Heartbreak Tango Summary
by Manuel Puig

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Heartbreak Tango Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although Heartbreak Tango may be classified as a realistic novel for its representation of an ordinary, familiar reality, it is not at all traditional in the development of its narrative. The portrayal of Juan Carlos Etchepare, dead from tuberculosis as the story begins, is effected primarily through his letters and through the testimonies of the other characters of the novel. The interviews, letters, newspaper reports, descriptions of photo albums, objective eyewitness accounts, and stream-of-consciousness passages included in the narrative present Juan Carlos as a childish, lovable, worthless philanderer, as if his personality were the incarnation of the less offensive characteristics of the literary and cultural stereotype of Don Juan.

Ten years after her infatuation with Etchepare, Nené writes letters to his mother, exploring the unfulfilled passion that she feels for him and gradually reconstructing the relationships of the dead man and the people who knew him. The scenario includes Francisco, who tries to emulate the romantic escapades of Juan Carlos but is murdered by Fanny, the young woman whom he impregnates, and Celina Etchepare, who fiercely defends her brother and at the same time tries to live up to his reputation for promiscuous, unbridled sexual freedom. Nené’s friend Mabel moves with no hesitation from lover to lover according to her idle whims. All of these characters recall the life of Juan Carlos with much nostalgic distortion and exaggeration of his sexual expertise and disarming charm. The woman who was really devoted to him, the widow Elsa DiCarlo, insists on presenting honestly and directly the true portrait of the unfortunate, unhappy consumptive lover whom she nursed through the last stages of his illness.

The letters from Nené to Leonor, Juan Carlos’s mother, form the opening section of the novel, interspersed with objective narrative passages that portray the reactions of the recipient of the letters. Toward the end of the novel, as the letters of reply from Leonor are presented, it becomes obvious that it is not Leonor but her daughter Celina who has been corresponding with Nené, surreptitiously using her mother’s name. As an act of vengeance, Celina sends the letters from Nené to Nené’s husband, Donato, in hopes of destroying their marriage. The novel ends with the notice of Nené’s death twenty years later, after which Donato honors his wife’s request that her private collection of letters (which she received thirty years before from Juan Carlos) be burned without being read by anyone.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Heartbreak Tango: A Serial dates from the first stage of Puig’s career, before his interest in small-town life was overshadowed by political concerns. The novel’s title indicates something of its style and tone. Like film serials, it is episodic in structure, and it is filled with the passion, intrigue, and drama (even melodrama) of tangos.

The novel’s episodic structure is not quite so simple as weekly installments of film serials. Instead, the story is told through letters, memos, quotations from newspapers, police reports, and other sources. The reader must reconstruct a coherent chronology of events from this variety of incomplete, apparently random, and sometimes contradictory information. This task is one of the great pleasures of the novel.

At the center of the novel is Juan Carlos Etchepare. The distance between the illusion—that he is a Don Juan among fainting females—and banal reality—Etchepare is a consumptive government bookkeeper—exemplifies Puig’s view of small-town Argentines, who struggle to make a living as civil servants, clerks, and policemen while dreaming of romance and adventure—dreams that are fulfilled only in the artificial world of films, fan magazines, and pop music.

The novel begins with a newspaper notice of Juan’s death. There follow letters from the woman who apparently loved him the most, Nene, to his mother, expressing her condolences and recalling...

(The entire section is 1,130 words.)