Manuel Puig Essay - Puig, Manuel (Vol. 3)

Puig, Manuel (Vol. 3)

Puig, Manuel 1932–

Puig is an Argentinian novelist best known for Heartbreak Tango. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

At first glance Puig seems to be fighting the current of magic that runs like an Amazon through the great South American writers of fiction, Borges, Marquez; yet finally what do his novels in their patient accretion of middle-class and lower-middle-class trivia cry out from under their heavy load of realistic detail but magic, give us magic, the cheapest matinee idol movies will do, only touch our lives with romance, an hour of it, two, on the radio, in the cinema, give us better dreams than our lives do or we die. It is his mastery of plot, counterplot, the characters' scheming, his own, that lifts Puig into the circle of his peers. Rather than submit to the restrictions of third-person narrative and a realistic world, that deadly formula, Puig leaps about from one perspective to another…. Each serves as a unique and oblique point of view, the details of one qualifying the information imparted by the others….

In the first pages [of Heartbreak Tango] I missed the bustle, noise and grotesque power of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. The narrative of Heartbreak Tango seemed much thinner, picking out the objects and voices of its hero, heroines with too obvious a precision, too deliberate a focus. Yet as we are caught up in the story, this taut line begins to spin us around….

Heartbreak Tango is a more careful novel than the sprawling, joyfully excessive Betrayed by Rita Hayworth…. I put down the book, dazzled.

Mark Jay Mirsky, "Three to Tango," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 25, 1973, p. 1.

[Puig's] world is without the ordered articulacy of what we normally recognize as literature, and since he is less angry than Flaubert and less flamboyant than Joyce, he conveys patiently and modestly a sense of just what such a world is like. It is like the world of bad fiction, since it is the world of bad fiction, gracelessly imitated by life itself….

Heartbreak Tango seems to me even better than Puig's earlier Betrayed by Rita Hayworth because its characters' movements are clearer, and because the general implication of the montage of cliché and cheap romance and gossip is firmer: it is that all comment on such lives is tactless, untrue, condescending. The lives must speak their own poor dialect, and the writer's job is to reconstruct it. The danger, of course, is that the reconstruction will be either too ironic or too sentimental, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth wobbled both ways every now and then. The balance of the new book is virtually perfect.

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), December 13, 1973, p. 19.

"Heartbreak Tango" demonstrates with relentless cruelty that "to dance and think no more" is not as easy as all that, for it's as hard to live up to the ideals of the chapter headings as it is to abandon them….

It was the plausible contention of the Russian Formalists that literary breakthroughs often involve the appropriation and "canonization" of lesser literary genres. To take an example from Argentinian literature, Jorge Luis Borges has converted the detective story into a testing ground for nothing less than the problems of epistemology by gently upgrading the detective and the criminal and presenting them respectively as philosopher and universe. What Borges has done for the detective story Puig has done for the sentimental popular novel….

Just as Borges has his most famous detective, Eric Lönnrot, die at the hands of the criminal, so Puig inverts the wish-fulfilling rules of his chosen genre by contrasting its assumptions with the mean reality of the small town. His triumph is similar to Borges's, for while upgrading the genre by bringing reality to bear upon it, he nevertheless allows it to work in its own right. Just as Borges's detective stories continue to function, on one level, as perfectly respectable and engaging detective stories, so Puig forces us to share and believe in the impossible passions of Mélida Fernández and her friends.

The depth of "Heartbreak Tango" is principally achieved through Puig's sensitivity, his ability to identify with his characters yet keep just the right controlled distance from them. It has been said that the book is a parody, but that underestimates the balance between distance and compassion that Puig achieves. His characters are camp, but they are not camped up, and their fundamental humanity cannot be denied.

Sheer sensitivity apart, the "canonization" of the popular romance is achieved through another, purely compositional method. For the book would indeed be much more of a roman rose were it not for the way its material is presented. The plot develops through a dead-pan presentation of a whole variety of disparate documents: newspaper cuttings, letters, picture albums, diary entries, police files, the records of conversations or of a girl's secret confession to a priest, correspondence with a Lonely Hearts column, and occasionally a piece of omniscient factual information. The variety of methods thus used to advance the plot conveniently yields breaks in the narrative that create suspense and help retain the reader's interest. But the juxtaposition of different types of information is in itself eloquent, because it portrays the gap that separates what the characters say (in conversation or correspondence) from what they really think or do, as revealed for instance in their diary entries or to a priest. The contrast between the characters' public utterances and the factual information we get about them demonstrates the extent to which social intercourse in their small town constitutes a calculated divergence from reality, just as indeed the movies, the tangos and the commercials do.

David Gallagher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 16, 1973, pp. 14-15.