Manuel Puig World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2462

Just as a single Puig novel may offer a variety of technical strategies and tones, Puig’s career as a whole is marked by continual experimentation and changing subjects and themes. Change is one of the three Puig constants. The other two, which became increasingly interrelated as his career progressed, are small-town life (and lower-middle-class people in general) and political concerns, especially the politics of power and authority.

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In almost all Puig novels the first thing the reader notices is his technical brilliance. The reader should not insist on looking for what Puig refuses to deliver—a conventional introduction of setting, main characters, and conflict, and then a chronological complication and climax—but instead should take pleasure in solving the author’s technical puzzles.

Puig’s first two novels—Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango—are perhaps his most stylistically varied and innovative. In both Puig employs disrupted chronologies. The reader may not be supplied with information necessary to fully understand an incident first mentioned in the novel until that incident is alluded to again, perhaps only indirectly, later on. For example, in Heartbreak Tango, Nene wonders why the letters she writes to the mother of her late lover go unanswered. It is not until much later that the reader learns the answer: Nene’s letters have been intercepted by her lover’s sister.

Altered and piecemeal chronologies are just one of Puig’s technical flourishes and are not truly an innovation, being a favorite strategy of such earlier writers as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and especially William Faulkner. More distinctive and truly innovative are the varied sources of information presented the reader. The fact that the information does not come from a single source imparts a richness to the novels—and, admittedly, a greater degree of difficulty.

In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango, for example, Puig constructs his narratives out of letters, newspaper excerpts, memos, diary entries, police reports, advertisements, telephone and other conversations where the speakers generally are not identified (and sometimes only one side of the conversation is given), and interior monologues (rambling meditations of certain characters). The best analogy for the Puig style, especially in his early novels, is the collage. The total effect comes from an assemblage of apparently disparate parts. Puig used the collage less extensively in his later works but almost all later strategies are prefigured in these first two novels. Kiss of the Spider Woman, for example, except for a series of footnote commentaries, is composed almost entirely of dialogue between two characters, without the usual dialogue tags to identify the speakers. The same is true of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages. The most nearly conventional of Puig’s novels, in style at least, is Pubis angelical (1979; English translation, 1986), but even in that novel one finds sections of dialogue without attribution and a mixing of three different plot lines.

Puig’s novels reflect and employ various aspects of Argentine popular culture that intrigued the author. The Buenos Aires Affair is written in the style of the hard-boiled detective novel. Heartbreak Tango pulses to the rhythms and passions of the tango (excerpts from which introduce each chapter), while the characters play out roles reminiscent—in their own minds, at least, if not in reality—of the film serials suggested by the subtitle. In fact, films are almost omnipresent in Puig’s fiction. The characters attend them, dream about them, discuss them at great length, and let their thinking, dress, and mannerisms be influenced by them. Puig’s novels are clearly not themselves examples of popular fiction, but he does employ aspects of popular culture in his fiction to the extent that the reader is convinced of its importance in Puig’s Argentina.

Technical innovation is such an important and fascinating feature of Puig’s fiction that the reader may forget that the novels are also about something. Indeed, his style always serves his subjects and themes; in Puig, as in all great writers, style and content are one. Popular culture, for example, works its way into Puig’s style because it is an important aspect of Argentine culture. Moreover, his characters immerse themselves in films, songs, fan magazines, and radio programs because their lives are devoid of romance and drama. Similarly, one-sided conversations, letters to which there are no replies, and interior monologues may be technical strategies, but they also underscore the desperate aloneness of so many of Puig’s characters.

Ultimately, Puig’s fascination with his characters rivals his fascination with technical experimentation. His earliest interest was in the people of small-town Argentina. Even when he later broadened his canvas to include city dwellers or persons living outside Argentina, his interest rarely strayed beyond the working-and lower-middle classes. The generals, starving peasants, and hacienda owners so favored by other Latin American novelists are not so much in evidence in Puig’s fiction as are clerks, policemen, maids, and housewives. Their lives tend to be narrow—narrower than their dreams, at least—and their futures more limited than their hopes.

Starting with The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig moves away from powerfully evoking the mundane lives of the characters and focuses more on the causes of their unhappiness. Their problems are rooted in politics. Puig first cast his critical eye on the repressive regime in his native Argentina (Kiss of the Spider Woman) but then broadened his scope to include the nature of power and powerlessness in general (seen most tellingly in the exploited women of Pubis angelical).

Puig is as technically inventive a writer as may be found in post-World War II fiction, with profound sympathies for ordinary human beings and intellectual breadth to match.

Heartbreak Tango

First published: Boquitas pintadas, 1969 (English translation, 1973)

Type of work: Novel

A dying man and the women who loved him recall their relationships.

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 Juan’s and her relationship. From these and other sources, the reader learns about not only Juan’s life but also the lives of the women who loved him. The transformations they undergo over the courses of their lives differ in detail but are similar in the essentials. Juan, for example, at the earliest point in the chronology is a dashing, athletic man-about-town. He has an affair with not only Nene but also his sister’s friend Mabel, among others. Then comes the onset of tuberculosis. His relationships with women begin to sour as he spends increasing amounts of time in a sanatorium. His last affair is with an older woman, with children, who is more mother and nurse than lover to Juan in his dying days.

A graph of Juan’s life, then, would show a downward movement, a pattern also evident in the women who loved him. Nene moves from the high point of her romance with Juan to the grimmer reality of married life with a depressingly ordinary man. Mabel, another of Juan’s conquests, begins as an envied beauty and ends as an aging schoolteacher with a history of affairs. Celina degenerates from the proud, even arrogant sister of the handsome Juan to a waspish, venomous spinster. Fanny aspires to no more than a life with the father of her baby but ends in murdering him.

Although there is indeed an undercurrent of satire in this collage of small-town life, Puig is less judgmental than compassionate, and his characters are less comic or even pathetic than profoundly, sadly human.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

First published: El beso de la mujer araña, 1976 (English translation, 1979)

Type of work: Novel

Two men in an Argentine prison struggle to find hope and dignity in an environment of fear and degradation.

Written at the height of his powers, Kiss of the Spider Woman is arguably Puig’s best and most famous novel. It was his first novel written after Puig left Argentina to escape political repression, his previous novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, having been banned for sexual explicitness. In light of this, Kiss of the Spider Woman, whose two main characters are a homosexual and a Marxist communist, may be seen as Puig’s public refusal to accommodate himself and his art to the forces of fear and bigotry.

The novel hardly has a plot in the usual sense, that is, a series of events building upon one another to a clear climax and resolution. The novel is composed primarily of dialogue between the characters: Molina, a thirty-seven-year-old window dresser, imprisoned for being what he is, a homosexual, and Valentin, a twenty-six-year-old Marxist imprisoned for political activities.

At the beginning of the novel the two seem to be antagonists, not so much due to bigotry but because each sees the other’s philosophy and lifestyle as irrelevant. Valentin does not look down on Molina because he is homosexual so much as he finds a commitment to homosexuality a selfish waste in a world that cries out for political reform. To Molina, Valentin’s political philosophy is an airy abstraction that does not measure up to the individual need for love and passion.

Molina dominates the dialogue, at least in terms of who talks more, and he demonstrates his love of beauty and passion by describing in ever-greater detail the plots of some of his favorite films. Valentin’s near-constant interruptions are, in part at least, deliberate attempts to destroy the flow of Molina’s narratives, thus underscoring Valentin’s scorn for what Molina holds dear. When, less frequently, Valentin holds forth on leftist political doctrine, Molina returns the favor with his own interruptions.

A reader may note, however, that over the course of apparently trivial exchanges, important transformations are occurring in both characters. Valentin, secretly being poisoned by the authorities, begins to view Molina’s narratives as a welcome distraction from his suffering; his newfound sensitivity reaches a culmination when he makes love to Molina. For his part Molina—consumed by self-interest to the point of agreeing to extract information from his cell mate in return for a promise of early release—comes to view Valentin with sympathy and compassion, risking his own privileged status with the warden to get better treatment for Valentin.

The novel ends tragically, with Molina gunned down while trying to deliver a message to Valentin’s comrades and with Valentin tortured horribly, hallucinating a vision very similar to Molina’s film plots. Still, the novel is hopeful in the sense that two persons seemingly irreconcilably opposed finally learn to accept and love each other.

Pubis angelical

First published: 1979 (English translation, 1986)

Type of work: Novel

Three women from different times and countries confront a world dominated by men.

A novel dating from late in Puig’s career, Pubis angelical continues his exploration of the politics of power and subjugation. In this case the power is held exclusively by males; those subjected to male power and desires are women. Puig dramatizes his concerns by focusing on three women from different cultures and times.

The novel’s structure reinforces the interrelatedness of the three women’s experiences. Instead of telling the women’s stories consecutively, Puig alternates sections of the three stories so that the novel forms a braid of narrative, a single thematic statement composed of three individual strands.

The first plot line concerns The Mistress, a beautiful Austrian actress recently married to a wealthy German munitions manufacturer (The Master). The Master keeps her a virtual prisoner until eventually she discovers that he has acquired her (she is little more than a possession) because he wants to learn about experiments in mind reading supposedly conducted by her late father. Eventually she escapes, falling in love with the man who aids her. She comes to believe that this man’s motives are no purer than The Master’s, murders her new love, falls in love again, suspects the motives of this third love, and finally is killed trying to escape.

The second plot line concerns Ana, an Argentine who has fled an unhappy marriage and the political problems in her homeland only to be hospitalized with cancer in Mexico. Over the course of her conversations with her friend Beatriz the reader learns that Ana’s relationships with men have been no happier than the actress’s, although certainly less dramatic. The final blow comes when she realizes that her latest love, Pozzi, wants to manipulate her for his own political ends.

The last plot line is set sometime in a grim future totally dominated by men. The principal character is W218. The plight of women has reached the point that W218 does not even realize, at first, how degraded her life is. She is a prostitute in a government-run health clinic. Like the other two women, W218 is nearly redeemed, but ultimately betrayed, by love; and at the end she is dying of venereal disease, still working as a prostitute, in a camp for criminals and misfits.

The most common interpretation of Pubis angelical is that the actress and W218 are fantasies of Ana. Whether this is true or not is less important than the common elements of the three narrative lines. All three women are manipulated by men. All three seek escape and redemption through love of a man who at first seems to be sensitive. All three are failed by their new loves and in the end are either dead or dying. Pubis angelical is a grim parable of the fate of women in a male-dominated society.

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