Manuel Puig 1932-1990
Argentine novelist, dramatist, screenwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Puig's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 5, 10, 28, and 65.
Manuel Puig burst onto the literary scene with his first novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), and was a leading contributor to the international prominence and popularity of contemporary Latin American literature. He employed an innovative narrative style that synthesized the conversations and interior monologues of his characters with fragments from newspapers, soap operas, Hollywood movies, and popular songs to investigate how individuals escape painful truths through fantasy.
Puig was born in the rural pampas of Argentina on December 28, 1932. To escape the barrenness of this desolate prairie, Puig spent much of his childhood in the local movie house, where he developed a love for the escapism and fantasy of Hollywood movies. In the early 1940s, Puig moved to Buenos Aires to attend school, later obtaining a scholarship to the Cinecittà in Rome where he studied film direction. After a year, Puig moved to Paris and began writing screenplays, one of which he expanded into his first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which was adapted into a successful film in 1985 and adapted by Puig into a successful play. Although considered politically vocal, Puig never aligned himself with a particular political party and considered himself an independent socialist. In 1974, Puig left Argentina after his life was threatened. He lived for a short time in both Mexico and New York, but in 1981 he moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he continued to write novels, screenplays, and travel journals. Puig died in 1990 from postoperative complications.
Puig's first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, is constructed of stream-of-consciousness monologues delivered by various characters. The main character, Toto, is a young boy who loves movies and attempts to relate events in the movies to those of real life. He is constantly disappointed when real life does not tie up its loose ends as neatly as portrayed in the movies. The narrative is filtered through the minds of the different characters and is often cyclical. In The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), the main characters, Gladys D'Onofrio, a sculptress, and Leo Druscovich, an art critic, struggle with the violence and alienation of contemporary Argentine life. The novel is a detective story but subverts the form by making the crime and investigation secondary to the narrative. El beso de la mujer araña (1976; Kiss of the Spider Woman) relates the story of two convicts in an Argentine prison, Molina, a homosexual convicted of corrupting minors, and Valentin, a heterosexual political activist. In order to pass the time, Molina relates movie plots to Valentin, who then comments on the action. Through this interaction Puig develops the characters, allowing the reader to watch them change. Puig's fascination with the cinema serves this novel structurally in both the interweaving of multiple narratives—movie plots become sub-stories within the novel—and also in Puig's use of cinematic techniques to create a graphic visual perception. Pubis angelical (1979) represents a change in Puig's narrative technique from his earlier novels, in which he employed a combination of letters, dialogue, and narration. In Pubis angelical Puig uses an intermingling of dream and fantasy sequences to relate the story of three women who represent spiritual sisters. The women—a 1930s actress in Hollywood, a contemporary Argentine woman in a Mexican clinic, and a public concubine in a future totalitarian state—share common experiences of sexual and cultural enslavement. Cae la noche tropical (1988; Tropical Night Falling) tells the story of two eighty-year-old Argentine sisters, Nidia and Luci, who are living in Brazil and are exiles from their homeland and native language. In this, his last novel, Puig returns to a mixture of dialogue and letters. In the sisters' conversations readers learn of an ill-fated affair of their young neighbor and their differing attitudes toward romance. Puig uses the sisters' story to introduce discussions about alienation and exile, the breakdown of Argentine society, family relationships, and the effect of past experiences on the present.
Puig gained immediate critical attention for his artful use of experimental techniques in his first novel, but critics were also impressed with the novel's substance. Ronald De Feo praised Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, and called the novel, “a rarity in contemporary fiction, an experimental novel that is not concerned more with technique than with emotion.” Critical acclaim followed Puig's next three novels. Ronald Christ asserted, “In his three novels, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Heartbreak Tango and The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig has shown an incrementing skill, range of perception and control of varying emotions.” Although Puig received tremendous critical attention early in his career, his later works met with a mixed response from critics. Some critics asserted that his later work was inferior in quality, but others argued that his later novels represented a different and courageous phase of the novelist's career. Many reviewers noted Puig's use of popular forms within both the form and content of his novels. As a result, a few reviewers have relegated him to the ranks of pop culture, but others do not dismiss his work as light or lowbrow. Douglas C. Thompson stated, “Puig uses popular forms but only in order to create something far more serious and meaningful out of them.” Reviewers generally agree that one of Puig's greatest strengths is his ability to let his characters speak for themselves. His authorial voice does not intrude upon the narrative and generally is not heard at all. Bella Jozef stated, “Beginning with his first novel he let go of his characters, who were liberated unto themselves in a kind of self-exposition. With this he withdrew from all direct participation.”