Betrayed By Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although Betrayed by Rita Hayworth does not resemble a traditional novel in form, its subject matter is highly conventional: the maturation and education of a sensitive young man. Because this is Puig’s first novel, and because he shares the birth date of his protagonist, most readers suspect that Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is autobiographical to some degree. The novel reveals the world of young José Casals, nicknamed Toto, by exploring not only his fantasies and daydreams but also those of his parents, aunts, cousins, schoolmates, and teachers. Through this sometimes indirect method, the reader absorbs the multitude of influences that shape Toto’s life. At the same time, Puig delineates the spectrum of provincial life in Argentina, providing insight into such facets of that culture as the meaning of machismo, the importance attached to education, and the pervasive influence of romantic fiction and Hollywood films.

Most of the novel’s sixteen chapters are internal monologues of the major and minor characters. A few chapters are made up of dialogues (consisting mostly of revealing gossip) between female characters; the novel also includes excerpts from diaries, two letters, and a school essay by Toto on the topic, “The Movie I Liked Best.”

A minimal plot emerges from this collage of material, although it may be difficult to discern on a first reading. Toto’s mother, Mita, marries Berto even though he has less education than she, because he resembles a film star. As a consequence of the marriage, she leaves her large family in a busy town and moves to sleepy Vallejos. During the early years of her marriage she works, to Berto’s discomfort, but increasingly becomes absorbed in her children and in going to films. Instead of bedtime stories, she recites to Toto the plots of films such as Romeo and Juliet and The Great Ziegfield. As soon as he is old enough, Toto also becomes a cinema buff, especially enjoying those with beautiful female stars such as Rita Hayworth. The first half of the novel revolves around the female characters who make up Mita and Toto’s world.

As Toto gets older, he naturally grows curious about sex and is given many opportunities to hear about its mysteries from his older playmates and cousins. A neighborhood girl, Paquita, teases him with salacious stories. One of his teachers, helping him to draw a model of the digestive and reproductive systems, explains the biological processes to the confused nine-year-old. Even at this early stage of his life, Toto is perceived by others as small for his age and effeminate. He prefers to play with girls, does not like...

(The entire section is 898 words.)