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Poetic Politics

South American poet Néstor Perlongher’s work imagined a solidarity based on "a multitude of comrades, each more extravagant than the next."

The Argentine-Brazilian anthropologist, sociologist, and poet Néstor Perlongher was one of the most important figures in Latin American literature, and among the most influential cultural theorists to emerge from Argentina’s gay liberation movement of the 1970s, which was just as febrile as its French, Italian, British and American counterparts. He is little-known in the Anglophone world; however Frances Riddle’s translation of Plebeian Prose, a volume of essays, poems, interviews, and stories selected by Osvaldo Baigorria and Christian Ferrer originally published in 1997, has brought Perlongher’s forensic, furious, and often humorous writing into English for the first time. Published by Polity, it includes an introduction by Cecilia Palmeiro that promises that despite Perlongher’s AIDS-related death in 1992, his work ‘provides the tools to formulate a radical critique of the new Alt-Right’s focus on identity and nationalism’.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1949, Perlongher joined the Trotskyist Partido Obrero (Workers’ Party) as a student but soon left, disappointed over its failure to support ‘the gay cause’, and specifically the Frente de Liberación Homosexual (FLH). He agitated for the FLH to take an ‘ultra-leftist’ line, working to combine their struggles despite the Argentine left — echoing a line taken elsewhere — seeing homosexuality as an imperialist perversion. Seeing patriarchy as a construction that led to (and certainly pre-dated) capitalism, and disillusioned that the Cuban and Russian revolutions did not dismantle that patriarchy or even homophobic oppression, Perlongher wrote about how opposition to the machismo that ran through Latin American society might be expressed through writing, political movements and the human body.

After a set of sixty-nine questions and answers that gently introduce his thought, Plebeian Prose opens with its strongest section, compiling Perlongher’s articles on Desire and Politics. Deft editing means readers are thrown straight into Perlongher’s assessment of Argentina’s homosexual archetypes, and his defence of the effeminate, openly gay locas and maricas, who suffered from homophobia, misogyny and policing of self-expression far more than the more traditionally masculine chongos who only occasionally had sex with other men, and were eventually disowned by gay movements that sought greater ‘respectability’. Perlongher, who referred to himself in the feminine and sympathised with women, drag queens and transsexual people, especially the sex workers who were frequently murdered in a style he denounced as paramilitary, had a simple demand of politicians, the police, and wider society: ‘All we want is to be left to our own desires.’ (This also applied to drug use: Perlongher endured a stretch in prison for his recreational consumption.)

The entries that trace the history of Argentina’s FLH, and chart the country’s regulation of sexuality back to the 1930s (considering its relationship to the military and the church) are fascinating, but it is Perlongher’s documentation of a subculture vanishing before him that are most provocative. His analysis of how the ‘normalisation’ of homosexuality stripped it of its mystery, perpetuated divisions within queer groups and enabled those who crafted a socially acceptable ‘gay’ model of behaviour to move ‘to the centre’, marginalising others in the process, is acute — and will be familiar to those who have followed a similar process in the global north. Writing about how AIDS brought bodily fluids and sex back into a rights-based discussion that had tried to forget them, Perlongher characterised the right-wing neglect, or celebration, of the crisis — in Argentina and Brazil as in the UK and US — as a tactic to suppress the erotic energy unleashed by the 1970s liberation movements. In response, he demanded that we view sexual identities not as static ‘types’ but as historically contingent, and adaptable to changing political circumstances, such as the fall of the Argentine and Brazilian military dictatorships — advice that is relevant now, in a time of far-right pushback against (even heavily commodified) LGBT+ identities.

Perlongher’s prose spits off the page, especially when discussing the people he most cares for, in passages such as: ‘the darling transvestite is not alone: she glides, on the prowl, among a multitude of comrades, each more extravagant than the next.’ His politics were always poetic — because, as the introduction puts it, politics without poetics is merely bureaucracy. Besides the polemics and poems featured here, there are plenty of articles in which he creates a canon of Latin American authors whose fiction combined modern and postmodern literary techniques with a radically queer social critique, in a style he labelled as neo-baroque. The writers he mentions, such as Argentine playwright Copi, who (like Perlongher) wrote an inflammatory work about Eva Perón, and Cuban exile Severo Sarduy (who, Perlongher notes, was far more revolutionary than many authors based in Cuba after 1959) deserve, like Perlongher himself, to be more widely read outside Latin America. This anthology offers a valuable introduction to all of them.