Manuel Puig Essay - Puig, Manuel (Vol. 5)

Puig, Manuel (Vol. 5)

Puig, Manuel 1932–

Puig is an Argentinian novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

["Betrayed By Rita Hayworth"] sounds like a one-joke book. Manuel Puig … describes a provincial growing up in which movies were as vital as bread. As a bedtime story, the young hero, Toto, asks to be told the plot of "Intermezzo," which a fever prevented his attending after he had clipped out all the magazine photos of Ingrid Bergman in anticipation of its arrival. In turn, when he gets a little older, he is able to be a comfort to his mother when childbirth causes her to miss "Hold Back the Dawn" during its brief local run. Toto's mother failed to marry a suitor who became a movie actor ("We never really thought Carlos Palau would make it," one of the family wistfully recalls), but she has the consolation that her irascible husband looks "exactly" like that missed chance. The climax of young Toto's school career is an essay competition on "The Movie I Liked Best," which he wins handily with his fervent entry on "The Great Waltz."

The novel's charm is in the tender gravity with which Puig records the chatter of Toto's family and neighbors. Kitchen conversations, awkwardly written letters and flowery schoolgirl diary entries … combine to evoke lives of humblest possibility and uncomplaining disappointment. Manuel Puig presents this quietly; the effect is moving. (pp. 120, 123)

Walter Clemons, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all right reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971.

With La traición de Rita Hayworth and Boquitas pintadas, Manuel Puig established himself as a novelist able to combine cleverness, compassion and humour. He appropriated moreover in those novels a territory that was relatively new in Latin American fiction—the comic yet pathetic cultural aspirations of … lower middle-class families in the provinces. He showed these aspirations to be derived longingly from such people's principal or often sole entertainment, the cinema, whose models they try hard to imitate.

The Buenos Aires Affair is perhaps Sr Puig's most serious book to date. It is not devoid of the lucid and witty observation of absurd behaviour that characterized Boquitas pintadas, but it is altogether more anguished….

Every chapter of the book is headed by excerpts from such films as Grand Hotel or Shanghai Express, which express the cinematic ethos that love is a vocation to which all else must be abandoned. Yet the chapters themselves demonstrate how far short of the cinematic models the characters fall, being in fact victims of the cinema's insistence that sex is the principal key to happiness. Sex is ultimately presented as man's worst enemy in The Buenos Aires Affair, a kind of curse that destroys concentration, dissipates compassion and love and in general places man at the mercy of "imperious erections" over which he has no control, and for which, unlike in the cinema, he can only rarely find shared satisfaction.

In spite of the harrowing story it tells, there is no self-pity in The Buenos Aires Affair because Sr Puig is an accomplished craftsman who keeps just the right distance from his material. The Buenos Aires Affair is technically even more accomplished than the previous novels, and Sr Puig is able to handle a wide variety of narrative devices in it without ever making them seem gratuitous.

"Common Complaint," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), August 31, 1973, p. 1007.

Both Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig present characters who suck the thumb of popular culture to avoid chewing the gristle of reality…. And both novels open with autonomous statements, theoretically independent of a narrator. In Rita, it is a script-like presentation, free of all theatrical indication, while in Tango it is a death notice from a newspaper. Before you reach that notice in Tango, however, you encounter an epigraph quoted from an actual tango….

What Puig lends to Tango—what he so stringently withheld from his earlier novel—is exactly what the epigraph indicates: "his voice." Not Puig's own voice, of course, but a narrative voice announcing what follows the introductory music and also fills us in on actions Puig cannot put into his characters' mouths. In other words, Puig has supplied an indispensable announcer to his novelistic soap opera. It is a device we all remember from the radio soaps and Puig is trying to make us recall those soaps and their literary equivalent, the folletín or magazine serial. (p. 49)

As always in Puig, the core of [Tango] is both erotic and violent, while the form, as the subtitle of … The Buenos Aires Affair explicitly indicates, is that of a detective story. Here then, in Tango, is a newspaper-headline or soap-operatic drama; but again, as always in Puig, you are guided to see even this unheroic drama in collision with day-to-day reality, the collision of bourgeois romantic dream with poignantly objective fact.

The characters themselves are unaware of the romanticism in the class melodrama they inhabit and this lack of awareness is essential to Puig for the manufacture of that poignancy I spoke of. We readers must be aware of the sources of the characters' fantasies and thus see comic figures with absurd dreams epitomized in captions from popular movies … and in verses from tangos themselves. But, we must also be alert to the characters' pitiful victimization by what they do not recognize—the insidious power of unanalyzed popular culture. So all these epigraphs signal to you from a different typographical space from that inhabited by the characters, and they instruct your awareness with a different calculation of rhetoric. (p. 50)

But before you jump to the conclusion that Tango is just another rhetorical lash on the back of an already defeated romanticism, recognize that for Puig, for the vision of his novel, so-called objective fact is no less moving than subjective fantasizing. Characters like Nélida dream of imported tulle gowns and fashionably decorated apartments but inhabit a domestic barreness, it's true; and it would be easy to see this contradiction as the diagnostic analysis of Puig's novel. But if, once again, you turn to the prose—to the style or fashion of a novel so concerned with both style and fashion—you can see that the true voice of that purportedly objective narrative is one of the most elevatedly lyrical in all literature, lyric to the sublimity of elegance. (pp. 52-3)

[Whatever] the technique, [we are moved] to humor and pathos, tears and laughter…. [The] emotions are not evoked by means of an allusive complicity between author and reader in a plot that implicates not only literature and society but economics and politics as well. Rather, the emotions are supplied by the reader himself as he scans what at first seems to be the merely informational. (p. 53)

[The] technique of moving the reader by refining emotion out of the text's content and syntax recalls Joyce's great "mathematical catechism" chapter in Ulysses (Chapter Seventeen, "Ithaca") which Joyce himself called both "impersonal" and his favorite…. Less scientific or "mathematical" than Joyce—less rigorous, in a word—Puig nevertheless is straightfaced, if not truly pokerfaced, in causing us to feel a wide range of emotion as he confronts banal mentalities with banal facts without intimating the slightest disrespect for either.

Between modes of garrulous sentimentality and laconic factualness Puig has focused a vision of life like the vision of Don Quixote, and of Madame Bovary, that is inherently, accurately, bi-focal. He has not—and so you must not—conclude that to perceive ludicrous self-deception is to be free from it; or, for that matter, that to traffic in newspaper clippings, death certificates, medical reports and slightly breathless newscaster prose reminiscent of "You Are There" is to sterilize feelings. Such extremes are themselves delusions—vogues in intellectual or literary attitudes, no less preposterous or pathetically human than the outdated clothes Nélida and her companions desire. Clothes that are now coming back into style and seem to proclaim Puig a camp novelist while Heartbreak Tango, in addition to doing everything that Rita Hayworth did (and doing it better, too) actually proclaims Puig not only a major writer but a major stylist whose medium brings you both the heartbreak and the tango, but also reminds you, in several senses, that

       As long as you can smile, success can be
       yours….                                (p. 54)

Ronald Christ, "Fact and Fiction," in Review 73 (copyright © 1972 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Fall, 1973, pp. 49-54.

Manuel Puig's Heartbreak Tango bombards us with "realism," arranging a terrifying welter of short, spasmodic fragments into a seedy "tragedy" that is coherent, poignant, and painfully funny. The setting is Buenos Aires in the 1940's–1960's; the characters are ambitious romantic day-dreamers who all imagine—and act—out of an idea of the world which they derive from movies and radio serials….

Sometimes Puig concentrates, minute-by-minute, on the detailed itinerary of a character's "day." He moves in and out of the novel surefootedly, sometimes commenting directly on his characters, or blandly offering lists and outlines to explain their motivations.

Though the novel is obviously arranged (into "Episodes," with quoted tango lyrics as epigraphs), a reader experiences it as a rich loose array of directly rendered personalities. Somehow, Puig does it by very consciously varying the kinds of attention that he brings to bear on his characters. We sense the keen compassionate intensity with which the Self (this time, the narrator-organizer's) views the World. (p. 128)

Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

Spanish American literature has been criticizing itself, folding back upon itself in poems, novels, and short stories for the last thirty years. The texts better known to the English reader—by Borges, Octavio Paz, Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Lezama Lima—are only a few examples of a kind of writing that attempts to be everything and nothing at the same time, a literature that attempts to create a fiction and uncover the conventions that make this fiction possible. It is everything and nothing because in the interplay between building the individual work and pointing out its theoretical support, the illusions, the projections that non-self-critical texts produce in the reader are lost…. Most of these works tend to speak about literature in a thematized way. We find characters or privileged narrators operating in situations where the subject is clearly literature…. This situation has begun to change in more or less explicit ways with works like One Hundred Years of Solitude by García Márquez. But still, there is the gesture of integrating the meditation about literature into a discourse that tries to take simultaneously the place of fiction, philosophy, and linguistics by denying the existence of clear lines of demarcation between these languages. As a result of this denial of lines of demarcation, we have texts that convey the notion that there is no privileged language for truth, that the traits distinguishing levels of objectivity are tenuous and native. The functions of discourses such as fiction, metaphysics, linguistics, etc., are denied specificity and locality; the notion of genre gives way to a text that attempts to lose itself in all the possibilities opened to it by the fact that it is made of language, that it is only language.

But all of the works we have mentioned still preserve one illusion about language and privileged discourses. Although they attempt to efface themselves as constituted by one particular language, they belong to a wider kind: they are literature. They are made out of what is considered to be acceptable written language. Their thrust towards orality is a literary gesture that locates itself in a tradition of attempts to achieve a "natural" prose…. If there is one untouched privilege it is the one of "good literature" over "bad literature," of beauty and intelligence over trash. In this sense the kind of break that they make with their tradition may be wide but not radical, since it preserves the notion of a good and a bad literature.

The three novels that Manuel Puig has produced up to now—Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Heartbreak Tango, and The Buenos Aires Affair—come out of this tradition of breaking with the conventions of the naive realism of previous Spanish American literature but do not accept the notion of a privileged language for literature. They make this gesture of non-acceptance by taking an oblique position in relation to certain genres traditionally seen as trash, as ephemeral objects of mass consumption: fotonovelas and dime-store novels. (pp. 95-7)

This literature is read all over Latin America, France, and Italy. It has a long tradition, and its readership consists mainly of domestic servants, housewives, and shop attendants. It is a literature that clearly separates itself from the "good" one. Nobody would refer to it as anything but trash, thereby isolating its language and its conventions from the accepted reading material. Its mark is bad taste; its definition is the cliché. (p. 97)

Manuel Puig's writing is different. Puig supports his texts by constant references to these trashy works without ever presenting the line of demarcation that would help distinguish his novels from that trash. He has studied, accepted, and redefined the conventions of fotonovelas without separating the good from the bad, without trying to produce what traditionally was seen as beautiful and/or true. Trash appears in his novels as the effect of a complex system of artifices, as the result of a conventional network. Everyday language, the repetitive nature of clichés, and the obsession with imitating models have been thoroughly integrated into a discourse that separates itself from the "literary" tradition by taking as its point of departure bad taste. But since there is no counterpart, there is no possibility of contrast. We know that this is bad taste because our exercise as readers of "good" literature tells us that, but nothing in the novels themselves speaks to us explicitly about the system of privileged discourses that exists outside it. In this way, Puig creates a surprisingly homogeneous novelistic discourse, with a texture that integrates trash and uses it as its only support.

Each of Puig's novels has to be read as part of a dialogue between the three novels that he has written…. The questions that we address to Puig's texts, the determinants that we find in this triple dialogue, concern the elaboration of a system of artifices through the absence of a voice that organizes levels of importance in the discourse of the novel…. The ghostly nature of the speakers, the lack of an organizing subject, the impossibility of seizing a referent, the gestures toward signification that are constantly frustrated constitute the interstice in which Puig's writing exists. The condition for the creation of the artifices, of convention, is the effect of a negative eroticism; his texts are the cipher for the loss of power over language as a bridge. The figure of castration lies behind the chain of allusions that we find in Puig and behind his notion of art as the "artificial," as that which is substituted for a natural object that has been lost. (pp. 97-8)

In displaying … the interstices that separate literature from its referents, Puig exposes his novels as samples of the thing for which all literature strives: the appropriation of an external object and its transformation into something else that appears to be the same, but only because of the radical difference which literature preserves with its referent. The loss of a structuring voice, the loss of a referent, is the attainment of Puig's writing. To enumerate these instances is to expose the precarious being of writing. Puig's writing posits castration as the necessary condition for the works' unfolding. The interstice, the absence, the loss of an eye/I, makes possible the existence of the novels' imaginative space. Convention, the work of art, is the product of a radical absence that masks itself. An interstice opens up the possibility of excess, of frivolity, of artifice.

Puig is a frivolous writer. His language is the archeological reconstruction of the language of others, its conventional nature is always present. His nostalgia for other songs, for other eras, for other movies, is part of going back in order to install himself at privileged moments in which language fails in its desire to create meaning. His writing produces artifacts, static museum pieces, enormous idiomatic paintings. The possibility of painting instances of the same interstice, time and again, is the luxury of the loss of a referent. (pp. 113-14)

Alicia Borinsky, "Castration: Artifices, Notes on the Writing of Manuel Puig," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1975, by the University of Georgia), Spring, 1975, pp. 95-114.