LANDSCAPES OF THE SOUL: An Appreciation of JAIME MANRIQUE
by Lawrence D. Mass
Like This Afternoon Forever is an historical novel about Colombia and its indigenous peoples, its drug wars, the church, homosexuality and AIDS that captures the sweep of social conflict and change as it tells the stories of individuals, their lives and souls.
Do you have any regrets? Most of the time it’s hard to say you regret choices or actions or anything else because everything seems so bound up with everything else. Inevitably, the good is inextricably mixed up with what would otherwise be more clearly regrettable. Examples abound. Many alcoholics who have stopped drinking via recovery don’t regret their affliction because they wouldn’t otherwise have those priceless gifts of recovery — courage, wisdom and serenity.
In my own case, I can think of only one unqualified regret: that I never learned Spanish. The languages I did learn — French, Italian and German — were the principal languages of my first great love, opera. In the canon of Western opera, Spanish subjects and settings are commonplace — e.g., Mozart and Verdi, and there are rich traditions of Spanish operetta (zarzuela) and song. However, though the opera houses of Spain, Mexico and South America have counted proudly in opera history and culture, as have many legendary Spanish opera singers — from Manuel Garcia to Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballe, Spanish composers of opera and operas composed in Spanish have been outside operatic mainstreams.
Where Spain and Spanish have turned out to be far more mainstream for me has had to do with the vibrant Spanish cultures with which I am increasingly surrounded in my life and work, coincidentally as I find myself evermore distanced from the world of opera that once loomed so much larger for me. If you were to remove Hispanic peoples from New York City and South Florida, my two homes, such is their presence that neither locale would be recognizable as such.
In my work in addiction medicine and AIDS, and especially with opioid use disorder amidst the present opioid crisis, a preponderance of my patients are Hispanic. Many of them don’t speak English, a phenomenon that’s even more pronounced in South Florida.
It’s in this context of ever-burgeoning awareness of Hispanic cultures and their historical, ever-widening and otherwise incalculably great influence that I have been privileged to count as my close friend and colleague of 40 years leading Colombian novelist and poet Jaime Manrique. Protean and prolific, and with a family history of notable scribes dating back centuries, Jaime is a writer whose achievements are far too many to list. He has been called “the most distinguished gay Latino writer of his generation” by the Washington Post. He is the recipient of many honors and accolades, including, most recently in April 2019, the Bill Whitehead Lifetime Achievement Award.
For decades Jaime has been my friend in community as well as a colleague and mentor for my writing. In the recent period, we find ourselves endlessly upset and commiserating around the takeover of the world, here and nearly everywhere else, by what Jaime refers to summarily as “the caudillos.” Trump, Maduro, Putin, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Orban, Salvini, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, etc., all of them generic authoritarians.
I loved Jaime’s first novel, Latin Moon In Manhattan, a collection of farcical tales of Manhattan, Latino and gay life that skewers the machismo that at once attracts and oppresses us. And it’s through Jaime’s Eminent Maricones that I became more intimately acquainted with such giants of international culture as Reinaldo Arenas, Manuel Puig and Garcia Lorca. Jaime’s ability to render these great figures of our lives and times with flesh-and-blood dimension has been priceless, and has contributed notably to the pantheon of global gay history and culture.
Twilight at Olana by Bill Sullivan
It was during this period of Latin Moon that I became friends with Jaime and his partner, Bill Sullivan. Bill was a painter, mostly of landscapes. He and Jaime traveled together extensively in Latin America, where Bill captured shores, landscapes and sunsets of singular, often breathtaking color and luminosity. Eventually, Bill settled in Hudson New York where he became a regional painter of renown.
But Bill’s pioneering talents and gifts extended as well to literature. Inspired by Jaime, he became an independent publisher of gay literature, most notably of Jaime’s early work, during a time when outlets for gay writing were very few and far between.
As I was privileged to experience it with them, theirs was a tumultuous, artistically fruitful collaboration that was redolent of the relationship between Bill’s beloved Frida Kahlo and her patron, lover and husband Diego Rivera. In both pairings, love turned out to be the catalyst for a continuous outpouring of serious and enduring art.
Bill adored Jaime and never wavered in his belief in Jaime’s gifts, even as his own fortunes, commingled with illness, began to decline. Eventually, Bill died following a series of heart attacks. Although his life became painful and challenging, there was an always discernible, unshakable core of happiness with his own life’s work as a painter and in his love for and belief in Jaime.
When Bill died at 68 in 2010 Jaime had just completed his novel, Our Lives Are The Rivers, about Manuela Saenz, the mistress of Simon Bolivar, and was at work on Cervantes Street, a biographical novel about the fabled author of Don Quixote. Each of these historical works took nearly a decade to research, create and publish.
Jaime Manrique is the author of novels and poetry collections that were written in English and Spanish and that have been translated into other languages, including Russian, Chinese and Hebrew.
Along the way, there have been many notable poems, essays and collections by Jaime. One I had occasion to encounter again recently was his ode to Matthew Shepard, in which the victim of a vicious, lethal homophobic attack is left tied to a fence overnight to die from his wounds and exposure. As drying, crusted blood glues his eyes shut, he imagines the sunrise in all its splendor. This and other of Jaime’s poems have been set to music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici. Tarzan, My Body, Christopher Columbus, follows Jaime’s first poetry collection, My Night With Garcia Lorca, and includes an epic poem about Columbus, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, and features an introduction by Reinaldo Arenas.
Jaime Manrique with Isaias Fanlo, to whom Like This Afternoon Forever is dedicated, at the 2019 Publishing Triangle Awards, where Jaime was the recipient of the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement
Jaime’s new novel is called Like This Afternoon Forever. Based on a true story that created waves throughout Latin America, it’s about two priests who grew up together and became lovers amidst the brutal, complicated 50 year civil war in Colombia between the government and anti-government rebels. In the course of their lives and relationship, Lucas and Ignacio must come to grips with challenges of faith, AIDS, drugs, war atrocities, and loss; and with the secret they uncover of the “false positives,” mostly indigenous people whose only offense is to try to be treated humanely and who are murdered, then falsely dressed as armed, anti-government combat insurgents and rebels as a way of collecting bounties.
Like Jaime’s other writing, the novel is fleet, clear, and so humbly and economically written as to seem effortless. In tone, it’s as if a good, trusted friend or relative were telling you a story you could always follow and that is always somehow comforting, even as it draws you evermore deeply into realms of danger, suffering and tragedy.
Like Our Lives Are The Rivers and Cervantes Street — and like Gone With The Wind and War and Peace — Like This Afternoon Forever is an historical novel that conveys the sweep of social conflict and change across a great swath of the globe and recent history. Reverberating in the background of the novel are the news media sound bytes we in the West have heard over the years about the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) and about the displacement, disappearances and slaughter of indigenous peoples, like those so desperately seeking refuge at our borders today. Likewise in the background are those vague, inadequate snips of information we would hear or read about liberation theology, alongside this or that war skirmish, rebellion or atrocity.
Jaime Manrique acts as our guide and shepherd by putting many of those disparate pieces together into a mosaic that not only conveys present day realities and looming disasters, but which brings the “manifest destiny” of European colonization with its bloody history of conquest, conversion, enslavement and the genocide of many millions of indigenous peoples, into a focus sharper than many of us had imagined possible for ourselves. Through Jaime Manrique, our world has become a lot larger and a lot more inclusive.
Like This Afternoon Forever is also a rich study of character and faith. Lucas and Ignacio have approached their missions from different backgrounds and temperaments. Together as soul mates, they travel otherwise apposing individual trajectories towards faith, always a deeply personal, inside job that no one else can do for them or, as they help us see, for ourselves.
Along the way are issues of the church, homosexuality and AIDS. Especially interesting is Ignacio who has the intellectual acuity, honesty and courage to admit that he cannot believe in God as most people do, or even at all, but comes, instead, to believe in the power of helping people. The faith he develops is not a belief in idols or images or rituals or institutions, but rather in the humility, power and happiness he experiences in helping others. Complex and thorny, these issues that play out in the lives of the two lovers reverberate globally. The personal is political, as we say.
Hopefully, the personal journeys of Like This Afternoon Forever will help lead to broader political changes that lessen prejudice against indigenous peoples, immigrants and gay people, and ignorance and intolerance around AIDS. If someone wants to know the realities of gay people and the church and AIDS, and not just in Latin America, they should read Like This Afternoon Forever, rather than the latest homophobic poison from former Cardinal Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict. Hopefully, this book will be read by Pope Francis, who seems at least somewhat more open to a modern, compassionate understanding of gay people. Like This Afternoon Forever might help him find the same courage to stand for his principles against rising tides of murderous homophobia as he has shown for the desperately besieged indigenous peoples and immigrants of the world.
Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. is a specialist in addiction medicine. He was the first to write about AIDS in the press, is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the author/editor of a collection, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer. He is completing On the Future of Wagnerism, a sequel to his memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.
Mass will interview Manrique as part of Stonewall 50 Gay Pride Celebrations on Thursday June 13 at 7 pm in New York City at the LGBT Center, 208 West 13th Street.