Novel “Torero, I’m afraid”: macho heroism of left-wing mythology

Against queer hostility and femicide: Pedro Lemebel serves as a role model for young Chileans. Suhrkamp is now republishing his only novel.

Meanwhile deceased, still virtuosic and campy in 2008: the Chilean author Pedro Lemebel Photo: Effigie/Leemage/picture alliance

Like a diva, wearing high heels and wrapped in a red feather boa, the Chilean writer and performance artist Pedro Lemebel presented himself provocatively to the Chilean public during his lifetime. At his funeral in 2015, the then Minister of Culture paid tribute to the exceptional artist, whose work speaks of marginality and sexual difference: “With his strength and irreverence, he forced Chileans to look at a Chile that they don’t look at.”

Because this meant that the homosexual author and activist was far ahead of society. It was only four years after his untimely death that the “Estallido”, the social revolt, woke up Chile in 2019. A young generation of Chileans questioned the prevailing conditions and demanded social justice.

She spoke out against femicide, homophobia and transphobia on the country’s streets. In 2021, the feminist performance group Las Tesis celebrated Pedro Lemebel, born in 1955, in their famous manifesto as an inspiring role model who confidently spoke for his otherness and understood it politically.

It is not only in Chile, South America, that the topic of sexual dissidence is receiving greater social attention today. Perhaps for this reason, the Suhrkamp publishing house decided to republish Pedro Lemebel’s novel “Tengo miedo torero” (2001) – “Torero, I’m afraid” – in a revised translation.

Anna Seghers Prize for Pedro Lemebel

Because “Dreams from Plush,” the title of an earlier German-language edition, was published as a paperback in 2004 without any major response. The Chilean author’s award of the Anna Seghers Prize in Berlin in 2006 did little to change this.

Virtuoso and campy, “Torero, I’m Afraid” tells the story of the hopeless romance between an older, homosexual transvestite and a beautiful guerrilla from the “Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez”.

Lemebel develops his capricious romance novel against the background of real events in 1986: On September 7th, the militant “Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez” carried out an assassination attempt on Augusto Pinochet. The general survived the attack unhurt. But the year marked a turning point for many Chileans, signaling the end of the dictatorship and sealing it four years later with the plebiscite.

In contrasting alternation with scenes from the home of the aged dictator and his garrulous wife, the novel describes the days before the attack from the perspective of the “faint” who, marked by the years, has withdrawn into her bolero dream world in a dilapidated house in the center of Santiago lives. “I’m afraid, torero, I’m afraid that your laughter will float this afternoon.”

Sometimes explicitly pornographic, sometimes flowery and kitsch

She is all the more willing to be persuaded by the handsome Carlos to store some of his supposed fellow students’ “book boxes”. Her house is the perfect hiding place for the guerrillas.

Much later, “the fag from the front” will confront her beloved with feigned surprise: “Surely you don’t want to say that you belong to Manuel Rodríguez’s Patriotic Front? It should be long ago ,we’ Carlos murmured.” At this point, at the latest, the translator’s somewhat unfortunate choice of the protagonist’s name, which is called “la Loca del Frente” in the Spanish original and “Queen of the Corner” in the English-language edition, is explained.

Lemebel’s literary language is rich in folkloric Chileanisms and playful synonyms that draw on his own experiences. Sometimes explicitly pornographic, sometimes flowery and kitsch. In an interview with the Chilean daily newspaper Las Ultimates Noticias He explained in 2001: “I am a writer and as such I have the freedom to develop a language that represents me.” Translating this into German without any stylistic losses is a challenge.

In his only novel, chronicler Pedro Lemebel paints a vivid portrait of Chilean class society during those leaden years. “Despite everything, it was their Santiago, their city, it was their people who waged a lifelong struggle in this brutal dictatorship, while the three-colored paper streamers fluttered in the spring air.” In it, he vividly deals with double standards, repressed homosexuality and violence as well as the long-lasting macho Heroism of left-wing mythology.

Hank Peter

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