Pedro Lemebel's 'A Last Supper of Queer Apostles' - Chilean writer's book translated

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Monday June 24, 2024
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Author Pedro Lemebel
Author Pedro Lemebel

Known for his scathing critiques of authoritarianism as well as humorous depictions of Chilean pop culture, Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015) said of his own writing that it is "mariconaje guerrero" ("warrior faggotry").

The Chilean writer, performative activist and Marxist is a queer icon of the resistance. Now for the first time in English, "A Last Supper of Queer Apostles" has been recently released. It is a collection of Pedro Lemebel's innovative essays known as "crónicas."

Pedro Lemebel is not very well known outside of the Spanish-speaking world.

The subversive genius is known for the playful use of Chilean expressions and gay slang, none of which are easily translated. But Gwendolyn Harper has done an admirable job translating "Last Supper of Queer Apostles" and also wrote the Introduction to the book.

Utilizing a blend of realism, surrealism, absurdism, camp and whimsy, Lemebel's essays combine reportage, memoir, fiction, history, and poetry to give voice to the underprivileged and the downtrodden, Chile's "locas," a reclaimed slur for trans women and feminine gay men.

The title is from a line in "Night of Furs (Or, Popular Unity's Last Supper)" about a fabulous New Year's Eve Party, 1973. The hostess prepared 20 turkeys, salad, crates of Champaign, ice cream of every flavor and invited everyone she could think of, including streetwalkers and broke locas of every description. Many arrived wearing furs "like Taylor or Dietrich."

The essay is filled with surprising tidbits, like the trouble of having to walk past a police station to get to the party. All that is left of that night is a photograph.

"It's a bad photo, the shot hastily taken because the locas couldn't stop fidgeting, almost all of them blurred by too many poses and their wild desire to leap into the future," Lemebel writes. "Practically a last supper of queer apostles..."

Pedro Lemebel wears a headpiece of prop hypodermic needles in the film 'Lemebel'  

Fearless performer
A literary activist, Lemebel was born into the extremely poverty of Zanjón de la Aguada on the margins of society in what is essentially an illegal settlement on the swampy bank of an irrigation ditch. In "Zanjón Upon the Water," he writes with beautiful clarity about what it's like to grow up in a quagmire with no running water, nonetheless the shared goal was to be "poor, but clean," despite intermittent harassment from the authorities.

But activism was not his chosen profession. Lemebel started out studying carpentry and metal works. He then attended art school. We may never have heard of him had he not been fired from his position as an art teacher for being openly gay.

After that, Lemebel should have had a natural home with the political Left, but they steered clear of him too for the same reason.

Under Pinochet's dictatorship, Lemebel and his friend Francisco Casas formed the fearless performative activist group "Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis" ("The Mares of the Apocalypse"). Their purpose was to challenge notions of masculinity and heteronormativity.

Performing in public spaces around the country, the two men donned wigs, skirts and make up to bring Frida Kalho's painting "The Two Fridas" to life. And on Columbus Day 1989, they performed "Cueca Sola" (the Cueca is the traditional Chilean dance) at the Chilean Human Rights Commission. They each danced the role of the lady without a partner in memory of the "desaparecidos" (disappeared dissidents) on a map of South America littered with broken Coca-Cola bottles until their feet bled.

Lemebel wrote about things that made people uncomfortable, like AIDS, sex workers, poverty, and the inevitable hypocrisy of conservative cultures.

Ever the renegade, Lemebel also has a sense of style all his own. It is both macro and micro in perspective, angry and lighthearted, but always eye-opening. "Last Supper" includes this quote by author James McCourt:

"The summary effect of reading Pedro Lemebel's shattering indictment of the American-backed Pinochet regime, of being faced with the caustic rage embedded in it, corresponds to standing transfixed in front of Picasso's 'Guernica,' the light bulb eyeball glaring down at the carnage below, the ocular shriek a fitting match for the illuminating text of 'A Last Supper of Queer Apostles,' with its story of death and resurrection."

Author Pedro Lemebel  

And like Picasso, he started using the unusual last name of his mother, Lemebel, rather than his father's last name.

"His writing is everything except boring; courageous, beautiful, vile, glorious, provocative, comforting, angry, loving, exquisite, and full of delicious venom," wrote Rabih Alameddine in his praise. "Reading a great writer makes life better. Reading Lemebel makes me want to live better."

Late in his life, Pedro Lemebel received the José Donoso Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. How he went from being an outcast born into the underclass, to becoming a revered author whose work is now taught in high school in Chile is the subject of the 2019 film "Lemebel" directed by Joanna Reposi Garibaldi.

'Last Supper of Queer Apostles' by Pedro Lemebel, $18. Penguin Classics

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