Introduction

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Puig, Manuel 1932–

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Puig is a gifted Argentine satirical novelist whose usual target is vacuous middle-class romanticism. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Boquitas pintadas is Manuel Puig's second novel, and it treads much the same genteel Chekhovian ground as his first book, La traición de Rita Hayworth [Betrayed by Rita Hayworth]. Sr. Puig describes an environment that has scarcely been touched in Latin-American fiction up to now, outside the photo-novel and the newspaper serial: the lives and loves of the self-respecting lower-middle-classes in the provinces. With a blend of cruelty and compassion, he listens in to the telephone conversations of teenage girls, and snoops in their hectically emotional diaries, photograph albums and private letters. Some of his characters—the pompous husband with a heart of gold, the wronged, pregnant maid—border on cliché. Yet the novel is so fertile in surprises and so humorously written that the clichés are forgiven—being perhaps a necessary part of the parody….

Much of Boquitas pintadas is, indeed, a parody of popular literature and music, the news media in the provinces and, in general, the considerable degree of inarticulateness of provincial Argentines, particularly when they are trying to impress. Though limited in scope, Boquitas pintadas emerges as one of the most delightful novels written in Spanish in recent years.

"Provincial People," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 6, 1970, p. 1306.

D. P. Gallagher

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The most encouraging recent arrival on the Latin American literary scene has been that of Manuel Puig. His two novels, La traición de Rita Hayworth (1969) and Boquitas pintadas (1970, Painted Little Mouths) see to express the ethos of the provincial middle classes, an enterprise that has not been successfully attempted before in Latin American writing. His characters are usually rootless sons of immigrants who, for lack of a viable tradition of their own, have relied on what to many may seem a curiously eclectic range of cultural models: the Hollywood film, the local woman's magazine, the radionovela, and the lyrics of the tango and the bolero. Puig expresses the ethos of the so-called cursi, the middle-class parvenu who lives according to the rules of what he imagines to be elegant in order to be thought elegant himself, but who is able only to display a grotesque imitation of the real thing.

Like [Cabrera Infante's] Tres tristes tigres, Puig's novels are very funny while at the same time deploying an underlying pathos: the pathos of having to project a borrowed identity, the pathos of being forced by admen to compete according to arbitrary norms, the pathos of being sensitive and intelligent, like Toto, the young hero of La traición de Rita Hayworth, amidst a disapproving environment concerned only with such 'normal' pursuits as material gain.

Above all, Puig has captured the language of his characters. He has recorded the gap that separates their public language from their private language, and the gap that separates their written language (a grotesque performance whose sole aim is to impress) from their more spontaneous spoken language. There is no distance separating him from the voices he records, moreover, for they are the voices that he was brought up with himself, and he is able to reproduce them with perfect naturalness, and without distortion or parodic exaggeration. That is not to say that his novels are not very polished and very professional. Like all the best Latin American novels …, they are structured deliberately as fictions. But the authenticity with which they reflect a very real environment cannot be questioned…. Puig's novels can be read on a complex level but are capable also of wide appeal: they are no doubt accessible to the secretaries, cooks, shop-assistants, and policemen that appear in them. (pp. 187-88)

D. P. Gallagher, in his Modern Latin American Literature (© Oxford University Press 1973; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, 1973.

Robert Alter

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The Argentine writer, Manuel Puig, is one of the most consistently interesting novelists to have emerged anywhere during the past 10 years. "The Buenos Aires Affair," his third novel … is, like "Betrayed by Rita Hayworth" and "Heartbreak Tango" before 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, especially in its Hollywood versions. Like Nabokov, Puig takes endless delight in contemporary poshlost—all the most shameless forms of trash masquerading as sublimity—while using it against itself to show how it deforms lives and how a cunningly crafted literary art can transcend it….

What makes Puig so fascinating, here as in his two previous books, is the extraordinary inventiveness he exhibits in devising new ways to render familiar material….

There are, by my count, at least 14 different narrative methods used in this novel, ranging from quasi-cinematic visual descriptions and documentary collages to interior monologues (in at least three separate varieties) to dialogues in which the speech of one of the two interlocutors is suppressed. All this is not just technical trickery because a narrative technique, certainly as Puig handles it, is a way of defining and making available for experience a human reality that would be inaccessible from other narrative angles.

Puig is, like Faulkner from whom he may have learned much, a master of occluded narrative. His strategies mislead, baffle, befuddle, tease us, finally to yield a meaning that can only be attained by experiencing ambiguities and perplexities. (p. 4)

Robert Alter, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1976.

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