September 2004

Damien Weaver


My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

Pedro Lemebel's My Tender Matador is both playful and profound, harsh and delicate, a story of characters, of people, and yet a novel of ideas. It is a near-masterpiece.

The novel centers around The Queen of The Corner, a faded, fey forty-something in Santiago, Chile. She isn't a woman, far from it, but occupies a clear, specific gender role in a macho culture: effeminate homosexual man. In 1986 Santiago is volatile, the streets a battleground where violent paramilitaries seek to eradicate the spreading populist opposition to Augusto Pinochet's brutal military dictatorship. The Queen, however, is indifferent to politics. Her radio isn't tuned to the government's propaganda station nor the student-run pirate broadcast; she listens exclusively to syrupy pop love songs. She is doing better for herself than she ever has, and makes enough money embroidering for the city's elite to afford her own apartment in a poor neighborhood. Her relative complacency is disrupted by Carlos, a handsome young revolutionary who may or may not be using the Queen and her apartment for selfish means, something she may or may not be able to admit to herself. The result is a tender, sophisticated love story.

Nothing written about the quality of Lemebel's prose can bring the point across; one must, and should, read it for oneself. He is a writer of stunning lyrical gifts, a jaw-dropping analogist distinguished further by how well the cascade of luminous, unforced metaphors and similes serves the text, carrying it forward instead of slowing it down. His virtuosity is so expertly directed as to appear effortless, advancing the story, never calling attention to itself. Rich with colors and shapes, vivid, confident, this is the work of a master. The only distraction will be your own astonishment, the number of times you will blink, murmur "Holy shit," and be compelled to nudge awake, call downstairs to, or telephone a fellow lover of language to share aloud a given example of descriptive craftsmanship.

The narration moves easily between characters, dipping lightly into the vernacular of each, never straying long from the protagonist whose story it is. The dialogue is natural and yet so carefully contextualized that no quotation marks or attributive verbs are needed to demarcate it or differentiate speakers. Katherine Silver is to be commended for a nuanced, flexible translation that carries Lemebel's sly double-entendres smoothly into English, preserving both his elegance and grit. It's a translation that chooses well when to employ "faggot" or "sissy" but knows when only an italicized "Maricón!" will do.

Lemebel is a dangerous writer. Augusto Pinochet appears in My Tender Matador, first as an ominous political presence, then as someone glimpsed from a distance, and eventually as a fully realized human being, an angry man in a bad marriage. Lemebel even gives us the notorious tyrant's dysfunctional childhood, a hilarious and merciless work of imagination, merciless because Lemebel coerces us into sympathy with a monster. It is a gambit reminiscent of Yury Dombrovsky's subtle, cataclysmic The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, in which Dombrovsky brings home Stalin's purges in the cruelest way possible, by forcing the reader to scrutinize and even understand the petty officials and officers who carried the purges out. Humanizing and trivializing Pinochet, refusing to mythologize him and approaching him as simply another character is an outrageous, nearly inconceivable kindness to a figure who deserves none, and a powerful answer to evil. It's risky, audacious, and its success as both a literary tactic and a political gesture is a measure of the novel's gravity.

While the hallmark of both Lemebel's writing and his protagonist's conduct is poignant, exquisite restraint, My Tender Matador does stoop once to self-indulgence. There is a single swipe at an operosely overpraised literary lion, a passing cut so deft and deep that when Lemebel's pen left the paper at the passage's conclusion the target must have felt it, must have clutched his chest in phantom pain.

It would be reductive and simplistic to call the Queen self-hating, but her actions play out that way, and her sexual fatalism may alienate some readers. It isn't that she doesn't feel she deserves happiness, rather that she seeks happiness in the bittersweet of heartbreak and prefers idealized, unrequited love to the risks of the real thing. This addiction to fantasy is understandable given what we learn of the Queen's life, but when love finally comes her way, her steadfast repudiation of it isn't just perverse, it's obnoxious. The Queen is wedded to the pose she's adopted, so fixated on the role of doomed, pining lover that she can't accept or acknowledge that the object of her affection loves her back. This clinging to romantic delusion is endearing for much of the book, but by the novel's end has ceased to be anything except a crippling, destructive pathology that frustrates the happiness of both the main characters and the reader rooting for them. Censuring a book for failing to reward the protagonist embarrasses only the critic -- Lemebel may feel he has written a happy ending, and others may agree -- but in a tale where the personal is so intertwined with the political, the negation of not just love but even its possibility seems toxic.

Maintaining the dubious tack of berating an awesome novel for its departures from the reviewer's politics, My Tender Matador's most serious disappointment is the character of Pinochet's wife, a grotesque, unsympathetic harpy, a missed opportunity. While she is meant as comedic, her status as the only biologically female character of any significance and the unique absence of her development in a book otherwise so psychologically acute suggest the same misogynistic blindspot marring the work of male authors from Alasdair Gray to Hergé. Whether this refusal to substantively engage the psyche of female characters stems from literary insecurity, laziness, or lack of curiosity, it's a shame. In My Tender Matador, the obviation threatens to reduce an otherwise grounded human novel to a myopic boys-only fantasy land, a riff on Genet. Whatever a writer's views, willfully or unintentionally eliding the interior life of women from a novel in which they appear is an unambiguous authorial failure.

My Tender Matador may not be flawless, but it is still an unforgettable achievement, a literary colossus. The whims of popular readership and the nitpicks of critics merely break like tide upon its pedicured toenails.

My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel
Grove Press
ISBN 0802117686
170 Pages