#GlobalPRIDELitMonth: My Tender Matador: A Gay Snapshot of Life in Pinochet’s Chile

A pivotal moment in Chile’s history: an assassination attempt by the young men of the revolutionary Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodríguez) on Augusto Pinochet, the military dictator ruling Chile. This is the point in history in which essayist, visual artist and activist Pedro Lemebel places his first novel, and his first work translated into English to international renown. My Tender Matador (Tiengo Miedo, Torero) follows the Queen of the Corners, not otherwise named, a gay man making her1 living in the lower end of the capital city Santiago, when she falls in love with one of the young men of the Patriotic Front and becomes entangled in political schemes she can’t ignore…

Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015) was among other things, an essayist and chronicler of Chile and the dictatorship, and as a gay man showed the queer perspective of the country and the political turmoil that was severely underrepresented. He was nominated for several awards including the Chilean National Prize for Literature. My Tender Matador, his first historical fiction novel was also highly acclaimed, being nominated for the Premio Altazor de las Artes Nacionales and currently is in the process of being adapted for film. Lemebel was a communist activist and artist, and this novel follows that dichotomy between violent protest and hopelessly romantic queer love in a powerful way that, despite the setting and even the recent political unrest in Chile in 2019-2020, made me yearn to return to my home country. 

My Tendor Matador is written as one long intertwined narrative with no chapter breaks, and revolves around two gay men: the middle-aged Queen of the Corners as she not only falls hopelessly in love with the younger “Carlos”, but also into helping with the Patriotic Front’s revolutionary schemes; and Gonzalo, hairdresser to Pinochet’s wife, who is never seen by the reader. Instead, we hear Gonzalo’s unsolicited advice on the dictatorship through Pinochet’s wife’s endless chatter, including such pieces of wisdom as what seasonal colours the military uniforms should be, and whether the dictator should have brought gloves on his political tour to South Africa, none of which Pinochet appreciates hearing.

In parallel, we see the Queen willingly ignore all the signs that Carlos might not be who he says he is – that the boxes he asks to store in her dingy house feel suspiciously like heavy weapons, and not the books he claims they are. She adorns them with ribbons and her embroidered tablecloths and yearns for Carlos to pay her attention, instead of the “study groups” that never seem to talk about classes. Meanwhile, Pinochet endures the barrage of criticisms and small talk from his wife while he moves back and forth from the capital to the nearby vacation town of Cajón del Maipo, hearing about Gonzalo’s opinion on the colour of the military uniforms and what gloves to bring to South Africa on a political tour. With a quickening pace, the Queen’s willfully ignorant contributions to the Patriotic Front bring her closer and closer to the climactic assassination attempt on Pinochet, interfering with the romantic future she hoped for and disrupting the country’s political climate.

We see the two gay men living in different social classes and having drastically different effects on the military dictatorship, although both live below the surface awareness of society by virtue of their sexuality. Although movements for LGBTQ+ rights in Chile were increasing and some trans rights had even been won in the late 60s and early 70s, such as name changes and gender corrections, there was strong oppression during the dictatorship in 1973-1990, and homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized until as late as 1990. A bill to pass marriage, adoption, and parenthood rights is even now still in the first stage of debate in the Senate as of May 2020, despite being introduced in September 2017.

Critical readers of queer literature may have some valid issues with the protagonist – she is nameless, passive, and hopelessly in love with a straight man. I certainly didn’t always enjoy listening to her pine over a man when I knew there were political crises happening around her. However, we might see her power to love openly, to wear drag in public, to create a business as a bold strength that is almost unimaginable, considering the brutal oppression on all but the most wealthy military people in Chile, and especially the homophobia of the dictator himself. The Queen is nothing if not entirely herself, and although often pathetically unrequited, she refuses to hide her affection for the young man, or her sexuality. On one occasion, we even see her weaponize her sexuality by flirting with a police offer to get out of a confrontation with authorities. 

The combination of setting and character certainly result in tragedy, but the reader can’t help but feel empathy and connection to her. If there is one thing to be said about how the novel moves beyond the “tragic gay” tropes, it’s that the plot does not end in the death of the gay men, and that there is an optimistic future imagined at the end, especially as the reader knows that the dictatorship does, in fact, eventually end. 

In short, take the tragic gay tropes with a grain of salt, especially as queer literature continues to get a foothold in the upper echelons of Chilean literature., Read this novel as a way to look into the ordinary life of LGBTQ+ Chilean citizens struggling in an oppressive time. Seeing this monumental point in Chilean history, that so greatly affected the country then and continues to have effects on displaced expats today, from the eyes of a queer lower-class person has had a huge impact on Chilean literature, and should be a must-read for anyone learning about both LGBTQ+ people of Chile and the military dictatorship in Chile. 

Content warnings: this book does include many strong homophobic slurs in both Spanish and English, used by and against the protagonist and other gay characters, as well as graphic sexual language and brief mentions of sexual violence. 

1The protagonist uses she/her pronouns to describe herself, and this review will also use these pronouns when referring to her.

Book Title: My Tender Matador/Tengo Miedo Torero

Author: Pedro Lemebel

Translated from Spanish by Katherine Silver

2004 (Grove)

ISBN: 0-8021-1768-6

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Reviewer Biography: Victoria Gomez is a recent MLIS graduate from the UBC iSchool, and is looking forward to a career in public librarianship, multicultural services, and heritage language learner communities. She has dedicated most of her time to working in student government as a student President, councillor, and director on the board of a non-profit student society. These days, she can be found sporadically on her Instagram (@library.vick) and Twitter (@libvick), but mostly on Animal Crossing. 

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