, slot machines. Topless bars, Dominican bars, gay bars. Catholic schools, beauty schools, vocational schools, and schools where you can get a professional degree in just one year and without much homework.
.                       —from the “The Vampire of Moca”

A striking array of voices and personalities pass through the stories in this slender collection, and their lives are often disturbing, filled with misfortune, dark humour and an uncanny resilience. Most of the pieces are first person narratives, often presented as monologues or one-sided conversations, and, in one instance, as a series of increasingly desperate notes  without a reply. The opening piece “The Chosen One” will challenge a few readers with its precocious young narrator, gleefully recounting his very early initiation into sexual activity with boys and men, experiences bound, as he sees it, to his “special” role within the church. Crude, unnerving, and funny this is in its way a backhanded satire on the degree of sexual abuse that can and does occur. But our young narrator refuses to see himself as the victim. His story sets the stage for the hustlers and the heartache that re-emerges in later stories, but it is not typical. Truth be told there is no “typical” here at all.

What is remarkable about this collection is the variety—each story is different in style and tone. Negrón channels a wide range of characters with compassion and affection, even those who espouse homophobic and xenophobic views, allowing each to demonstrate his or her own narrowness or generosity. The one-side conversations and observed dialogues are particularly effective in this regard, allowing us to eavesdrop, without further comment. The infectious, campy energy of “La Edwin” offers a perfect example:

Ahá! . . . Listen, changing the subject, did La Edwin call you? . . . Yes, Edwin. The one who thinks she’s a man. Honey, the one from the support group . . . That’s weird because that little queen is calling everybody . . . Yeah, her, that’s the one . . . Oh I didn’t know they called her that. You’re bad, girl, bad, bad . . . Well she called me last night, drr-unk out of her mind . . . Saying that he felt all alone, that for him it was difficult to deal with all this shit, meaning gayness . . . I let her go on . . . So she could get it out of her system. Wait a second, I’m getting another call . . . Aló, aló. Aló, aló. How weird, they hung up . . . The thing is, a man left her . . . Yeah, girl, she got involved with one of those lefty fupistas who plant bombs and want the ROTC out of the university . . . Yeah, girl, since they can’t liberate the motherland, they’re going to liberate themselves sexually.

It’s a fun little romp, but the story it tells about queer identity and sexual insecurity is serious.

Most of the stories in Mundo Cruel are quite short, or rather, as long as they need to be. None feel like they are dragged out too far, preferring to offer snapshots of life in this marginalized community. As is typical, some are stronger than others. Likely each reader will have their own favourites. For me it is the sad, but beautiful, story, “The Garden”. Set in the late 1980s, it is the account of a love affair between a young man and his older lover who is dying of AIDS. Nestito’s boyfriend, Willie, shares a house with his sister Sharon who has a longstanding, secret love affair of her own. Together the three of them make an odd, but happy family. As Willie nears the end of his life they plan a party. Another indication of Negrón’s versatility, this is by far the tenderest, most heart-wrenching piece in the collection:

I lay down next to Willie. He had recently taken a bath. He had changed with me ever since he became bedridden. For months he ignored me as at the party where we had met. I wasn’t me, I was part of a duo with Sharon. “You two this, you guys that.” I looked closely at his body and passed my hand over his chest. His armpits were tender ground for little flowers. I hugged him gently. His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek. I looked into his eyes and found, finally, after eight months and sixteen days, desire.

Only 91 pages long, Mundo Cruel offers a wonderful introduction to a skilled, sensitive storyteller and the strange, sometimes dark little corner of the world he knows and clearly loves.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and published by Seven Stories, I read this book as part of the Spanish/Portuguese Literature  Month (and, to be fair, the tail end of Pride as well).

“It has been wonderful to know you”: My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

September, 1986—spring in Santiago and rumours that the Dictator’s days are numbered are stirring the spirits of the determined, young idealistic members of the resistance. It has been another year of blackouts, street violence and police brutality. The setting is a lower-class neighbourhood where years of unemployment have taken a toll, buildings stand in disrepair, and a certain aging princess has found a castle to call her own:

. . . the scrawny house on the corner, three stories high with a staircase like a backbone leading to the room on the rooftop. From there could be seen the city in the shadows crowned with a turbid veil of dust. It was no bigger than a dovecote with three walls and a railing that was just wide enough for the Queen of the Corner—her hands moving as if playing on a marimba—to hang the sheets, tablecloths, and underpants out to dry.

Her dilapidated dwelling is decorated in style. Boxes festooned with fabrics, ribbons and dramatic imagination stand in for the finest furniture. Our heroine, a balding, drag-queen in her forties bearing the ravages of a rough life, is at last settled. As she embroiders linens for wealthy clients, and sings along with her favourite golden oldies on the radio, she dreams of Carlos, the handsome young student she met at the local store. He had approached her to ask if he could store some boxes of books in her home. She was not the silly old fool she allowed him to think she was, but—those eyes, that virile voice—how could she say “no”? Hopelessly smitten, she swoons like a schoolgirl, and soon more boxes arrive. Before long she agrees to allow a small army of students slip up the stairway to “study” in her rooftop room.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Thus begins My Tender Matador by late Chilean writer, Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015). With a queerly delightful energy, this is a love story that moves quickly and takes no prisoners. The Queen offers an unlikely refuge and serves as a convenient decoy for Carlos and his fellow Marxists. Caught up in a flutter of fluctuating emotions, especially when a string of days without a word from Carlos send her swinging between anger and anxiety, she berates herself for her infatuation. Her trannie sisters tease her wildly, but express their concerns, while Carlos himself is caught off guard by his own conflicted emotions. Something in the uninhibited joy and performative enthusiasms the Queen reveals moves him like no woman ever has. As her sensitivity to the political realities of the present are heightened, he is sent into revisiting a boyhood sexual initiation.

And yet, can anything come of this flirtatious friendship?

Running as counterpoint to the Queen’s story, is a second narrative stream featuring General Pinochet presented as a hen-pecked, weary, and paranoid old man. His wife’s constant nattering runs him down:

Oh, it’s just not fair; look at all these wrinkles I’m getting on my forehead, Augusto. Look, I have almost as many as you do, and I’m much younger than you are. It must be these difficult times we are living in, all the frights and frustrations I experience at your side. No other woman would have tolerated her husband being treated by the international press as a tyrant, a dictator, a murderer. And even though it is all lies, even though all Chileans know you saved our nation, don’t tell me it hasn’t been embarrassing. Yes, as I said, it’s a nightmare to think that all those penniless Communists who consider themselves writers blow their noses at you.

His only retreat is to sink back into dreams, seeking the comfort of his childhood toys. But even his dreams betray him, shifting into nightmares. What emerges is a portrait of a vain, paranoid, brittle, and homophobic man slowly losing his hold on power.

My Tender Matador is at once highly entertaining and politically astute satire. Lemebel weaves narrative with unmarked dialogue into seamless paragraphs that facilitate playful banter, emotional discharge, and the escalation of tension:

As she rushed down the stairs trying to straighten out her few remaining clumps of hair, she knew she wouldn’t say anything to him; she wouldn’t even bring it up. Anyway, Carlos was so careless she could forgive him for anything, as long as she could see him again in the doorway, like sun rushing out from behind the clouds, to offer explanations…. The young man as beautiful as an emerald was asking for her smile. How about a cigarette? he asked with his strawberry mouth, conquering her again with those puppy-dog eyes. What, did you think I was angry? But we had such a good time. Did you enjoy it? Anyway, the next time I go away, it might be forever. Carlos lowered his voice and looked at the mysterious boxes, and a curtain of emptiness unfurled over the moment. Then something pounded its way into her sissy-boy soul. Something Carlos was telling her contained a shard of truth. A fear, a foreboding, something intangible that darkened his pretty boy smile.

The flowery imagery and campy energy is infectious. The outrageous queerness that the Queen performs with her fellow transvestites is crude, and in today’s gay community which often endeavours to downplay and reject obvious femme presentations, there is a brash coarseness that rarely extends into contemporary gay-themed literary fiction. But the Queen of the Corner is not a caricature. She is drawn from the heart. A cross-dresser himself, Lemebel knows her intimately, and her story offers a romantic comedy into which he can throw his passions and concerns and allow them to play out on the page. In his obituary for The New Yorker, author Garth Greenwall portrays Lemebel as:

…a writer who called himself a “queen” (una loca) and “a poor old faggot” (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition. Lemebel defined himself against establishments of all kinds: against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but also against the Marxist resistance that condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice; against the neoliberal consensus behind Chile’s “economic miracle,” but also against the L.G.B.T. activists who Lemebel believed were making commodities of queer suffering and queer lives.

Look closely, and one can see all of these undercurrents coursing through the repartee, antics and drama of My Tender Matador.

But it is the simple human need to love and be desired that gives it its soul.

Translated by Katherine Silver, My Tender Matador is, to date, the only one of Lemebel’s novels to have been translated into English.

You say you want a revolution? The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas

DROOL: I wish we could have gone to Stanford together, Leo.

MICROPHONE: I haven’t thought about you in years.

DROOL: We could’ve spiked our Who’s Most Pedantic with courses on phenomonlogy,  econometrics, non-retrogradable rhythms.

MICROPHINE: Only what end continues, pig.

DROOL: I would’ve been happier staying in Guayaquil with you and arguing with you about everything.

MICROPHONE:  Yet another half truth.

DROOL:  I’m sorry Leo I . . .

MICROPHONE: You really think you have to confess all this to me?

DROOL:  Everything’s implicit and not implicit.

MICROPHONE: Do you feel better now?

DROOL:  Momentarily. No.

MICROPHONE: How many times do you have to re-imagine a heart-felt reunion until it replaces  the memory of our paltry reunion?

The attempt to write a review of Mauro Javier Cardenas’ debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, finds me a little at a loss for words. Fortunately, Cardenas is never at a loss for words. Words tumble forth, careen across the page, distort the lines between English and Spanish, (falling entirely into Spanish for two short chapters extolling, if titles be trusted, grandmotherly advice), and, sometimes, sometimes he offers snatches of dialogue, scripted even. This is a multi-voiced celebration of language, capturing in its best moments, the complicated mess of thoughts, emotions, and memories that course through the minds of his protagonists.

revolutionariesThe beating heart of The Revolutionaries lies in nostalgia for the idealism of youth, and the loss of faith in one’s ability to be a force for change. It is, essentially, about growing up, and the inevitable sadness that entails. Yet old dreams, it seems, die more readily for those who have the least to lose; whereas they crumble in agony for those who have little to begin with, and thus the most to lose.

The central character is Antonio. Upon graduation from an exclusive Jesuit-run boy’s school in Guayaquil, he had had the good fortune to be able to leave Ecuador, to study at Stanford University. In the US, he soon fell in love with avant-garde music and flirted with the notion of becoming a pianist. By the time we meet him he is working as a database analyst, projecting a life built on myths that draw on the appeal of his Latin American exoticism. He allows others to imagine he comes from a family of great wealth, and strains his credit cards to dress the part. He is living the migrant’s life of fantasy-meets-reality and it’s taking a toll:

I drink so I can bear talking to people, Antonio wrote. I acknowledge my conversational alcoholism. The more people converse with me, the more alcohol I am bound to imbibe. My liver, that most handsome of organs, was heard gossiping to my other organs about the absurdity of my social neurosis. Thank god my kidneys stood up for me and said shut up liver, you’re drunk again.

When his childhood friend Leopoldo calls him from Ecuador to report that there has been a coup and suggest that perhaps it is finally time for them to have a horse in the political game, Antonio heads home after twelve years away. What unfolds, more than productive action moving forward, is a replay of past memories, mediated by banter between the two friends, and featuring cameo appearances by other members of their former social group. They fall into using old nicknames, and rekindle past glories and grievances. Behind it all is a deep nostalgia for a time in their lives when their faith was grounded in a belief that they could make a difference in the world. As adolescents, under the guidance and inspiration of their beloved Father Villalba, the boys would visit the ill and catechize to the poor—they harboured a sense of being chosen, and Antonio even dreamed of becoming a priest for a while.

A third friend whose story plays out against those of Antonio and Leopoldo, is Rolando. He had not enjoyed the same relative financial advantages as the others, and together with his girlfriend Eva, he is struggling to broadcast a little reactionary radio program for better or worse. Their concerns are more immediate, the risks they take are greater, and even if the effect is small, they are actually trying to do something. But their relationship is complicated by unspoken losses—Rolando’s sister’s escape to America and Eva’s brother’s disappearance and death.

This is a novel that is looking back and stumbling forward at once. Little progress is made. That is the point and that is not the point. The realities of Ecuador’s political and economic uncertainties are an ever present backdrop, one that steps forth with particular brutality toward the end in the stories of the two female characters. But all of the main male characters seem to be mired in their own pasts, for all their vain talk of revolution. What rises to the surface is a profoundly human blend of nostalgia, loss, guilt, casual racism, sexism, and masculine insecurity. But there is also humour. This book is a startlingly infectious read.

To bring the story to life, Cardenas employs a wide range of narrative techniques from the modernist to the boldly experimental–slipping in and out of perspective and style as needed to keep a strong link to the interiority of most of his key characters. One chapter which follows Antonio’s thoughts upon his return to his mother’s home in Guayaquil, consists of a single sentence extending over twenty pages. Elsewhere, too, long sentences—interrupted by asides, imagined banter, or stretches of dialogue—are common. Here Antonio, preparing to meet with Leopoldo for the first time since his return, thinks back to their teenage games (Drool and Microphone were their respective nicknames):

… although Antonio doesn’t remember the exact content of the Who’s Most Pedantic exchanges by Don Alban’s cafeteria, he does remember that their game consisted of refuting each other about everything, spoofing the pompous language of the demagogues, priests, themselves, digressing manically about reforms they would enact to transform Ecuador—external debt, what is?—Leopoldo shaking Antonio’s hand whenever he won and declaring Always Above You, my friend, and if Leopoldo were a woman, Leopoldo would have been at ease in Antonio’s life in San Francisco because all of his friends in San Francisco had been women, as opposed to his former life at San Javier, where all his friends had been teenaged boys who expressed their affection by taunting each other with homophobic insults or misogynistic interpretations of the language between husband and wife—where’s your husband, Drool?—Microphone’s at home ironing my shirts, where else?—and if Leopoldo were a woman Antonio would be able to say, I’ve missed you, Leopoldo…

The tone is decidedly different when the narrative turns from Antonio, Leopoldo and their more privileged classmates, to focus on Rolando and Eva. Here the pace is even more frantic. Their protest is immediate—on radio airwaves and street corners. With rumours that El Loco, the flamboyant former President, Abdalá Bucaram, who ruled Ecuador for less than a year in the mid-90s, might be returning, Rolando reaches out to the poor and dispossessed on his makeshift radio station:

Ladies that’s the perfect segue to our contest about what would you like to call our interim president?—Puppet of the oligarchy—Very nice Doña Aurora—Pompous pajorreal—We’re warming up folks—Bestia con terno—Keep them coming comrades—Radio Nuevo Día / la radio al día—Up next how to cook a seco de chivo without the chivo—Baah—Speaking of chivos—El Loco is said to be returning from exile in Panamá—Who’s voting for that thief?—If you tell me you’re voting for Loco I’ll go loco—Has anyone seen the mansion of this leader of the poor?—Call now!

By engaging a range of narrative voices—at the personal and the socio-political level—visions of romantic idealism meet the harsh realities of class division. The shifts in perspective and energy keep The Revolutionaries Try Again moving at sharp pace, yet for all the sensation of being in freefall, Cardenas’ novel is, in fact, a tightly orchestrated achievement. In an interview published at Electric Lit, Cardenas shares a spreadsheet tracking the characters, conversations and narrative styles employed in one scene of the book. And this attention to detail at the formative level is what makes this cacophonous work succeed. Transitions between monologue and dialogue, present and past, are so smoothly handled that the reader is swept along with the sheer literary enthusiasm. But make no mistake, this is a novel that is as enjoyable to read as it is fundamentally melancholy and devastating at its very core.

The Revolutionaries Try Again is published by Coffee House Press.