Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753
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 Spanish-language environment and the English-language film world. The language used in Hollywood films, as conventionalized as it often is, cannot be considered representative of any spontaneously occurring form of expression, but Puig nevertheless identified the English language with Hollywood (indeed, as he later explained, it made him feel close to Hollywood), and he sought to bridge the gap between his world and the cinematic world by mastering English. The idea of English as the language of film persisted with Puig, to the extent that his first few writing efforts were film scripts in English. He was an active consultant in the translation of his novels into English, and he actually wrote the first version of An Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages in English, later composing a Spanish equivalent; the published English version of the novel was based on both the unpublished English original and the Spanish “translation.”
Puig’s early career was marked by various unsuccessful attempts to find an outlet for his special love and knowledge of film and other popular forms. From 1955 to 1962, Puig sought to break into screenwriting and directing but was consistently unable to make progress in the film industry. A scholarship in 1957 to the Experimental Film Center permitted him to study filmmaking in Rome; later, he tried Spanish-language script work in Argentina, but he seemed to be insufficiently attuned to national realities. To become comfortable with an Argentine Spanish suitable for screenwriting, Puig worked at reproducing the voices he had heard around him in his hometown. The re-creation of these voices from a long-ago small-town world proved more absorbing than the task of screenwriting and allowed Puig to begin writing novels.
The sets of concerns referred to above are, essentially, the crucial issues of Puig’s first two novels. In 1963, the restless Puig moved to New York, took a fairly undemanding job as an airline employee, and set about writingnarrative, the literary form that would eventually prove his most successful medium. The author was soon able to obtain praise for his work, but it was 1968 before Betrayed by Rita Hayworth was published, and then without attaining a wide readership. Heartbreak Tango followed, as popular and readable as a soap opera, which it resembled. It drew readers to his earlier novel, and Puig became a celebrated feature of the Buenos Aires scene, which during those “boom” years tended to make celebrities of innovative writers.
In 1973, however, his third novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, was confiscated by authorities. After the impounding of the copies of this work, Puig published with the Barcelona firm of Seix Barral. Well established as a novelist with an international reputation, Puig traveled widely, spending considerable time in New York. He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on July 22, 1990.
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