Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me

By Jaime Manrique

Univ. of Wisconsin. 116 pp. $19.95

Reviewed by Ilan Stavans

"Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past," Lytton Strachey once wrote. "They have a value which is independent of any temporal process -- which is eternal and must be felt for its own sake." Jaime Manrique not only takes the maxim to heart but also pays homage to Strachey's most famous title in Eminent Maricones, his sterling examination, through "short narrative lives," of the gender wars in the Hispanic world.

The triptych of luminaries he dissects -- in order of appearance, the writers Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas and Federico Garcia Lorca -- are all homosexual victims of dictatorial regimes. Their destiny was their sexual orientation. Although Manrique reflects on their oeuvre, his essays aren't exercises in criticism but in literary biography, just as Strachey's portraits of Florence Nightingale or Thomas Arnold were. What Manrique is after is not text but context. He uses literature to understand the innuendoes we live by. And he implicitly targets liberalism, as promoted by our educational system, for making the socially undesirable erase themselves. The result is a lesson in clarity and concision that serves also as an invitation to reconsider the moral treacherousness of our era.

Manrique is known as a novelist -- his books include Twilight at the Equator -- but he strikes me as a less extravagant, high-caliber essayist. His prose is candid and effortless. Each of the pieces included in the volume is self-sufficient. Their overall effect is cumulative. As when one looks at a Turkish carpet from a distance, their ideas and the social manners they depict become a critique only when approached as a whole.

His essay on Puig is not only the longest but the most astonishing in the book. It chronicles Manrique's apprenticeship as an aspiring writer under Puig's spell and concludes in 1990, when the author of The Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film lover and "control freak," died a suspicious death in Cuernavaca. Manrique portrays himself as an urbane sleuth investigating Puig's rise, fall and resurrection as a literary star. He focuses on the Argentine's view of the world as a movie set. His portrait is enormously sympathetic, by far the best I've read on the subject. Unable to publicly confront his homosexuality, Puig, he concludes, buried himself with shame until HIV finally forced him out of the picture.

By contrast, Manrique's tribute to Arenas, whose Before Night Falls is among the most explosive autobiographies I've ever read, is equally powerful, if too short for my taste. I wish he had devoted more space to examining the details of Arenas's odyssey from a forgotten countryside in Cuba to international fame. The essay deals almost exclusively with his last days (he died in 1990) in his somber Manhattan apartment, although it is sprinkled with flashbacks of his arrival in the United States during the Mariel boatlift and his animosity toward Fidel Castro's sympathizers. It is painful to read: passionate but not sentimental, accusatory but not propagandistic. Arenas saw life as a concentration camp. "I feel like one of those Jews who were branded with a number by the Nazis," he told Manrique. "It's my duty to remember." He spent his final months finishing projects that would make others remember, too.

The least compelling section of Eminent Maricones is the one on Lorca: It is verbose and over-expansive, particularly when one realizes that, of the three notables, Lorca is the one about whom the most has been said. Unlike the case with Puig and Arenas, Manrique, who was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1949, obviously didn't know the Iberian poet personally, so all the information he conveys is from hearsay and biographical sources. His twist is to examine the playwright as a pathbreaker in the quest for gay legitimization.

The rest of the volume is composed of a pair of overtly autobiographical pieces, one of them about a doppelganger. These might seem mere fillers -- the "Me" in Manrique's subtitle. But they are outstanding essays on their own right, perhaps even superior to the one on Puig, and help give the volume its roundness. Their inclusion is pertinent, for the central figure in Eminent Maricones is Manrique himself, as much a victim, in his childhood and adolescence in Colombia, of anti-homosexual sentiment as any of his more famous pals. In Spanish the word maricon means "faggot." "By implication a maricon is a person not to be taken seriously," he argues, but the lives he outlines, his own included, are not in the least scornful. Instead, they are an indispensable record of the homosexual condition in the 20th century.

Strachey said that "it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one." Manrique has succeeded in writing not only one good life but several. Posterity is a puzzle, of course. Whether this volume will last I cannot say, but that it should I have no doubt.

Ilan Stavans, a 1998-99 Guggenheim Fellow, teaches at Amherst College. His forthcoming books are "Mutual Impressions" and "A Cartoon History of Latinos in the United States," due out in October and November respectively.