Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Made into a stage play, a Hollywood feature film, and a very successful Broadway musical, this novel is Manuel Puig’s most famous. Some say that it is also his most accomplished, using all his characteristic techniques in a way that remains accessible to the ordinary reader and coupling them with themes that are the closest to the author’s heart.
Puig was born in rural Argentina in 1932 and attended the University of Buenos Aires and film school. In 1956, he moved to London and then Rome, where he worked as an assistant film director. He returned to Buenos Aires and worked as a director for a year but then moved to New York, where he took up permanent residence. His novels reflect his early life in the rural countryside, where he spent most of his time watching films made during the 1930’s and 1940’s. His experience with the simple people with whom he matured shaped the sorts of characters he includes in his novels. His studies and his travels, however, prepared him for the sophisticated techniques and daring themes that make his writing stand out in contemporary literature.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a story without a narrator, and much of it reads like a movie script without definite indications of who is speaking. The variety of types of discourse is part of Puig’s charm as a writer, and Kiss of the Spider Woman includes dream sequences, remembrances of film clips, official police reports, snatches of letters, interviews, and, most strangely, interminable footnotes. The effect is to force the reader to become involved in the act of creation, as if Molina is there recounting a story for the reader to visualize. In reading the novel, one is actually having an experience similar to that of the characters; one is lifted out of the chair and taken to many imaginary places. Using such metafictional techniques, Puig thus calls attention to the book as a product, as something put together by a real person.
Of more importance, however, are the novel’s themes, which were so disturbing to the Argentine government that the book was banned until the military government was overthrown. Puig himself had more hope for influencing relations between individuals than for changing society itself, but in this novel he makes an attempt to marry the two. Molina, as a gay male in Argentina, has always been an outcast in society. To compensate for that exclusion from the world of significance, he and his friends live their lives in romantic illusion. Valentín, on the other hand, dedicates himself to the Marxist ideal of a classless society. In pursuit of that goal, the needs of any one individual are seen as less important than those of the larger, anonymous group. In their cell, the two men must find some accommodation for these two conflicting approaches to life. Valentín comes to accept a broader definition of masculinity, and Molina learns that he can assume responsibility for changing an unjust society.
Although Puig’s treatment of this topic is unique, especially within South American literature, he was criticized by members of the homosexual community for choosing a stereotypically effeminate spokesperson for the gay male. He was also criticized by various feminists for the stereotypical, and practically invisible, role that women play in the novel. However, Puig includes much information that educates the reader on the challenges faced by the homosexual community. As a gay man himself, Puig said that he included the controversial footnotes, which offer an abbreviated history of psychoanalytic interpretations of the meaning of homosexuality, to bring the information to the attention of a large reading public that might not otherwise give it much consideration. By concluding that supposed history with an unknown psychiatrist, Puig more or less puts himself in the picture and speaks through that “character.” Significantly, this last speaker seems to lay the groundwork for the sort of political action that Molina ultimately decides to undertake.
On the structural level, the scientific footnotes distance the reader from the story and offer a reminder that the entertainment being provided, much like the films that Molina recounts, will ultimately dissolve into thin air. The problems that the story depicts, however, will not. The reader is also reminded that there are different types of truth, just as there are the various types of discourse embodied in the book. There is the supposedly objective truth of science and the more inclusive truth that can be adequately explored only in art.