Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Las "locas" de postín


Álvaro Retana, Las “locas” de postín [Madrid; 1919]

In the first third of the twentieth century, a genre of popular erotic fiction flourished in urban Spain which was known as "sicalipsis," pseudo-Greek for female masturbation. As the faux-classical attribution might suggest, it was largely a game of reference and inference, rarely as raunchy as a typical prime-time sitcom of the 1990s. One of the masters of "literatura sicalíptica" was Álvaro Retana, an openly gay journalist, fashion illustrator, theatrical lyricist, and wit. Unlike the majority of the sicalipsis writers, his stories portrayed homosexual as well as heterosexual libertines, both male and female -- and unlike the other prominent gay writer of the period, pessimist and tragedian Antonio Hoyos y Vinent (who Retana parodies in Las locas de postín), he would leave his gay characters none the worse for wear at the end of the story, unrepentant sinners to the last.

The sicalíptica genre was primarily distributed in weekly magazines which printed a full short novel in each issue -- like much of the pulp fiction of the era; but in Spain the most prominent writers of serious fiction and drama often used the same format, and sicalipsis could have literary pretensions, even if the moral guardians of the state considered it trash. Retana was briefly jailed more than once during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera for flouting censorship laws, and under Franco he was condemned to death for sacrilege, his sentence commuted only after the intercession of the Pope. He lived rather more quietly until his death 1970, continuing to write songs for Spanish divas and working on his magisterial 1964 opus Historia del arte frívolo (History of Frivolous Art).

Las "locas" de postín (Madrid slang that translates to something like "Filthy Rich 'Queens'") is a novella with hardly any plot -- one beautiful gay man steals some money from another beautiful gay man and goes to the theater about sums up the whole of the story -- but Retana's burlesquing voice, the catty, reference-strewn dialogue, and the whole atmosphere of lazy wealth and its accompanying parasites is so evocative of more modern pleasures (change a gender or two and it could be a Will & Grace episode) that finding it in a book published in 1919 was dizzyingly delightful. According to present-day LGBT orthodoxy, naturally, Retana gets lots wrong: there are unpleasant references to pederasty, and plenty of confusion about gender identity (the entirely gay male cast of the book is constantly referred to in dialogue with feminine pronouns and nicknames), but as a document of an era that has long since vanished and was ruthlessly suppressed, it's astonishing. Retana should be at least as much a gay icon outside Spain as André Gide outside France or Lili Elbe outside Denmark.

I say it was ruthlessly suppressed; but Retana's work became popular again in Spain with the liberalization following the death of Franco; and as I read this brief novel I kept thinking of the Spanish comics of the 1980s which were often just as frivolous, as dedicatedly decorative, and as unapologetically gay. Nazario Luque's comics, like Pedro Almodóvar's films, owe a lot to Retana's dedication to frivolity, to rejection of longstanding cultural and religious norms, to the pleasures of the senses.

This volume contains three other Retana novellas, but I bought it for the first one. It's quite a scholarly edition, with plenty of explanatory notes for references both obscure and (like Sodom) not, and for period or regional slang that a broader Hispanophone readership wouldn't get. I'm quite impressed by Stockcero's print-on-demand model of scholarly Spanish texts, and I'll probably be reading more.

October 21, 2017