November 9, 2014

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gay Man

On Eduardo Mendicutti's El ángel descuidado (The Careless Angel)

It was by the end of 2002 when El ángel descuidado showed up in Spanish libraries. The author, Eduardo Mendicutti, is a well-known national writer, particularly unconditional to gay-themed fiction. Let me try to give my personal account on this appealing novel.

One can find in Mendicutti's work some usual clichés in gay fiction. First of all, the romantic couple: Rafael Lacave and Nicolás Camacho represent the stereotyped gay lovers. Rafael is the smart, high-class, sensitive, imaginative, and effeminate half; Nicolás, the tough, low-class, manly, and sexy one. God also gifted him with a big fat-sized penis--the icing of this ultra-macho (beef)cake of desire--Besides, the environment they live in is none other than a religious congregation. The pattern of homosexual relationships in a deep Christian atmosphere has been discussed many times and can be found in other works of fiction or films (i.e., Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education or C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days).

These two young novitiates will experience the sprout of sexuality in 1965, in a place where clandestine sex intercourse is punished despite frequently-occurring masturbation between fellows under their robes.

His main protagonist, Rafael, is portrayed as a man with artistic inclinations, both in music and, especially, in literature (his praised paragraphs for the Congregation common journal as early lights of his talent). The fact that 35 years later Rafael is a celebrity well known for his television appearances suggests that Rafael may be an alter ego of Mendicutti himself. (Another evidence that could hint at this coincidence is the foreign air of both Lacave and Mendicutti surnames for Spanish-speaking readers.) Anyway, do not assume Rafael is presented as a mature boy. He even develops a childish fantasy, considering several stage names for him and Nicolás in their probable (at least for him) brilliant, smashing acting careers on Broadway after leaving the Congregation.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the novel in my extremely subjective, personal opinion is not so much in the resolution of the love story itself (something the none-but-either-happy-or-tragic ending fans will find so disappointing), but the importance of sexuality in self-construction not only as individual, but also as an artist. It could be said that the sentimental relationship Rafael maintains with Nicolás will mark his education in much more than sentimental terms. The moment Rafael starts to take aware of his sexuality he will deviate from the Congregation rules. This is obvious in moments like the music competition, where Rafael will execute a passionate performance resulting in the hilarity of fellow novitiates and the indignation of the jury, who will refuse to judge; or the time when the brothers are proposed to vote in the question of keeping their baptismal name within the Congregation, when up to that time it used to be changed: Everyone will vote for or against... less Rafael, who refuses to vote. Moreover, before this voting, Rafael’s invention of Leafar (his name spelled backwards), the careless angel,[1] is an evidence of both his creativity and nonconformity: the choice of a name impossible anyone else can select, as well as the reaffirmation of his self--by the use of his own name anyhow--proves Rafael does not want to give up with his individuality.

Then not so much his breaking with the chastity vow but the obedience vow will cause his expulsion. It was just clear that Rafael was not made for becoming the perfect missionary.

The ending, a completely naked Rafael looking at his reflection for the first time (mirrors were prohibited in the Congregation), secluded in the toilets of the train that takes him back home, means not only an act of sexual awareness, but also an ultimate affirmation of his self, his individuality, his freedom to do whatever he wants.

But all that happened in 1965… Mendicutti tells their story in two periods. The present time is 2000. A new millennium. A new age. Rafael is no longer in the Congregation, where monitored permanently by elder brothers, but in a friendly, urbanite atmosphere, with places expressly designed so that gay men can meet and have fun freely. In one of those clubs Rafael will meet Vicente--I find very interesting (and amusing) this character.

Vicente is a little younger than Rafael and Nicolás and from the same place than the latter. He will give news of Nicolás’s whereabouts to a cold-but-curious Rafael 35 years later. Vicente is presented as an aged, small-town man, occasionally spending a few weekends a year in the capital of Spain to meet men. He is quite naive and somewhat nosy, as one can see in his talks with alternately Rafael and Nicolás, shamelessly intrigued about their past love story and the state of things in the present. His tactlessness is embarrassingly proved when he tells Rafael that Nicolás refers to him as a faggot.

It must be borne in mind when reading the novel that the story is told from the point of view of Rafael, thus his way of portraying Nicolás, especially in 2000, can make us think it is quite biased. To Rafael, it is clear that Nicolás is a closeted gay, married (though childless) to an ugly woman in order to follow the social conventions. However, we can see in his intimate exposure to Vicente that Nicolás speaks openly and unaffectedly about that experience, only presenting the situation as something easy to understand since the same kind of things happens between men in prisons in the absence of the opposite sex. When big-mouth Vicente reveals Nicolás’s version of their story, Rafael does not give any credit to this explanation, as he remembers the moment Nicolás promised, 35 years ago, that he would never ever love anyone as much as he did to Rafael. No wonder Rafael prefers to live with the memory of such a romantic vow--but the reader can also believe (why not?) in Nicolás's words.

Another possibility: Nicolás might also be bisexual, as he had proposed Rafael to marry each other's sisters in order to be together for ever... In any case, the interest he showed to Rafael's family fortune suggests Nicolás happens to be a self-interested rather than hasty, infatuated young boy. (35 years later, Nicolás has become the richest self-made man in his humble town). Ambiguity in such a delicate issue is achieved thanks to the elegant, precise sobriety of Mendicutti’s style all along this bittersweet narration.

[1] That kind of proverb Rafael makes up about a third angel of Sodom who carelessly preferred to go with the Sodomites instead of assisting Lot and his family (another case of Rafael’s creativity displayed).

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