Manuel Puig was born on December 28, 1932, in the small town of General Villegas in the Argentine Pampas. According to his own account, the provincial elevation of machismo and authority made his daily existence extremely unpleasant in his youth, so that he sought escape by going to the movie theater. Puig’s childhood immersion in the Hollywood superproductions of the 1930’s and 1940’s became a powerful influence in his life and work.
In 1951, Puig left the provinces to begin his studies at the university in Buenos Aires, expecting the big city to resemble Hollywood. Disappointed by reality, he left Argentina for Italy on a grant to study cinematography in 1956. In Italy he pursued his dream of working in the film industry, acting as an assistant director at Cinecittà in Rome until 1962. During this time, however, he became disillusioned with life on the set and began his first novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, 1971), in part to express his disenchantment. As Puig later explained, that novel was an attempt to discover why he suddenly found himself at the age of thirty without a career or money and with the knowledge that his life’s vocation was a sham. From that time onward, the betrayal of reality by illusion and the seduction of the individual by popular culture would be constant themes in his writing.
From 1964 until 1967, Puig worked as a clerk at Kennedy Airport in New York while he finished Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. Following its publication, he returned to Buenos Aires and began a second novel, Boquitas pintadas (1969; Heartbreak Tango, 1973). His return to his home country was short-lived. Following the banning in Argentina of his third novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig spent three years in exile in Mexico and then returned to New York in 1976. At that time he published what is perhaps his best-known work, El beso de la mujer araña (1976; Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1979). He later collaborated with director Hector Babenco on a film adaptation that premiered in 1985. He remained in exile for the rest of his life. Puig continued to write novels, plays, and screenplays, and his work has been translated into fourteen languages.
In 1989, Puig moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico. The following summer he underwent emergency surgery for an inflamed gallbladder and died shortly afterward.
Juan Manuel Puig was born on December 28, 1932, in General Villegas, Argentina. His early life, however confusing it may have been to him, provided him with excellent insight into the problems of mass-media saturation and contemporary uncertainties about sexuality and sex-role definition. As the author reported it, his almost daily filmgoing began before he had reached the age of four. The boy favored films with a strong element of glamour and fantasy, especially the extravagantly mounted musical comedies and dramas imported from the United States. His attention, he recalled, was directed almost exclusively to the female lead performers; male actors failed to provoke an empathetic response.
At the age of ten, Puig suffered a traumatic experience: an attempted rape by another male. Because Puig chose to make public this very troubling incident in his early life, one may assume that it is associated with his later literary interest in showing the effects of formative experiences in the shaping of one’s identity, particularly in the emergence of a conflicted or uneasy sense of one’s sexual self.
Puig’s hometown was severely limited in its cultural and educational opportunities, but U.S. films provided continual reminders of the larger, cosmopolitan world. Puig’s mother was an urban woman who had gone to the pampas to work in the provincial health services and ended up staying there and marrying a local man. This woman stood out from her surroundings in many ways; with her great passion for reading and filmgoing, she seems to have had a streak of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in her character. At any rate, the provincial’s longing for a cosmopolitan environment became powerfully represented in Puig’s first two novels.
A secondary factor in Puig’s development was the disjunction between his...
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Manuel Puig (pweeg) was born in General Villegas, a dusty village on the Argentine pampas, one much like those he examines with such telling detail in his novels. His father, Baldomero, was a businessman, and his mother, Maria Elena Delledonne Puig, was a chemist.
For many years readers have had to rely on Puig’s own observations in interviews for most information about him. He was, by his own account, a sensitive, timid youth in a small town that valued authority and machismo; these were two things that Puig thought he lacked. He escaped this situation by immersing himself in Hollywood fantasies, going to the cinema at least four times a week.
In contrast to most writers, Puig was not enthralled by the medium—fiction—that would make him famous but by the world of Hollywood films. He read literature, but probably no more than other young Argentines of artistic inclinations, and what reading he did was almost exclusively of foreign authorship. He deliberately avoided Spanish literature for being tainted with the machismo that he despised. He also held Argentine films in contempt for much the same reason.
His education moved Puig in the direction in which he was already inclined. After enduring the small-town schools of General Villegas, Puig studied at the University of Buenos Aires, starting in 1950, and then won a scholarship to study directing in Rome, where he worked for a time under the famous film director Vittorio De Sica. Instead of this being the answer to his dreams, however, he found the world of filmmaking to be merely another institution based on power and subordination. He did not abandon the cinema—he would never do that—but he did lose much of his interest in directing.
He turned his attentions to screenwriting instead. He insisted on writing in English...
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Great writers accomplish two things: They make their chosen corner of the world profoundly real and universal. They also push at the boundaries of their chosen medium, opening up unexpected vistas for succeeding writers and readers. Manuel Puig is therefore a great writer. He has adventurously tested the conventions of the novel and has shown what new possibilities of structure and voice are available to writers. His experiments were not for their own sake but helped him bring small-town Argentina vividly to life.
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