A crazy blaze of lights and life. A book brimming with drama and passion, in an environment not many of us are familiar with. A book that you can feel coming alive in your hand. A true feast of language and imagination. A story of the oppression and revolution in Chile told from a queer perspective.
This is one of the books I got for Christmas from my mum. She discovered a Polish publishing house Claroscuro, specializing in translated fiction presenting a wide range of points of perspectives that are often ignored in the mainstream. That’s where I also got How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, and a few other books lingering on my TBR. I really like how those books push me outside of my Anglo-Saxon reading comfort zone.
Also in 2021 I started learning Spanish, preparing for a long-awaited move back to the continent. So technically I should try to read this book in the original, but I don’t think I am there yet, and the Polish translation is exquisite. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much care put into translating a group-specific slang with love and care for the nuance.
But as a curiosity, you can see the title of the book in three languages, just as an example of the intricacies of translation. Because if we were to translate them all to English something interesting comes out. Tengo miedo, torero, translates as I am afraid, matador. Whereas the Polish Drżę o Ciebie Matadorze would come out as I tremble for you, matador. If you compare it to the English My Tender Matador you can see how each language focuses on a different aspect of the sentence. Now imagine comparing the entire book across the three languages, we’d probably discover we have three very different books in our hands.
Back to the book though. We are in Santiago de Chile in 1986, the country is ruled by Augusto Pinochet and his military. Oppression everywhere you look, but also unstoppable signs of rebellion. In the midst of all this, we have the Queen of the Corner, a hopeless and lonely older romantic who embroiders linens for the wealthy and listens to boleros to drown out the gunshots and rioting in the streets. One day the Queen meets Carlos, a young revolutionary, and the world shifts on its axis. Everything the Queen of the Corner does revolves around her longing for Carlos, a love they know to be impossible.
Carlos happily uses the Queen’s house for the secret revolutionary meetings. But also seems to repay the favor with some amount of warmth towards the Queen, and they bask in it. We get to know bits and pieces of the Queen’s past and it is a brutal one, just as the present’s brutality is covered from us only by a thin veil of Queen’s romantic perception of the world. In the middle of all this an attempt on Pinochet’s life is coming together.
As we read about the story of Carlos and the Queen of the Corner, we also get glimpses of what is going on in the Pinochet household, this is mostly narrated through the endless monologues of Pinochet’s wife, which he has to stoically withstand. The goal is not to make us feel sorry for him, but more to show that the terrifying dictator, responsible for thousands of deaths cannot get his way in his own house. That he is not only human but also small and weak. This weakness contrasted with the pulsing, carnal life described by the Queen, clearly shows us who will win at the end (which we know thanks to hindsight). But it also gave hope back then.
This book really is a feast of language. It is not as much about the plot, as about the life brimming in its every corner, the flesh, the drama, the highs, and deepest lows. Things are strikingly, breathtakingly beautiful one second, only to turn dirty and brutal the next. It feels like there is no middle ground, if life is to be lived to its fullest then there are only extremes to be experienced. We live in carnal vulgarity, yearning for the highs of romance and drama.
It is one of those books that take a while to get into because you have to completely recalibrate your brain and perception of the world. The rules don’t apply. Not only will the center not hold, but the center here has also been wiped out, annihilated. And I cannot praise enough the amazing work of the translator to Polish, Tomasz Pindel, who managed to keep the language alive and pulsing, while also conveying to us all the emotional nuances of it.
This book is a handful.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska