Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Argentina. South American country in which the prison cell holding Valentin and Molina is located. Argentina is a poor country swarming with crime and revolutionaries (like Valentin) who are trying to make the country a better place for all. Near the end of the novel, Molina and Valentin feel safer in the prison than in the outside world.
Tropical island. Valentin dreams of this unnamed island at the end of the novel. The island is an amalgam of the various film scenes that Molina has described. A woman appears to him in this dream, weaving webs out of her own body. This woman represents Molina and his storytelling abilities. His attraction toward this figure is emblematic of Molina and Valentin’s romantic feelings toward each other.
*France. Two films that Molina recalls take place in France. The first film, the apparently fictional Her Real Glory, is set in Paris in 1942. In the romantic setting of Paris, the two lovers of the film parallel Molina and Valentin. They too are opposites fighting against a common enemy—the Argentine prison system. Even though it is wartime, the scenes Molina describes are romanticized. The cabaret where Leni works, the German officer’s apartment, the final scene of the film in the German Pantheon—all are larger than life. The other film, about a race car driver, is more brutal, and Molina tells it...
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The process of colonization of Argentina by Spain began in the sixteenth century and developed through the nineteenth century. Before the coming of the Europeans, the area now known as Argentina was populated by approximately 300,000 Indians. The colonization of the area was accomplished in part through the efforts of Catholic missionaries. The drive for national independence began in the early nineteenth century. Argentine independence from Spanish rule was first declared in 1816, although the country did not achieve a stable internal unity until 1880.
The first time an Argentine president was chosen by a popular vote (rather than by appointment of the previous president) was in 1916. The period from 1916 to 1930 in Argentina is referred to as the era of the "radical regime," followed from 1930 to 1943 by a "conservative" rule. A military coup in 1943 eventually led to the election of Juan Peron as president of Argentina in 1946. Peron had become a popular politician among working class Argentines for his support of unions and of various social welfare efforts. Peron was reelected in 1951, after which he developed a more conservative political agenda. His wife, Evita Peron, a powerful political figure in her own right, died in 1952, as a result of which his popularity was diminished. In 1955, Peron was overthrown in a military coup, and from 1955 to 1958, Argentina was run by a military dictatorship. A series of elected...
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This novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country, but clearly refers to the political climate of Puig's native Argentina during the period of its history known as the "dirty war." During the 1970s, Argentina was ruled by a military junta, which exercised extreme measures of political repression against its citizens. Thousands of people were killed, imprisoned, or "disappeared" during this time at the hands of the government for their alleged political activities. The fictional character of Valentin is clearly representative of such government action against Argentine citizens. Valentin is a political activist who has been tortured and imprisoned for his revolutionary activities. Jonathan Tittler has pointed out the significance of the fictional character of Valentin to the realities of Argentine politics during the 1970s, when the novel was written. Tittler asserts, "With legitimate movements of opposition banished and forced to move underground, it was not uncommon for educated, sensible young people to associate with guerrilla bands and, indeed, to carry out acts of sabotage or subversion against the government. When caught, these political enemies of the State were of course frequently treated with little regard for civil rights or due process." The character of Valentin is, therefore, "a plausible example of the measures many people of conscience were driven to take under the extremely repressive conditions reigning in Puig's homeland...
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In a manner which has become a trademark of his style, Puig replaces third person narration in Kiss of the Spider Woman with narrative parataxis: the juxtaposition of often diverse kinds of text. The story mainly unfolds through a dialogue between the two characters, as it shifts from discussions of prison life and the inconveniences of diarrhea to relations of highly imaginative movie plots. These film sequences take up as much as one third of the novel and demonstrate Puig's unique talent for verbally recreating cinematic images and for incorporating popular media into his novels. While Puig seems to draw a contrast between the unrealistic screen dramas and life in the cell, he actually uses the film scenes to comment on the action of the novel as they encode what is going on between the two characters. Whereas the film sequences provide a metaphoric commentary on the text, a further reflection is seen in the very clinical footnotes Puig inserts detailing various theories on homosexuality. The plot develops sandwiched between the scientific jargon of these notes and the romantic conventions of film. Similarly, there is a radical disjuncture in the narrative shift from the developing intimacy between the two men to an official and minutely detailed document on Molina's activities following his release, with its dehumanizing references to him as "the subject." Thus, diverse modes of discourse are represented in the novel together with their very different ways...
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Kiss of the Spider Woman is set almost entirely in a prison cell in a Latin-American country and consists of a dialogue between two cell mates, one jailed for homosexuality and the other for revolutionary activities. As might be expected, the novel has a strong sociopolitical context. The political regime is obviously repressive, something of a police state. The homosexual, Molina, has been set up by prison officials to get information from Valentin, the revolutionary. Molina is later released only to be tailed by the officials, who use some alarmingly sophisticated means of surveillance. Valentin is brutally tortured by the authorities in efforts to extract information from him. While these events are not the main focus of the story, they are a reminder, without precedent in Puig, of the grim political reality that is a fact of life in some Latin-American countries.
Within the context of the political system described, Puig's concern appears to be with the issue of an individual's moral responsibility for political engagement. This is not to say that the novel advocates a specific position or action. It merely presents two sides of the issue through Molina, the escapist, and Valentin, the political activist. Puig also, in his usual fashion, explores the ways in which people adapt to desperate circumstances through acts of imagination.
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Topics for Further Study
- Puig is a prominent twentieth-century Latin American writer. Learn more about another Latin American writer, such as Jorge Louis Borges, Pablo Neruda, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What Latin American country is this writer from? What are some of his or her principal works? What are some of the central themes and stylistic characteristics of this writer's works?
- Learn more about the history of Argentina, Puig's nation of origin, including the pre-colonial era, the period of colonization by Spain, or the era of national independence. What were the major political conflicts, changes, and events of Argentina during this period? Or, learn more about contemporary political and social struggles and conditions in Argentina today.
- Based on his own childhood fascination with Hollywood cinema, Puig's fiction is characterized by his many references to the influence of popular culture, particularly American movies, on his characters. Can you write a short story, essay, or autobiographical memoir about the influence of a particular movie on yourself, someone you know, or a fictional character? In what ways can you incorporate references to a movie into a written medium? What kind of impact can movies, or one movie in particular, have in a person's life?
- Puig's novel Kiss of the Spider Woman is written almost entirely in dialogue, much like a stage play or screenplay. Can you write a short sketch entirely in dialogue? How can...
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Puig collaborated with director Hector Babenco in a film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. It received excellent reviews, and William Hurt won both a Cannes Film Festival Award and an Academy Award for his portrayal of Molina. The adaptation is quite faithful to the original, particularly in its use of Puig's dialogue. However, while the book with its film images seems to be a natural for adaptation, an important element is lost in translation: that is the author's virtuosity in capturing screen images in prose. The film handles this by having the character begin narrating the film but then shifting to a visual presentation. Babenco treats this quite sensitively in his depiction of a 1930sstyle movie scene, gauzy and nostalgic; but of course the mixed-media effect of the original is lost. Additionally, while the novel contains several movie stories that comment on the narrative as it progresses, the film version employs only one of these. Also missing are the different kinds of texts that Puig inserts in his narrative — the textbook style footnotes and the records of Molina's surveillance by authorities. The film lacks the subtle commentary present in Puig's trademark juxtaposition of these various elements. It is still an extremely successful adaptation of the novel. Puig also wrote a stage adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968), Puig's first novel, is a loosely autobiographical account which focuses on a boy growing up in a provincial town in Argentina who fantasizes about movie stars as a means of escapism.
- Heartbreak Tango: A Serial (1969), Puig's second novel, is a parody of the melodramatic serial novels popular in Argentina.
- The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), Puig's third novel, is based on the popular detective novel genre and focuses on the sexual obsessions of the characters.
- A Curse upon the Reader of These Pages (1980), Puig's sixth novel, focuses on the dialogue between two characters: Larry, a twenty-six-year-old former history teacher, and Ramirez, a seventy-four-year-old Argentine exile.
- Tropical Night Falling (1988) was Puig's last novel. The English translation was not published until a year after his death.
- Eva Peron (1996), by Alicia Dujovne Ortiz and translated by Shawn Fields, is a biography of Eva Peron (1919-1952), a popular political figure in modern Argentina.
- The Dirty War (1994), by Charles H. Slaughter, is a young adult novel set in Argentina in 1976.
- Argentina (1999), by Michael Burgan, provides an overview of Argentine history, geography, and culture.
- A Hammock beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Boccia, Michael. “Versions (Con-, In-, and Per-) in Manuel Puig’s and Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Novel and Film.” Modern Fiction Studies 32, no. 3 (1986): 417-426. Discusses Puig’s fascination with film and the history of the novel’s development as it went from book to screen. Notes how the plot turns on an inversion of the relationship of the two men.
Echavarrén, Roberto. “Manuel Puig: Beyond Identity.” World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (1991): 581-585. Discusses the novel as Puig’s most radical effort at gay liberation. Surrounded by other fascinating articles celebrating the author’s life and works.
Rice-Sayre, Laura. “Domination and Desire: A Feminist-Materialist Reading of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman.” In Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986. Demonstrates how the novel explores the connections among emotion, politics, and sexuality. Notes how Puig condemns society as based upon aggression and humiliation, and proposes a respect for difference.
Stavans, Ilan, ed. “Manuel Puig.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (1991): 159-259. This special edition of the journal, on the occasion of the novelist’s early death, contains interesting...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barcarisse, Pamela. Impossible Choices: The Implications of the Cultural References in the Novels of Manuel Puig. University of Calgary Press, 1993, pp. 2, 4.
Kerr, Lucille. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 113: Modern Latin American Fiction Writers, First Series. Gale, 1992, pp. 235-47.
Tittler, Jonathan. Manuel Puig, Twayne, 1993, pp. vii, viii, 1, 5, 47, 51-52, 123.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Viking, 1998. A collection of short stories by the internationally renowned Argentine writer.
Martinez, Tomas Eloy. Santa Evita. Vintage, 1996. A fictional novel based on the life of the popular Argentine political figure Eva Peron.
Mitchell, Mark, ed. The Penguin Book of International Gay Fiction. Viking, 1995. A collection of short stories and selections, including a selection from Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.
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