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Reading by the Light of Pedro Lemebel’s Flame

. 7 min read
Reading by the Light of Pedro Lemebel’s Flame

by Olive Esther Kuhn (all translations by author)

If you type “Pedro Lemebel” into a search engine, you’ll find a shaky, 11-minute YouTube video of a man dressed in all black—bandana, jacket, slacks, and stilettos—on a walkway over a busy highway. He bends down and writes a large letter Q in gasoline on the walkway. Then he lights the letter on fire. It burns briefly, losing flame as he moves onto the letter P.

Pedro Lemebel was a Chilean writer and performance artist. In “Abecedario” (“Alphabet”) he writes out and sets aflame the entire Roman alphabet, as ambient scuffles and faded church organ music compete in the background. Filmed in 2014 on the pedestrian entrance to the Metropolitan Cemetery of Santiago, Chile, it’s one of Lemebel’s last performance art interventions; he died of laryngeal cancer the next year. The video is a slow-burning love letter to language itself, in which Lemebel ignites and then destroys his own mode of expression.

I fell in love with Lemebel’s work in February of 2017. I was a junior in college at the time, and Donald Trump had just become president. That semester, more than one professor had looked me in the eye and said, unironically, “We survived Reagan, we’ll survive this too.” I did not know how to respond. How does one explain to a grown man that his continued survival does not mean everyone else is okay, too?

Most of Lemebel’s writing takes the form of crónicas (chronicles): accounts of Santiago’s queer lifeworld that fall somewhere between journalism and fiction, bringing trans women, drag queens, sex workers, and the AIDS crisis to the front. He published these crónicas first as one-offs in local newspapers, and later compiled into books, including La esquina es mi corazón (The Corner is My Heart), 1995; Loco afán: crónicas de sidario (Crazy Desire: Chronicles of the AIDSman), 1996; De perlas y cicatrices (Of Pearls and Scars), 1998; and Háblame de amores (Tell Me About Loves), 2012. While the chronicles span decades, protagonists, and subjects, the theme of blurring the boundaries of public and private life is recurrent. In “Anacondas in the park,” gay men and locas copulate in parks at night. The scene is intimate and also anonymous, comforting and also deadly; a queen turns up dead in the park the next morning. This lack of privacy is state-sponsored and intentional. Queer couples cannot safely be together in public spaces, and private spaces are inaccessible, so they are forced into the semi-public, semi-private shadows: the bushes of a park at night, a crowded subway, a movie theater showing Bruce Lee action flicks.

In this way, the material conditions of Santiago’s gay lifeworld become the aesthetic of Lemebel’s prose. Some readers may be tempted to reduce the chronicles to testimonies of oppression, a bearing of scarred bodies, but so much more is happening here. Palpitating within the scarred body is a brilliant, analytical brain. Lemebel stares into the eyes of his subjects (and himself) and extracts ideas like milk from a stone.

Take this excerpt from “The Long Lashes of the Local Plague,” which occurs in the second section of Crazy Desire: “It rained and snowed within and without me.” Here, Lemebel presents the burial of a loca (drag queen) as a contested space; the surviving queens must choose between concealing and over-performing their grief:

“... the drama-adorned queens have made of their deaths a flamenco dance floor, a catwalk that mocks the sordid funerary ritual. Better to invert the compassion that weighs like a condemnation upon homosexual AIDS, to transform it into allegory. With their sequined collets, they cushion the pain, give it color and glow, relieve it of that fetid faith. With the comedic opera of their cries, they make the pain glow. And no one knows if that diamond tear that rolls down the cheek is authentic. No one dares doubt that bitter scenographic drop that shines like a sequin in the eye of the final scene. Those hands, barely trembling, that count every pésame, every condolence, as though taking measurements for a gown. As if every pained gesture of support were bound together in stitches, in pleats, which fit the mortuary theater with the pins of faggot complicity.”

Lemebel writes in flagrantly incomplete sentences, teasing the reader with long, detailed subjects that yield no finite verb. Yet he does so with such grace, such self-assurance, that the reader is left to wonder: who needs a complete sentence when you can have such beautiful fragments? These fragments, moreover, are more than an aesthetic choice. Just as the broken sentences move forward in all their syntactical glory, the queens live out their lives, fragmented by AIDS and dictatorship, with all the soul and technique of a prima donna. There is nothing rough or unschooled about Lemebel’s prose. It takes a higher level of craft to gracefully break the rules than to follow them.

Still from "El barco ebrio" (1994) by Pedro Lemebel

Soul and technique, body and brain. Two streams of blood—the visceral and the analytical—twist through the veins of Lemebel’s writing. The cluttered descriptions of cityscapes, bodies, streetwear, and songs paint a humorous, dystopian scene before which the chronicles’ heroes perform, but they also set a political tone. In the titular chronicle of The Corner is my Heart, Lemebel uses the physical construction of the apartments in his neighborhood to deliver a touching and insightful portrait of the disenfranchised teens who live there. “It would seem,” he notes dryly, “that this very chest-of-drawers urbanism was planned to intensify, by human accumulation, the absurd and already violent life of the marginalized in the subdivision of urban space.” Personal privacy is a privilege not afforded to the Santiago working class, least of all “the deadbeat New Kid wrapped by the thighs of Madonna in a drunken stupor.”

I translated the above excerpts myself because there are no complete English translations of the chronicles. Despite Lemebel’s acclaim within Chile, only one of his books is fully translated into English: My Tender Matador (Tengo miedo torero), a novel that narrates a turbulent quasi-romance between a young, macho revolutionary (Carlos) and a drag queen in her forties (the Queen). Their partnership culminates in an attempt to bomb former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s car as he returns from a summer home in Cajón del Maipo. (The duplicitous yet loving relationship is mirrored by a scathing portrayal of the aging dictator and his vain wife.) Carlos, the leftist who thinks he’s straight, uses the Queen’s home, an old house on the corner of a poor Santiago neighborhood, to hold secret meetings and store weapons. All the while he tells his gracious host not to worry herself with the details of his schemes. The Queen, who works as a seamstress, incorporates the suspicious objects into her living room decor, draping boxes of ammunition in embroidered fabric to pass them off as coffee tables.

Katherine Silver’s translation is not seamless, but Lemebel shines through the sometimes piecemeal English. Even the most erudite translator would struggle to produce a fluid, or even adequate, translation of Lemebel’s writing—particularly the chronicles, which weave together so many distinct yet interdependent voices. And then there is the slang, almost a dialect, that further marries the work to Santiago. Even the language of AIDS, or el sida in Spanish, refuses to comply. El sida is an acronym for Síndrome de inmunodeficiencia adquirida, but in much vernacular Spanish it has become a common noun—unlike the capitalized AIDS, which retains a visible acronymity. Lemebel takes advantage of the common noun status of el sida to invoke the adjective ‘sidoso/sidosa,’ of which a literal English translation would be ‘AIDSy’ or ‘AIDSish,’ as well as ‘sidado/sidada,’ which would literally mean ‘AIDSed,’ and the noun ‘sidario,’ which translates rather awkwardly to ‘AIDSman.’

How does one go about translating such a linguistic minefield? My go-to solution involves footnotes, and no one likes footnotes. Other options include translating the puns literally (allowing words like AIDSish to see the light of day) or restructuring sentences to skirt the problems entirely. I have yet to find a good option. At this point, though, I’d rather see a bad English translation of Loco afán: crónicas de sidario than none at all. Like bread, most translations go stale eventually, but it’s better to eat stale bread than to starve.

The chronicles’ untranslatability is all the more reason they ought to be translated into English (among other languages) multiple times, by multiple authors, with multiple approaches. Not because we owe it to Lemebel, but because we need him.

Still from Lemebel (2019), a documentary by Joanna Reposi

The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, also in Santiago, showed “Abecedario” as a part of Arder (Burn), a posthumous exhibit devoted to Lemebel’s work as a writer and performance artist. In some ways, it’s fitting that his work was displayed in a museum dedicated to “making visible the violations of human rights committed by the State of Chile between 1973 and 1990.” Nearly all of Lemebel’s crónicas take place under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which gripped Chile for those seventeen years (thanks in part to a United States-sponsored military coup in ‘73). In other ways, the video’s place in this particular museum feels diminishing. The topics that Lemebel dealt with—neoliberalism, the AIDS crisis, and gender-bending under capitalism, to name a few—hardly resolved themselves in 1990 when Pinochet died.

Public memory is so hasty to bury itself. Preventable epidemics, neoliberal coups, deadly homophobia and transphobia, and everyone who lives, dies, and creates through the storm are superseded every day by new crises.Sometimes I do not feel as though I am supposed to remember. When I do, I feel insane. Crazy Desire. Burn the alphabet. Learn a new language. Fall asleep in the Queen of the Corner’s living room, among the bombs covered in throw pillows and lace.

Olive Esther Kuhn is a Philadelphia-based writer, translator, healthcare worker, and organizer. They are the author of Losing Lorca: a mixtape critique, out now with Recto y Verso Editionns, and a host of The Butchelor podcast. Check out their website to learn more.

*Thumbnail image: Photo of Pedro Lemebel by Claudia Román