Latin America produced in the decade of the 1960’s a prodigious number of fictional works—prodigious not merely in a numerical sense, but also in a qualitative one. This literary explosion eventually came to be known as the “boom.” José Donoso, a Chilean member of the boom and now one of its chroniclers, wrote in his Personal History of the Boom that, by their number and quality, the Argentines created a “mini-boom.” Among Argentina’s brightest lights is Manuel Puig, whose importance was readily noted in the critical reaction to his first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, published in 1968. Two years later Puig followed up his initial success with Heartbreak Tango, also widely hailed and acclaimed in Argentina and abroad. The Buenos Aires Affair, his third and latest novel, shares not only the acclaim and success of the earlier works, but some of the same techniques and themes. Novelistic technique, indeed the very form of the novel, was a significant preoccupation of the boom writers. In fact, intense experimentation with form and content characterizes much of the later works of such boom writers as Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, who tried to extend the novel’s formal limits, frequently sacrificing content—or to the nonspecialist, readability—in the process. Puig too has experimented, but somehow he has managed to maintain his commitment to characterization and plot.
Puig’s characters, Gladys, Leo, Maria Esther, and the lesser figures, are firmly rooted in the cosmopolitan milieu of Buenos Aires. Their quirks, obsessions, and responses are vividly outlined through several flashbacks and self-revelations. Guilt, sexual repression, jealousy, and personal and sexual frustration shape—perhaps more accurately misshape—their lives. These literary characters, like their real-life prototypes, do not live in a vacuum, and a very real city forms the setting in which they live out their destinies. Buenos Aires is for the Argentines and especially for Porteños, the inhabitants of the city, the alpha and the omega. The importance of the city, the nuances of class and politics reflect and are reflected in the people. Gladys, the only child of an overreaching bourgeois Porteño couple, represents the cultural and economic aspirations and the political failures of a liberal class. Leo’s background, of somewhat humbler origins, almost accidentally links him to the Peronist cause—anathema to Argentina’s upper and middle classes. Leo’s politics, however, blend and collide within him as much as his sexual problems. Somehow he always fails to complete satisfactorily either a political or sexual act unless some unexpected occurrence or some violence provides the necessary stimulus.
Imperceptibly Leo’s failures and Peronism unite. In spite of this parallel between the private and the political, however, The Buenos Aires Affair is not, strictly speaking, a political novel, but rather a social comment on modern urban life, whose political, cultural, and personal components mesh and fuse into a disturbing amalgam. Yet the author’s control of setting never for a moment dominates characterization. The remarkable feature here is that, as literary characters go, neither Leo nor Gladys is particularly sympathetic, but their intriguing often bizarre experiences at home and abroad, their physical appearances, and their thought processes keep the reader’s interest from ever waning. They are both unsatisfied and unfulfilled in their relationships. Both are sexual failures: Gladys is always in search of a reciprocated and perfect love, an emotional or spiritual commitment beyond the physical one; Leo is always fleeing that commitment. Leo, once he no longer has to force himself sexually on a woman and she accepts or enjoys him, inevitably becomes impotent. Gladys, driven by unattainable expectations that...
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