Memento Mori: To Honor the Dead

 

Chilean academic Fernando Blanco.

To remember. To remember the dead. To honor a death. The Latin expression memento mori interweaves the two acts: that of remembering post mortem and that of choosing an object to invoke this experience: a sign. For some it’s a lock of hair, for others the very bones of the dead. The relics of the saints. The remains of the disappeared. Objects dispossessed from the body, or absent bodies recovered through the fetish of their imago: skulls, an hourglass, a contorted skeleton, cadavers posing for the camera, hanging off their mourning relatives. 

From the time of the Black Death until the final moments of the Victorian Age, when the living resisted the dead by making them imitate their familiar expressions before the camera shutter, the memento mori has materialized the desire to reason with disappearance. Signs for the living that relieve the possibility of a reciprocal battle, but also the violence of abandoning those whom life casts aside. Not to mention the pedagogical effect of this representation. To teach about death is to warn us of its inevitability, all while lodging it in the mortuary remainders imagined as a permanent reminder of its presence. Altars, shrines, still lives, calendars, photographs, scenes or chronicles: the testimonial genres accommodate disappearance like skulls drawn on paper. Mute witnesses of a life that is documented and recorded, amalgamated and multiplying, in the “baroque and uncloseted” language of Pedro Lemebel, which Carlos Monsiváis so appreciated.

A few days before he died, Pedro surprised us with a final performance, dressed as Frida in his wheelchair in the Fundación López Pérez. It was January and the writer was yielding to the signs of his homosexual body. With these signs, like so many times before, Lemebel cut through bourgeois normality, turning a deaf ear to the medical ritual that declared him to be dying in order to produce, in its place, the best version of himself. The version transfigured by art. Frida as death mask. A vivid epitaph of his ideals whispered into my ear: “Fer, la Frida never died, I’m Frida when she got old.”

Lemebel’s literature, as well as his visual and performance art, is dug out of the sediment of death. An aesthetic and political project animated by the desire to salvage personal and collective memory as a testament to the precarity of the bodies and spaces into which global capitalism has inserted large sectors of our country’s population. In Chile, the accumulated annihilation of transnational capitalism, denounced in Lemebel’s chronicles, carries with it the imaginary remains of bodies decimated by state terrorism during the military dictatorship. The machistas who “only hit what’s theirs,” the market inequalities - Pedro’s “demos-gracia” - the displaced migrants and the victims of the AIDS epidemic in the eighties and nineties. Each one of his books revisits a distinct imagination, which he provides with a distinctive language, aesthetic, and politics of memory. Two years have passed since his passing; he is survived by the seven books of chronicles he published in his life and the novel My Tender Matador. A neo-baroque pantheon of the damned memory of Chile resides in every one of them.

Lemebel collected trash in his chronicles. The trash of a manner of speech: gay jargon, the slang of the lumpen, the sayings and expressions of aunties and grandmothers. Systems of knowledge circulated by popular means in the linguistic framework of the proletarian city - Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura - whose ways of thought would constitute the ways of preservation of certain urban cultures, the emancipatory practices of the city’s inhabitants. La Esquina es mi Corazón [The corner is my heart] (1995) is constructed entirely of these registers. Stories tied together with rabid drool. Stumbled-over words that configure the multiple cities of “marica” desire in the first years of the return to democracy. Through this book, which presents chronicles originally published in the newspaper Página Abierta (1991-1993), Lemebel dusts off the genre of the chronicle, together with three other writers: Roberto Merino and, more recently, Alvaro Bisama and Oscar Contardo. An appropriate genre for the times we are living, in which the acceleration of consumption and the circulation of reality overwhelm us. Through chronicle, it is possible to nourish stories, to calm them down, to preserve them. The twenty texts published in his first volume represent the best of the tradition of Latin American chronicle.

This style pours out of Lemebel with new languages and images, but with the same intentions as ever: to denounce, during the colonial conquest, the invisibility of the Spanish soldiers before the king in the text of Díaz del Castillo; Cabeza de Vaca’s testimony of the failures and misfortunes of the expedition of Narváez; or denouncing the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples in the histories of Las Casas. Clothed in the interests of subjective history, ethnography, and cultural anthropology, chronicle begins to cross-dress as journalism in the nineteenth century. Del Casal, Darío, Martí, and Novo charge toward the age of modernity, pointing out the new global landscapes that come with modernization. Existence is vertiginous, the ways of living in large cities have changed. Havana, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Paris, and New York are the settings in which the new bourgeoisie and the nascent middle class will find their place, their word, their customs, and - in chronicle - their executioner. A moral reservoir, they have called it. Meanwhile in Chile, Lemebel plots out the social underside where the chronicler of the renewed bourgeoisie, Joaquín Edwards Bello, dares not venture. As if there were a chronicler missing in this Chile, so perversely modern and conservative, the Chile of los descastados, los marginales, los freaks. The post-dictatorship advertised as democracy finds in Lemebel its Aristophanes and “the best poet of his generation,” as ruled by Bolaño.

In the words of Jean Franco, the value of the chronicle rests in its capacity to “capture the spirit of the times.” For Lemebel, the chronicle is linguistic and cultural material with which to reconstruct the memory of marginalized urban groups: homosexuales, transvestites, women, young proletarians. 

This first book of chronicles, with roots in the proletarian city, presents a series of picture cards whose protagonists suffer the discriminatory violence of the system implemented in Chile after the return of democracy in 1990. The book is a reflection on the first transitional government (Aylwin, 1990-1994), marked by the presidential mandate of “justice insofar as possible.” Lemebel reflects on the persistence of the repressive practices of the military state, which are still exercised over the citizens of a normative democracy that follows the ideals of neoliberal authoritarianism. Subjective processes influenced by an untarnished individualism that would completely redefine modes of social connection. A radical turn from the model of the common good to the model of the good consumer. At the same time, democracy drags with it the vices of surveillance and repression, now justified by the sacred right to private property and the self-defense of wealth. The ghosts of urban violence run through the pages.

A third reflexive axis in these mini-essays of daily life is the role of sexuality, which, in a centralized system of social regulation, is challenged by the emancipatory practices of the dissident bodies of transvestites, homosexuals, sex workers, who are controlled violently by the hegemony of the military, Catholic patriarchy. In parallel, the volume offers an ethnography of practices, rituals, and codes of conduct in the gay urban subculture through the eyes of a transvestite narrator. This rhetorical figure, la Loca, introduces through self-fictionalization the truth of the author within the parameters of the chronicle. If the narrator of the traditional chronicle must be an in-person witness or the recipient of another’s reliable testimony, Lemebel’s narrative fiction parodies the author himself, whose mirrored experiences transcend the literary text. In this way, Loca and Lemebel are interchangeable signifiers whose words denounce the homophobe or the closeted homosexual just as they document the strategies and erotic rituals of young, middle-aged, and older gays.

His second book is masterly. Dedicated entirely to stories of the HIV-positive, AIDS patients, and other heroes of the gay pantheon (including the singers he idolized), Loco Afán: Crónicas de Sidario [Crazy desire: Chronicles of the AIDS clinic] (1996) is a testament to disappearance. This text is one of the most important books of the Chilean transition, arriving in the midst of what was called the “new narrative.” The book outlines the politics of memory present in the discussion about impunity during the second Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei (1994-2000). It tells us of the destruction of an era, of a way of doing politics both in and out of bed. The chronicles are centered on the memories of la Loca in the waning days of the Popular Unity government. The ghost of the socialist utopia cross-dresses, through Lemebel’s pen, as the Last Supper in drag - on New Year’s Day, 1972 - in a remarkable chronicle. Upper-class homosexuals and their proletarian peers come together in a celebration that ends with a pile of bones announcing the tragedy that the military dictatorship and the AIDS pandemic will bring. The book is like a cloth in which the threads of HIV-positive memory are interwoven with those of the forced disappearance, torture, and death of thousands of compatriots. 

The twenty-nine narrations raise a well-deserved altar to the saints of the marica world. We witness a procession of the final three decades of the twentieth century, connected through Lemebel’s aesthetic and camp/kitsch sensibility. In each piece, sound, word, and voice are materialized in different linguistic, thematic, and ideological registers to reveal an abject normality marked by macabre humor: laughter as antidote. At least two of the chronicles in this volume, “La noche de los visones” [The night of the minks] and “El último beso de Loba Lamar” [The last kiss of Lobo Lamar] - as well as his famous manifesto “I Speak For My Difference” - form a part of the legacy of Latin American literature that would feed into the work of Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Néstor Perlongher, Carlos Monsiváis, José Joaquín Blanco, and Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá. And, outside of the continental canon, Jean Genet.

In a way, it’s Neo-Gongorist project, if you’ll allow the expression. In the book, Lemebel seeks to elaborate literary worlds by means of an intricate web of different oral registers, discursive figures influenced by popular sociolects, restructurings of traditional syntax that shatter the tone and grammatical logic of Spanish to create a language - lengua marucha, he calls it, “rump steak talk” - that privileges the effect and influence of the voice above the textual cast. This is a chronicle about dying well, not guided by the spiritual exercise that tries to reconcile the sinner with his conscience, liberating him from moral judgment, but through the profane exercise of the descastado - the ungrateful subject - who honors the dying in just measure. The ritual implies the shameless smile of his relatives before a jaw that does not close.

Just as the painters of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, living through the bubonic plague, produced the new genre of the Dance Macabre, Lemebel turns the screw of the chronicle, leaving us with his own register of mortuary intimacy. He does more than make the contemporary chronicle reveal minimized lives: Lemebel’s chronicles move over the inevitable condition of forced death imposed upon the bodies of the disappeared through the dictatorship and AIDS. In this sense, every piece is a record of the experience of dying in extreme conditions of poverty, exploitation, and neglect, all crimes of the sovereign state that condemns and exterminates. As if making up for the impulse of death that runs through the majority of these texts, Lemebel also leaves us with a few portraits of singers (Rafael, Cecilia, Lucho Gatica, Joan Manuel Serrat, Madonna), mimicking the sociological style of the chronicles of Monsiváis.

His third volume is one of radio chronicles: De perlas y cicatrices [Of pearls and scars] originated in the program he headed at Radio Tierra. This is a text of direct resistance to what has been called “transitional justice.” The amnesia around historical memory produced by the culture industry and the moral insufficiency of the Rettig Report on human rights violations serve as raw material in this book, in which literature functions as an escrache or funa in the journalistic exercise of publicly denouncing figures and institutions implicated in the de facto continuity of the military regime. In this sense, the first phase of Pedro Lemebel’s written work can be defined by emergency, contingency, and denunciation, recovering the political relevance of the protest songs of the sixties and seventies in a transferal of mutually influential genres. These texts will form the aesthetic foundations for the arrival of a new variation on the chameleon-esque genre of the chronicle: la crónica marucha.

Now I must return to the image with which this text began. The memento mori. The truth is that all of Lemebel’s cultural production could fall into this imaginary dimension of thought on death. A death imposed by historical chance from the juncture of the dictatorship and AIDS; but also a death-destiny for the development of the proletarian homosexual. And even a social death for the closeted bourgeois. Whatever form this fatal impulse might take, in Lemebel it transforms into a material body. On it, the condemned body, Lemebel will build his project. I’d like to briefly recall our last moment together.

I return to the image that hasn’t left my mind since that summer afternoon in Santiago at the Fundación López Pérez. It was in the beginning of January, in the middle of the “leopard-skin summer,” as Pedro would call it. We were together in the clinic’s visiting room and Pedro came up to us in a wheelchair. Although he was visibly marked by the effects of his advanced laryngeal cancer, his expression was the same as ever. Haughty, disdainful, a keen butcher of the appearances that sustain the upright middle-class living of the bourgeoisie. After a few minutes of conversation, Pedro abruptly proposes that we photo-document a final action. The result is a series of fifteen photographs in which he appears cross-dressed as Frida, sitting in his wheelchair. The most impressive part is the sore on his throat, the central point of a body in pain, crushed under the steps of the memory it carries, the body as an archive of organic metastasis, but also of what imaginarily renders it another body, distorted by the physical and political ailments suffered during his life. This other body, imaginary, is treated with all the care required by the foreign gaze. Imminent mortality cross-dresses as the temporal game of aging, allowing us to tolerate death as just another moment in the chain of life. Pedro whispered into my ear when I arrived, “Fer, Frida never got old. I’m the old Frida.” Frida died when she was 47; her age is not a minor point. Lemebel was about to hit 60. The coincidences are multiple. Both immersed themselves in the experience of lack of love, of sickness, of rancor, and both were observant and celebrant of their agony through their work.

This is Pedro’s last work, and it offers us a glimpse of the poetic coordinates present in each of his works. They are both visual and literary, if they could be separated in a clear - albeit semantic - division. The first of them is the gaze, the scrutinizing eye that identifies the visual signifiers that carry the images with which he will work. The second is the ear, attentive to the reverberating heartbeats circulated by the word transmitted through voice, whose tones, cadences, and accents constitute a form of musical speech. These two systems of signs are superimposed over the third: that of his symbolic registers, a product of the homosexual body itself; everything that happens takes place in the uncomfortable setting of his gendered and cultural difference.

Images of Frida are the first to clothe him. The wrapped-up hairdo intertwined with the pashmina borrowed from a close friend that balances out the necklace with which he hides the wound of the tracheotomy. The proud head high above the shoulders, manipulating our pupils with his contiguous, deep, painted-on eyebrows. La Loca unfolds into a performer and narrator of her setting. A communist party flag serves as a skirt, covering up the chair. His defects, exacerbated by illness, the traces of a death settling in bit by bit, are naturalized in the image that emerges from his desires. Just like Frida, who used clothing to diminish the effects of polio on her body (one leg shorter and weaker than the other), Lemebel turns to clothes to disguise the medical effects of his condition, just as he highlights the cultural symptoms of his manifest ideological and sexual difference. The Mexican and the Chilean have both suffered various surgeries, but, faced with these experiences, art defends them, consoles them, protects them. For Lemebel, necessity becomes aesthetic, just like pain for Frida. The photographs of the visit recall Frida’s aura, the idea of Frida that Pedro invokes for us. What chronicle-performance is he telling us?

The chronicle is of a death. His death. Chosen over the definitive amputation of his voice, therapeutic enough to be denied from the start. Luck is cast out. Seemingly, he will have four more years of life in this Chilean half-century to continue his work. Editing the compilation of chronicles that will appear posthumously in the book Mi amiga Gladys [My friend Gladys] (2016). Publishing Háblame de amores [Tell me about love] (2013) and installing Abecedario [Alphabet] (2014) as a preface before the doors of the metropolitan cemetery. He will even have time to project a retrospective of his performance in the showing Arder [Burning] (2014).

Lemebel-Frida contemplates us. It is memory, ancestral memory of the wars fought on the bloody map of Latin American dictatorships. It is the testimony of the women who do temporary work, the mothers of the disappeared, the displaced, exploited, raped indigenous campesinas. It is all and each of the murdered transvestites, the HIV-positive trans-women, the maricas beaten for keeping faith in their desire. Also the immigrants, the delinquents, the human underworld of the cruising and prostitution circuits. The officiant of a Santiago that has become forgetful, sanitized by the shine of economic development and the “future splendor” of neoliberal investment and privatization. From his chair, he watches over us like a colossus, La Faraona, the Lady Pharaoh. 

In the end, he aged just enough. Lemebel is a deliberate memento mori. A warning and a duty. The duty of memory for a country where amnesia is hard currency.

 

Fernando Blanco
Bucknell University

 

Translated by Arthur Dixon

Languages

LALT Vol. 1 No. 2
Number 2

The second issue of Latin American Literature highlights the Caribbean and queer literature from across Latin America, featuring dossiers of revolutionary Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel and Mexican author Yuri Herrera as well as a special section on literary voices from Cuba.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Latin American Chronicle

Poetry

Essays

Dossier: Pedro Lemebel

Dossier: Voices from Cuba

Featured Author: Yuri Herrera

Fiction

Interviews

Nota Bene