Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717
Manuel Puig was not, strictly speaking, a mystery and detective novelist. His modus operandi was consistently more or less to usurp some popular genre for each of his novels. In Heartbreak Tango, he used the serialized melodrama, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the screenplay. Even as he plundered the artifacts of mass culture, Puig’s attitude toward popular culture was deeply ironic. It is this obvious ambivalence that made him one of the most self-conscious of twentieth century writers.
The Buenos Aires Affair
Consequently, Puig’s use of the police-novel format for The Buenos Aires Affair, his third novel, reflects a sincere interest in the genre yet simultaneously permits him to parody its conventions. The result is an interesting amalgamation of pop fiction and the avant-garde. In reviewing the novel for The New York Times Book Review, Robert Alter called it a “sustained bravura performance by a writer keenly conscious of how both the novel as a literary form and the kinds of people who are its best subjects have been caught up in the clichés of popular culture.”
Puig initially chose to write the book as a detective novel because he had already selected the themes he wanted to treat—repressed sexuality and contained violence. He believed that the narrative structure typical of detective literature would facilitate his project. In fact, the conventions of detective writing were particularly well suited to his undertaking. First, the rules of the genre are very well defined. Puig had only to subtitle his book “detective novel” to activate an entire set of expectations in readers. Second, the detective novel appeals to those who read critically and enjoy filling in missing details and information. Puig’s narrative technique has always required such readers.
Puig’s critics have often compared his technique to the neorealism of the French New Novelists. Puig was generally quick to deny any literary influence and to insist that the cinema had a greater impact on his work. Specifically, he mentioned Alfred Hitchcock as a major influence on The Buenos Aires Affair. The majority of Puig’s novels are attempts to render in prose reality as it might be seen by a camera’s eye—that is, with distortions, omissions, and plenty of room for an audience to draw false conclusions. This coincides with the efforts of the New Novelists to record reality in an objective fashion, without commentary or interpretation in the text, much as a camera would. It is the same nonintrusive style of writing that French critic Roland Barthes has called “zero degree writing.” The technique in itself creates mystery, and Puig’s fiction has much in common with works by New Novelists Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor that have been classified as detective fiction.
The classic detective story has well-defined rules of functioning. Generally, the whodunit begins with a crime, preferably a murder. The story, then, involves a detective’s reconstruction of the event from available clues to unmask the perpetrator of the crime. The text moves toward a solution while at the same time postponing that solution through a series of false leads and delays. It is this process of discovery, rather than the answer to the problem or the identity of the criminal, that forms the body of the book. The detective, not being omniscient, must piece together his solution through careful observation of evidence found at the scene of the crime as well as from eyewitness accounts that are necessarily fragmented and sometimes unreliable. Puig’s fiction works in a similar manner, often requiring readers to supply connections and interpretations.
In The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig uses a variety of narrative techniques. There is no consistent narrative voice or point of view, and there is no detective other than the reader. Sometimes a dispassionate third-person narrator catalogs objects in a room, listing, for example, the sharpest object, the most expensive objects, metal objects, and the like. At other times, an omniscient narrator lays bare the hearts and minds of the characters, revealing their dreams and sexual fantasies. The novel is itself a process of investigation and a constant reminder of the ambiguity of life, the complexity of character, the ultimate inaccessibility of reality. This philosophy of fiction is central to Puig’s work and has its origins, for him, in film technique. The notion that some points of view are more privileged than others, just as some witnesses are more reliable than others, is also implicit in detective fiction.
As a master of the occluded narrative, Puig conceals and withholds information throughout the novel. In one chapter, he records one side (all that a casual observer would realistically hear) of a phone conversation in a police station, and he includes fragments of the newspaper articles the character is reading. He also offers a shorthand transcription of another telephone conversation. While the message of the transcription seems apparent, the missing words create ambiguity.
Thus, the importance of point of view is demonstrated: Reality is fragmented and open to interpretation. Reading a novel by Puig is essentially detective work. He presents information in a manner that requires readers to piece together the truth from the available clues, and this process often leads them to mistaken conclusions. Puig has used this technique consistently in his fiction. It also commonly occurs in detective fiction: In the process of discovering the solution to the problem, the readers and the detective pursue a number of false leads as they uncover the missing links that will allow all the clues to make sense. Puig, too, lures the readers into erroneous conclusions.
Clearly, in its very nature, the detective-story format lends itself to Puig’s project. Its conventions are helpful to him; in fact, they provide a justification, more or less, for his customarily inventive method of telling a story. However, Puig goes beyond using the rules of the genre: He draws readers’ attention to the fact that there are elaborate rules dictating how they read. By revealing to readers their own reading processes, Puig shows them how much they can be deceived by all manner of fictions. By the end of the novel, readers discover that the murder they thought they were witnessing at the start did not take place.
The Buenos Aires Affair begins with what can easily be construed as a crime. A mother discovers her daughter’s absence from the house they are sharing and notes certain signs of intrusion. In the subsequent chapter, Puig describes an ominous scene in which a woman—gagged, very still and pale, and missing an eye—is lying on a bed. A man dressed in a towel is standing over her. Although the details are vague, and the narrator does note that there is no sign of violence, readers will construe this scene as typical of the scene of the crime in the whodunit. Having shown readers the anticipated “crime,” the narrator then predictably flashes back to reconstruct the events leading up to it and re-create the lives of the presumed female victim and male perpetrator.
At this point, the novel shifts to a style that has been called pop Freudianism. In an exercise in psychoanalysis at once serious and parodic, it relates how both “victim” and “criminal” suffer from sexual disorders originating in a missing parent and exacerbated by a damaging sexual experience. The woman appears to enjoy abusive sex; the man needs to be the abuser. The characters are ideally cast for their respective roles. Clearly, this is a crime waiting to happen.
There is an element of the thriller here too, as Tzvetan Todorov defines it. The man has committed a previous, undiscovered murder (or so he thinks, although the victim’s death is not verified). In this case, just the right set of circumstances combine with his psychosis to produce violent results—violence that suggests the possibility of a future episode. The novel is sustained by the readers’ suspense as they await the eruption of the projected violence that will fully explain the mysterious scene at the beginning.
As Puig leads up to the reenactment of the murder the readers believe has occurred, he endeavors to justify it in psychoanalytical terms. When at length the narrative returns to the scene with which it began, the perspective is much more informed. As it turns out, the man has lured the woman to his apartment to pretend to another woman that he is going to murder her to displace her suspicion that he murdered the original victim (who may or may not be dead), as he has partially confessed to her.
Unlike the typical whodunit, the novel returns to its starting point not so that the detective can disclose his ingenious solution to the crime but so that Puig can reveal to readers how they have been duped. Anticipating a murder, readers create one from the textual fragments supplied, or from the gaps within the text. They then proceed to read the psychological case histories as means of discovering how or why the crime occurred. In the process, they discover instead the conventions by which they read detective fiction (or any fiction, for that matter). As the scene of the supposed murder comes to a close, the proposed victim sleeps, while the would-be criminal departs and kills himself by driving too fast. His case history concludes with a clinical, pseudoscientific autopsy report.
Finally, and typically, it is the relationship between the text and the reader, together with the reading activity itself, that becomes the focus of the novel. By tricking readers into misreading a series of textual clues and activating a set of extratextual expectations, Puig managed to reveal the betraying power of fictions. This was the central theme in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, in which he explored his personal sense of having been a victim of cinematic illusions. Present in all Puig’s work, this theme is echoed in The Buenos Aires Affair. The characters, as their lives are depicted, fall prey to the illusions perpetrated by popular culture. Lest readers judge them too harshly for their weakness, however, Puig showed how easily the readers themselves are deceived by a fictional construct and fall for all the clichés of the detective novel. In doing so, Puig criticized yet affirmed the value of popular culture.
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