Part memoir, part biography, part gay literary criticism, part journalism, "Eminent Maricones" is Jaime Manrique's celebration of himself and his place in the pantheon of homosexual Hispanic letters. For the author to include his own experiences alongside those of two celebrated Latin American writers (Manuel Puig and Reinaldo Arenas) and one Spanish icon (Federico Garcma Lorca) may sound like hubris, but it makes perfect sense within the structure of this slim but significant volume.
The book is a deft combination of six essays written independently of one another and published over the course of eight years in periodicals ranging from Christopher Street to the Washington Post Book World. Manrique knew Puig and Arenas personally, and he weaves his relationships with them in with the fabric of his own life. The book begins with a jaunty chapter of childhood reminiscence in which the author describes the complexities, both erotic and social, of his origins: He was the illegitimate child of a Colombian aristocrat, who already had a family, and a peasant woman who, after her rich lover deserted her, relied on such varied jobs as running a boardinghouse and turning tricks.
Manrique tells his story with a tanginess befitting the exotic locales of his adolescence: a banana plantation his father gave his mother in order to provide her with a steady income; the Colombian capital, Bogota and, later, Tampa, where he discovered the delirious allure of literature. He filters nothing out of his forthright narrative -- neither watching from a corner of the bedroom, aroused, as his mother made love to one of her various men, nor the pain of a testicular infection he got from fucking donkeys with his uncle.
As an aimless high-school senior in a musty Tampa public library, Manrique happened on Manuel Puig's novel "Betrayed by Rita Hayworth." In New York City a decade or so later, he found himself in a fiction workshop at Columbia University taught by the Argentine expatriate. Manrique was as taken with Puig's fragile-diva persona as he had been by the writer's unique and important novels, "with their mixture of movie lore, tangos and boleros, radical politics, Freudianism, and camp." He's at his most eloquent describing the influence of this seminal writer on his own work and on his life.
He's also superb when he's championing Reinaldo Arenas. The Cuban novelist chronicled the horrors of the Castro Revolution before he finally escaped to New York City, where Manrique came to know him; he died early of AIDS. Though Arenas isn't as well-known in this country as Puig is, he's an equally significant member of the Latin American pantheon.
The author's examination of Lorca, on the other hand, is a bit rhetoric-bound and obvious in its deconstruction of the great Spanish poet and playwright's "internalized homophobia." Certainly Manrique has a point, and he supports his claims well, but not much of his analysis is news. Nor is what it exposes unique to what he calls "Spanish society."
But the bigger picture is here, and Manrique's overall point is well taken. "Maricon" -- Spanish for "faggot" -- is a word that, Manrique writes, denotes "a person not to be taken seriously, an object of derision," adding, "The three writers who take up most of this book were maricones -- homosexual men whose destiny was their sexual orientation." He celebrates the "courageous audacity" of these writers, "who defy the definition of what a maricon is supposed to be," and at the same time he sings himself. And does an honorable job of it.