Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859
Manuel Puig was born and reared in Argentina, studied film direction in Rome and worked as an assistant director there. He has lived in a number of world capitals, and currently resides in New York. Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages is Puig’s fifth novel. Unlike his previous novels, it was written in English, then translated into Spanish and published as Maldicion eterna a quien lea estas paginas in 1980. The published English text was based upon both the original, unpublished English version and the Spanish text. In short, Puig represents a new kind of writer: the international writer. His fiction owes its distinctive character neither to the materials of his native culture nor to the great tradition of Western literature but rather to an international popular culture exported chiefly from America and flourishing everywhere from Argentina to Japan.
Puig’s previous novels—La tración de Rita Hayworth (1968; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, 1971); Boquitas pintadas (1969; Heartbreak Tango, 1973); The Buenos Aires Affair: Novela policial (1973; The Buenos Aires Affair: A Detective Novel, 1976); and El beso de la mujer araña (1976; The Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1979)—reveal an almost obsessive preoccupation with certain recurring themes and devices. Thematically, Puig has explored repeatedly the role of popular culture, particularly Hollywood films, in the imaginative life of his characters. All of his novels feature an implicit critique of traditional sexual roles from a homosexual perspective. Essentially an apolitical writer (though several of his books have been banned in Argentina), Puig is inclined to treat political repression as but a manifestation of a more pervasive cultural oppression that is most clearly focused in traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity.
Stylistically, Puig is an exemplary international modernist. From the first, his novels have been collages, comprising such diverse materials as letters, term papers, plot summaries of films and excerpts from film scripts, and (in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, long running footnotes discussing various theories concerning homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general. Puig’s most distinctive stylistic trait is his preoccupation with speech, with oral as opposed to written language. This trait, evident in his first novel, has become more pronounced as Puig has developed; The Kiss of the Spider Woman consists largely of dialogue between the two principal characters.
Both thematically and stylistically, Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages is a continuation of Puig’s previous work. With the exception of several pages of appended “documents” (letters; an informal will; a job application), the novel consists entirely of dialogue between two characters. Here it would seem that Puig has reached the logical conclusion of his stylistic development.
An odd author’s note on the dust jacket of the novel describes its genesis:This novel was born of a crisis I went through. I had returned to New York from a trip, spiritually and morally exhausted. Within a few days I spotted this man, while I was working out in a gym. He was young, healthy, handsome. “I’d like to be like him,” I thought. I got to know him and soon discovered he was morally bankrupt. The book is the outcome of a series of interviews I did with him.
Given the dialogic structure of the novel, this author’s note is rather ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so, for both of the speakers whose conversations constitute the novel are morally bankrupt. Lawrence John, known throughout the book as “Larry,” is an embittered failure at the age of thirty-six. Once a promising student and, by his own account at least, successful college history instructor, he has drifted from one dead-end job to another. A student of Karl Marx and a self-styled “labor organizer,” he seems incapable of any sustained commitment.
All this the reader gathers from Larry’s conversations with Juan José Ramirez, a seventy-four-year-old Argentine political prisoner exiled to America and now living in a Greenwich Village nursing home. Mr. Ramirez, as Larry addresses him, is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from a strange form of amnesia, apparently as a result of his imprisonment. From his questions to Larry, who, in need of work, has been hired to take him for walks in his wheelchair three times a week, it appears that Ramirez has forgotten not only bits of general knowledge (such as the identity of George Washington) and events in his own life but also what it is like to experience a number of basic human feelings. He attempts to cure this amnesia of the soul by asking Larry to re-create various experiences, chiefly but not exclusively sexual, in obsessive detail.
Larry, in turn, obtains a complex gratification from these memory-sessions (at times, he and Ramirez switch roles, with Larry becoming the aggressive interrogator). Midway through the novel, however, just after Ramirez has been transferred to a hospital room because his health has taken a turn for the worse, Larry discovers something more concrete which he wants from Ramirez. A package has been sent to Ramirez from a human-rights organization in Buenos Aires (perhaps an arm of Human Rights International, the organization funding Ramirez’s care). Larry asks what the package contains, and presses Ramirez to open it. It turns out to contain books, French novels, Les liaisons dangereuses (1782), La Princesse de Clèves (1678), and Adolphe (1815), among others.
Puzzling over the incongruity of this “present,” as Ramirez calls the package, Larry notices that certain words in the books have numbers written above them, and that the numbered words, rearranged sequentially, form sentences. The first sentence Larry decodes, “Malédiction éternelle à qui lise ces pages,” which he quickly translates into English, is the title of the novel: “Eternal curse on the reader of these pages.”
Deducing that Ramirez had used this system to encode his reflections while in prison (he identifies the numbers as being in Ramirez’s handwriting), Larry is excited at the prospect of reviving his academic career. “It could be an important document about resistance to repression,” he says of the memoirs, but it is clear that he is primarily interested in his own future. From that point on, Ramirez uses the books to exercise power over Larry, now offering them, now withdrawing them. In the end, after Ramirez’s death, Larry does not get the books. Puig deliberately plants contradictory “clues” which make it difficult to decide whether Ramirez finally intended Larry to have them; Human Rights International, interpreting the “evidence” as it suits them, claims the books on the pretext of respecting Ramirez’s last wishes.
Ramirez and Larry are two empty carcasses, parasites feeding on each other in a kind of symbiotic relationship, scarcely existing by projecting borrowed personalities, sometimes pathetic, sometimes disgusting, but always recognizably human. Behind his mask of hardened nonchalance, Larrry conceals the pitiful bankruptcy of moral and emotional aimlessness and the burden of an identity crisis. Mr. Ramirez hides behind his loss of memory—an amnesia never made quite convincing—to pry into other people’s feelings in a desperate attempt to retrieve the human fellowship that his commitment to political activism made him forget. Each character is the protagonist of his own story and the antagonist of the other’s, both indispensable as complementary facets of the same process. At the same time, each is for the other a means of contact with a wider, deeper reality with which he has lost touch.
In this relationship of permanent deception, role-playing acquires a deep significance. The “as if” that role-playing presupposes is not mere make-believe, as in a childish game: Larry and Ramirez play roles for each other in a pathetic effort to overcome their nullity. Thus, their lies are not lies as such; they are stories that accomplish a double purpose: they enable each character both to know his own chaotic inner reality and to make sense of it—imagination as a mode of perception. Seen in this light, the distinction between “true” stories and make-believe is irrelevant; the stories always add to an understanding of the characters. Their stories spring from a search through different levels of personality, from the need to know who one is beneath the mask and who one can be when other possibilities of being are released—that is, when one escapes from one’s repressions.
These two characters do not indulge in fantasies as an easy way out of reality; fantasies for them are an exploration into other levels of reality—evanescent, fluid, shifting. Ramirez’s amnesia may be real or fake, and the same can be said of Larry’s account of his oppressive relationship with his parents, but whether they are one or the other makes little difference: Ramirez has to retrieve a meaningful past, a past that can justify a life devoted to labor-union agitation and political ideals detrimental to effective relations; Larry gropes in his past for the source of his inadequacy, for the beginning of the failure he is. This inward journey is so essential that even the outer world, the world of objects and of people—which for the reader is never sufficiently concrete—is a projection of their fears and anxieties. Their stories function much in the same way as fiction, or literature in general, does: they modify, determine, and generate meaning, and the relationship between levels of meaning produces the multiplicity characteristic of literary texts.
The strange fantasy Ramirez and Larry invent (or one of them dreams) is illustrative of the quest for selfhood in which both have engaged. An advertisement for a brand of cigarettes serves as a source of inspiration, and Larry finds himself lost in a landscape of “snow-capped mountains and Arctic vegetation,” miles away from Ramirez, with whom he nevertheless can communicate. For a man who has lost all memory of feelings, Ramirez detects far too easily Larry’s emotions, such as fear, nostalgia, anguish, and loneliness. He finally enters the landscape to offer a final possibility of rescue, and although his use of the word “rescue” is quite ambiguous, it is clear that it refers not so much to Larry as to himself. Larry’s plunge into the warm waters of a spring, after stripping himself of “this layer of clothes,” resembles the plunge into the unconscious after one has discarded the different levels of superimposed selves. Objective fact or subjective fantasy—whatever it is, it is deeply moving.
Puig is always praised for his skill in keeping the right distance from his characters. In Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, the distance is such that the author virtually effaces himself. Reading Puig’s novel, one senses a pervasive tone of cross-examination resembling that of a detective story, but the sleuth seems to be absent—until the final realization comes: Larry’s decoding of Ramirez’s “memoirs” by carefully examining the French novels in which they have been encoded resembles the reader’s own efforts to decode the characters from the stories in which they have encoded themselves. The reader is the sleuth and the “recognition scene” is highly ambiguous. Thus Puig ends by turning the tables on the reader, who is implicitly asked to consider the construction of his own story, his own self.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47
Library Journal. CVII, June 1, 1982, p. 1115.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 20, 1982, p. 3.
Maclean’s. XCV, July 19, 1982, p. 48.
New Leader. LXV, June 28, 1982, p. 19.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, July 4, 1982, p. 9.
The New Yorker. LVIII, July 26, 1982, p. 95.
Newsweek. XCIX, June 28, 1982, p. 74.
Virginia Quarterly Review. LVIII, Autumn, 1982, p. 131.
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