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Manuel Puig 1932-1990

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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La traición de Rita Hayworth [translated by Suzanne Jill Levine as Betrayed by Rita Hayworth] (novel) 1968; revised edition, 1976

Boquitas pintadas: Follétin [translated by Levine as Heartbreak Tango: A Serial] (novel) 1969

The Buenos Aires Affair: Novela policial [translated by Levine as The Buenos Aires Affair: A Detective Novel] (novel) 1973

El beso de la mujer araña [translated by Thomas Colchie as Kiss of the Spider Woman] (drama) 1976

Pubis angelical [translated by Elena Brunet] (novel) 1979

*Eternal Curse upon the Reader of These Pages (novel) 1982; translated as Maldición eterna a quien lea estas paginas 1982

Sangre de amor correspondido [translated by Jan L. Grayson as Blood of Requited Love] (novel) 1982

La cara del villano; Recuerdo de Tijuana (drama) 1985

Mystery of the Rose Bouquet [translated by Allan Baker] (drama) 1987

Cae la noche tropical [translated by Levine as Tropical Night Falling] (novel) 1988

Kiss of the Spider Woman and Two Other Plays (drama) 1994

*Puig originally wrote this work in English, then translated it into Spanish.

Ronald De Feo (review date 3 January 1972)

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SOURCE: “Life as a B-Movie,” in Nation, Vol. 214, No. 1, January 3, 1972, pp. 26-7.

[In the following review, De Feo lauds Puig's Betrayed by Rita Hayworth as “a funny, poignant, perceptive piece of fiction which is not overwhelmed by its adventurous techniques.”]

In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West imagined a world populated by people who seemed to be “on,” acting out rather than simply living their lives. Some of them became so immersed in their roles that they often found themselves play-acting even in quite serious and threatening real-life situations. Life had become one big B-movie. The world in which they existed (a surrealistic Hollywood) did not shake them out of their dream lives, for it was as artificial and ridiculous as their adopted personalities.

Manuel Puig's characters, who live in a small Argentine town, are not as badly off as West's, not nearly as pathetic or lost, but they too have been influenced by second-rate movies and cheap novels. They talk to themselves throughout most of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, and in their lengthy, elliptical, stream-of-consciousness monologues, we come upon vaguely familiar phrases, patterns of thought, patches of description—familiar because they originated with some hack screen writer or novelist whose work we have had to endure.

Toto, a young boy who is a devoted moviegoer, is always drawing parallels between life as it is lived and life on the screen. He is disturbed when real situations do not resolve themselves as conveniently and romantically as fictional ones. He feels, for example, that an acquaintance, Raul García, is too handsome to become involved with the rather unattractive girl he has been seeing: the movies have taught Toto that the beautiful marry the beautiful. Raul reminds him of a bad gangster who has turned good, and therefore he deserves a beauty. Even the first-grade teacher is a more likely partner for Raul, since “she's pretty and she's one of those who are poor in the beginning and have to start off as a chorus girl. …”

Although the characters of the novel blow up certain events in their lives to movie-screen proportion, many of these are rather cheaply dramatic in themselves. Even before they were modified, they resembled incidents in second-rate films and novels. Puig is interested here in showing how very similar life can be to low-grade fiction, and he often erases the line separating comedy from tragedy, exaggeration from truth. A genuinely tragic event can quite easily be seen as an absurdly theatrical and comic one. A horrible fear can seem laughable; an overwhelming desire hilarious. Toto, for example, fears the end of the world—a realistic enough fear. But his vision of it (influenced by a nun's account), with the earth being split down the middle by a lightning bolt, seems quite silly, like a scene from a wide-screen religious spectacular. Esther, who is seriously concerned about the future of the friendly dean at her school, unconsciously cheapens that concern by trying to inflate it: Is our dean leaving? because he is sick? Is it or isn't it true? What evil lurks behind all this?”

The monologues dominate the novel, and Puig handles them superbly. Often that device gives the reader claustrophobia; the character talks on and on; outside reality is filtered through his consciousness, with the result that all events described “sound” the same; the character is so involved with himself, so closed off that he does not seem to be functioning in any recognizable world. Puig's monologues are “open.” They allow the characters to breathe. Even though a speaker focuses on himself, he discusses himself in the context of his world. He talks of his friends, relatives and acquaintances, and he reveals himself through his relations with them. In other words, the monologues are filled with action, movement, incident. Puig's sense of humor is always in evidence—not only his ability to record funny bits of business and conversation but his knack for describing, in another voice, absurd fantasies and fears. Each monologue is delivered by a different character. Although they share the same background and have had similar experiences in life, Puig captures their individual voices, their particular sensibilities. Except for occasional lapses, when the author gets a bit too ornate, his people always seem to be in character.

Puig produces a number of marvelous portraits—some outrageous, others quite serious, all rather loving. Héctor, who fancies himself a ladies' man, is terribly disturbed by an uncooperative girl he is pursuing. The impossible girl, whom he affectionately calls “Pug-nose,” haunts him. She is something of an intellectual, and he attempts to impress her by reading her favorite author, Dostoevski. But Héctor fails miserably: “… she gave me Crime and Punishment and I couldn't put up with more than ten pages of reading names and more names which always looked different and were the same, more names than a telephone directory. …” And in his portrait of the small, religious girl, Teté, Puig creates another haunted character. Her situation, however, is much more troubling than Héctor's. Her mother is in critical condition. Teté is obsessed with the notion that she must pray to prevent her mother's passing. When the light in Teté's room is turned off at night she is reminded that another day has gone by, and she wonders if she has prayed enough and confessed all her sins. “… don't turn off the light,” she pleads with her father, “not yet, wait a minute … wait! … just a minute!” The situation is made all the more terrifying by the fact that Teté is not actually talking to her father but merely shouting to him in her mind. Like so many fears, this one goes unexpressed.

The monologues develop through a kind of free association; one thought, one image, one conversation leads to another. At times, when a more complex character is introduced, the speech pattern, the thinking process, is cyclical. Mita's baby has died. She tries not to think of her loss. Her thoughts stray to Romeo and Juliet, and she asks, “Why doesn't God change his mind and make everything turn out well?” She then imagines the two lovers being carried away by a hurricane to paradise. She recalls the bird of paradise and sees herself being carried by the creature. The bird is wounded, and Mita dresses the wound. And then she says: “… there's a story in which the fairy rewards kind people and turns the bird into a prince, and a prince is what I want, a prince of men, a beautiful little prince wrapped in his soft angora layette. …” Mita, in this intricate passage, has returned unconsciously to her own tragedy. The reader, who has followed the seemingly insignificant digression, is now shaken by its relevance.

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is a funny, poignant, perceptive piece of fiction which is not overwhelmed by its adventurous techniques. In short, a rarity in contemporary fiction, an experimental novel that is not concerned more with technique than with emotion.

Ronald De Feo (review date 29 October 1976)

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SOURCE: “Laying Out the Evidence,” in National Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 41, October 29, 1976, pp. 1194-95.

[In the following review, De Feo offers a tempered assessment of Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair.]

In a book season that has not been exactly memorable for fiction, we must be especially grateful for the interesting and challenging novels that continue to come to us from Latin America. Several months ago, A Brief Life, one of the major works of the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti, appeared in English translation (after an inexplicable delay of some 25 years). More recently, the excellent Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier broke a long silence with the publication of Reasons of State. The appearance of Manuel Puig's new novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, is especial cause for celebration, not only because the book makes for fascinating reading, but also because it demonstrates that its already highly accomplished author continues to take chances and to grow as an artist.

In his two previous novels, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango, Puig explored, in a somewhat campy, comic manner, the dreams and obsessions of a host of provincial Argentine characters whose speech and lives often seemed to have been influenced by popular movies of the Thirties and Forties. His characters recalled, in a way, Nathanael West's dreaming, unfulfilled, hopeless Hollywood souls, but Puig's people were much more down-to-earth, and Puig, unlike the unsparing West, treated them affectionately, even at times sentimentally. For the most part, he allowed them to speak for themselves, recording their conversations, interior monologues, letters, and diary entries.

In The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig again concentrates on the blandness of middle-class Argentine existence, but this time he focuses on cosmopolitan rather than on provincial types. The nostalgia for the past is absent here; the characters live in a harsh, alienating contemporary world where dreams are quickly trampled upon. Though brief excerpts from various old movie tear-jerkers and melodramas serve as epigraphs for each chapter, the protagonists, the discontented sculptress Gladys D'Onofrio and her lover, the haunted, seriously disturbed art critic Leo Druscovich, aren't the movie dreamers that previous Puig people have been. Pop romance can hardly exist in their world. In fact, the contrived, inflated romance reflected in the little movie scenes contrasts sharply with the blunt and colorless reality Gladys and Leo know so well.

Puig slyly subtitles this book, “A Detective Novel”—“slyly” because, though a disappearance and a violent crime occur, and though the author often employs a matter-of-fact, police-procedural style, the book is no more a detective novel in the usual sense than is Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers or Gadda's That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. Puig lays the facts of two separate, unhappy lives before us and, in a sense, invites us to speculate on those lives, to give them some shape and meaning.

We learn of the central events in Gladys' muddled life, of her various lovers, her sexual fantasies, and her string of disappointments, both personal and artistic. From Leo's case history, which is far more disturbing and unusual than Gladys', we learn primarily of his sexual difficulties and the violence that they have triggered. Though Puig's approach is very objective, almost clinical, and though in this novel we are kept at a distance from his characters, the people still manage to hold us and affect us. Occasionally this book reads like a parody of a French nouveau roman or a German investigative work, but Puig's humanity and wit still shine through.

The facts in “the case” of Gladys and Leo carry us on, and every so often we are reminded of the other violence, both criminal and political, that is occurring in their world. We expect the facts eventually to point to a significant conclusion, a meaning of some sort, but they don't, really. Both lives, in very different ways, lead nowhere. That, Puig seems to be saying, is the real crime in the novel. In a long, brilliantly rendered scene, Gladys finds herself in the apartment of a very typical, happily married young mother. It is ironic that the lonely and troubled Gladys should be left here, in an atmosphere she has rarely known in her own life, and it is equally ironic that this warm, happy place should prove so horribly bland.

The Buenos Aires Affair is neither as purely entertaining as Puig's previous novels nor as accessible to the general reader. Sometimes the author's stylistic methods are a shade too inventive, and we are not always convinced that they are necessary. But the book is more intense, serious, and disturbing than the other novels, and it is a welcome departure for this searching, gifted writer.

Ronald Christ (review date 24 June 1977)

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SOURCE: A review of The Buenos Aires Affair, in Commonweal, Vol. 104, No. 13, June 24, 1977, pp. 412-14.

[In the following review, Christ praises Puig's accomplishment in The Buenos Aires Affair, but complains that the English translation “frequently goes flat.”]

In life, the myth of the prodigal son is an accepted guide to judging ultimate worth; so much so, that a famous feature in Esquire once advised the prospective college student to do poorly on his early assignments and then gradually improve in order to give his professor the moral satisfaction of witnessing a return to the ordered ways of study. In literature, though, we ruthlessly search for writers who are good to begin with and who stay good. We even ask that they improve and often lose interest when they don't. Consequently, we look for writers who first put their best foot forward and then walk the straight and narrow toward better and better.

Such a writer is Manuel Puig. 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. Looking back at Rita Hayworth—hailed as a masterpiece when it appeared here—we now see that it is lightweight stuff when compared to Heartbreak Tango, and Heartbreak Tango looks like an easy job when judged by the standards of the still bleaker and funnier The Buenos Aires Affair. If the promise of these books is kept by Puig's next novel, and if he continues to be productive, Puig will show himself not only as a good writer getting better but as a major author.

Puig's novels exhibit their growth in a double sense. First of all, the maturation is evident in the subject matter. His books have progressed from a central focus on the formation of a latently homosexual child (Rita Hayworth), to the adolescence and early adulthood of a pampas Don Giovanni, to the adult catastrophe of a couple who emerge from the background established in the preceding books to inherit the fearful, sado-masochistic side of romantic love carried to its extreme in a contemporary society. Puig says that the novels are displaced “investigations” or “researches” into his own past, so the novels also offer a version of the growth of a writer's mind.

More remarkable still, they embody the development of his formal accomplishment because Puig is never content to tell things as they were—the criterion for much of Latin American fiction for so many years—but always aims at rigorous subordination of the data from his memory to an esthetic code. (The esthetics begin with the displacement I mentioned earlier.) Weakly apparent in Rita Hayworth, the imposition of Puig's esthetic will comes to the fore in Heartbreak Tango and The Buenos Aires Affair, where he invents an exterior skeleton for the soft flesh of his narrative, in the former by shaping the narrative as a magazine or radio serial with a climax in every chapter; in the latter, according to the more rigid requirements of the detective story à la Hitchcock. This is not to say that Puig writes serials or detective stories. Far from it. Rather, he uses those forms as molds to cast his corny, bathetic material in a form displaying a witty, ironic attitude toward that material. The result is that Puig has solved a major problem of all autobiographical subject matter: how to present it as the experience of another so that both writer and reader can have a perspective wider than the egotistical.

The Buenos Aires Affair simultaneously imposes this strict form on the narrative and undermines the form in order to present a doubly ironic picture. Early in his career, Puig began eliminating much that we ordinarily expect in a novel. Not with the tight-lipped intention of Hemingway, who divided writers into the takers-out and the putters-in, but for the expressive voice of the absent, the silent. For example, in Rita Hayworth's fourth chapter, there is a striking, extended monologue printed as a telephone conversation where we hear only one voice. A brilliant development of Strindberg's device in The Stronger as well as a borrowing from the conventions of radio and the movies, the monologue is similarly most expressive in its blanks. Carrying this device to the point of vision in The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig writes a detective story that has, in the conventional sense, neither detective nor corpse and whose climax is an anti-climax. Of course there are police investigators in the novel and a murder victim, but they are not central. This further displacement results in a book that conforms to the elegant esthetic of the doughnut: it is what it is precisely for what has been left out, and for the way it has been left out.

Telling the story of Gladys Hebe D'Onofrio, a sculptress who lost an eye in a mugging and affects a Veronica Lake hair-style to cover the lack, and Leopoldo Druscovitch, successful art critic whose past includes a homosexual murder in a deserted lot, Puig presents us with the case of two people who have achieved careers in the urban world only dreamed of by the provincial, unsuccessful characters in his previous work. Gladys and Leopoldo, however, lead lives which take no substance from their success because both, like those other characters, are still victims of the myth of the weak woman and the strong man.

The complex metaphor of the essential void in these lives—typified by Gladys's missing eye—surrounded by an inappropriate abundance—emblematized in Leopoldo's oversize penis—is everywhere evident in the novel. The neutral, often didactic narrator is attentive to all the things the characters don't see, the people they don't meet, the newspapers they read without paying attention. Puig's constant attention to what is lacking or unnoticed recalls films where the camera often shows more of a scene than the actors could be aware of and thus fits in nicely with the epigraphs for his chapters, all of which are taken from sentimental movies and supply the ever-present but invisible romantic ethos of the book.

No mere parody then, these epigraphs show Puig's further opening up to the social conditioning of his characters. Similarly, there is an off-center attention to the political envelope of the fiction, notably in a serving woman's grief over the ousting of Peron. In this respect, Puig has taken major strides toward integrating the individual motivation of his characters with the political and economic tensions informing them. What was implicit social criticism in the previous novels here comes to be explicit in the telling of the story but without any recourse to engagé or agit-prop prose.

The balance between presenting a unified picture of the world these people live in (and create) and a mere talking about that world is preserved through the reserve of the narrator's voice, which is mannered in its neutrality. For example, when Gladys is masturbating, we get the substance of her fantasy in the text proper—in a diction appropriate to her mind—and we get the gestures in matter-of-fact footnotes: “Gladys exhales a deep sigh of satisfaction.” The full irony of this technique transcends its humorous effect to include the nature of narrative itself.

In such a poised narrative, the diction is, if not everything, then the thing on which everything else depends. The distinction between the narrator's and the characters' voices must be preserved with exquisite delicacy if the book is not to become heavy-handed or confused. For us, the problem is all the more interesting because what we read is a collaboration between Puig and his translator, Susanne Jill Levine, a combination that Puig refers to as an “experimental authorship” that brought off Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango with grace and wit. But in The Buenos Aires Affair, where the risks are more subtle, the English text frequently goes flat. Of course I am not speaking of bloopers—that meaningless staple in the last paragraph of reviews devoted to translators. No, I am referring to questions of literary tact. For instance, at one point the narrator tells us that Mrs. Druscovitch could not answer certain questions because “her husband was fornicating her with all the tenderness of which he was capable.” Now this illiteracy is easily understood since fornicar is transitive in Spanish and not in English. But that grammatical error in the dead-pan description erupts from the context like a clinker in a coloratura aria. This is a glaring example but you will find many other places where the English text goes off pitch. More subtle, but no less crucial, is the problem of punctuation. Puig uses run-on sentences for his version of the stream-of-thought. The practice is not exceptional in Spanish, which tends to glide on commas as if they were casters. English, on the other hand, is more precisely periodic, and when we encounter sentences like the following (in the narrator's intentionally dispassionate, necessarily correct style) the result is our notation of an error (comma splice) rather than a response to the clear factuality of the statement: “This was real; some of the members distrusted Leo because of his physical development, it made them think he was an agent of the secret police.” These off-notes add up to a good singer who is not always in good voice at this performance; they impede our vision of Puig's progress. Easily correctable by any copy editor, these faults do point to a largely unasked question about contemporary translation: isn't so-called “accuracy” or “faithfulness” to the original text more often than not a sign of tone deafness in English? A quality that affects everything, down to the last comma in a work so deliberately written as this.

Manuel Puig with Jorgelina Corbatta (interview date Fall 1979)

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SOURCE: “Brief Encounter: An Interview with Manuel Puig,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 165-76.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in September 1979, Puig discusses his career as a writer and the various influences on his work.]

This interview with Manuel Puig took place during a weekend in September 1979, after he was part of a Congress of Hispanic-American Writers in Medellin, Colombia. Other participants in the event were Camilo José Cela, winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Mexican short-story writer and novelist Juan Rulfo.

[Jorgelina Corbatta:] What role does the reader play in your work? Are you aware of a future reader when you write a novel? Has the reader's taste ever influenced the way you constructed a book?

[Manuel Puig:] Whenever I write, I'm always thinking of the reader. I write for somebody who has my own limitations. My reader has a certain difficulty with concentrating, which in my case comes from being a film viewer. That's why I don't request any special efforts in the act of reading.

But don't you think that those sudden changes, the art of narrating two stories simultaneously, or the same story from different perspectives …

Indeed, I ask for reflection, but that is entirely another type of mental operation. What I find very difficult is to follow a certain prose that doesn't have a plot line and reiterates the same idea every other page.

I still think that, although the basic elements in your stories are easy to understand, putting the pieces together is a complex act. Some examples: the internal monologues in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth; the intertwined detective clues in The Buenos Aires Affair;the relationship between the films described and the characters' fantasies in Kiss of the Spider Woman; or Ana's double personality in Pubis Angelical. I believe …

I don't mean to say that I write for a stupid reader. Yet tardiness in literature can make me nervous.

Proust, for instance.

That's not an adequate example.

Who then?

Well, a few early twentieth-century Spanish novels. José María de Pereda, for instance. Furthermore, I have written every single one of my novels to convince somebody of something. Betrayed by Rita Hayworth was written to convince a friend of something. And Heartbreak Tango, to convince an enemy of mine, an Argentine critic who thoroughly disliked the popular genres (detective fiction, romance literature, the folletin, etc.), that one could write …

Book reviewers, it is known, evidenced a similar kind of distaste for Betrayed by Rita Hayworth,didn't they?

No, no. My first two novels came out almost simultaneously, because Betrayed by Rita Hayworth took a long time to be published. No. I felt that particular kind of rejection when I arrived in Argentina and sensed a certain pedantry, a taste very different from mine. That stimulated me. But going back to the question of the reader, you asked me if my reader's taste has ever conditioned one of my novels. No, in no way. The book that was most greatly appreciated by my readership was Heartbreak Tango. And everybody expected that I would follow that same narrative line. Yet I changed because I was interested in another type of investigation, and that's why I wrote The Buenos Aires Affair. The reception given to this book was comparatively mild, but I felt I had done something good. Even today, I don't dislike the novel. On the contrary, in some way I would like to follow the path initiated by it.

And that path is …

And that path is a study of the Argentine mistake.

What kind of mistake?

A political mistake, a sexual mistake.

And what about the book reviewers?

Book reviews have never helped me. On the contrary, I believe most of them erred in their interpretations and their work has been a waste of time, that's all.

But … do you read what they write? Do they interest you?

Yes, yes, of course. Nevertheless, I haven't been the kind of writer about whom book-length academic studies have been written. Only now some of them are beginning to emerge.1 Unfortunately, the criticism that has appeared so far is of the kind included in literary supplements, newspapers—brief, opinionated texts written under a deadline.

These book reviews, have they examined the psychoanalytical ingredient in your oeuvre?

I don't know, I wouldn't be able to say. But the reviewers have not helped me to clarify things.

And friends have?

Yes, very much.

It is known that Guillermo Cabrera Infante actively participated in the English and French translations of Three Trapped Tigers (although he fought against the French translator, who used to tell him, “Ca, c'est ne pas français”). In general, the difficulties in translating a book are many, and I guess even more when it's written in “Argentine” Spanish.

I do collaborate a lot with the translators of those languages I am familiar with—English, French, Italian, and Portuguese. Let me give you an example in which I had to do some necessary changes. A chapter in Heartbreak Tango is resolved in the Spanish original through a reading of tarot cards performed by a gypsy. Nevertheless, in France and Great Britain, this special type of Spanish cards is not known. So I had to rewrite the segment. I had to transform everything, to adapt the images to a poker game. It was a deliberate act of rewriting. And there are many more examples like this one. More than anywhere else, I had to rewrite a lot in Kiss of the Spider Woman. And as you well know, translating theater is a very difficult task. It's not only a matter of changing words; you have to adapt the meaning from one language into another. That's why in the United States people never say “This is a translation of the work of such and such playwright or dramaturge,” but “An English adaptation … or an English version, of the works of such and such playwright.” A different thing happened with Italian, which is so similar to Spanish. French is less so, and English is very different, so I had much to change. The translator's task is to create, in his or her own language, the same tensions appearing in the original. That's hard!

I would like to know who has been a literary model for you. We know quite a bit about your passion for cinema, as well as for boleros and tangos, yet we know very little about your literary preferences. The Spanish poet Pere Gimpferrer, in an article published in 1976 in Plural, the Mexican magazine then edited by Octavio Paz, claimed that “without any doubt, Puig owes little, not only to his immediate literary precursors, but to any other literary tradition in general.” What do you think?

I don't have traceable literary models because I haven't had great literary influences in my life. Instead, that space has been occupied by cinematographic influences. I believe that if you looked into it deeply, you could find an influence by Ernest Lubitch in a few of my structures, by Joseph von Sternberg in the need for a certain atmosphere. Also Alfred Hitchcock. Otherwise … I don't know. Of the modern writers, I like William Faulkner and Franz Kafka very much. Yet that doesn't mean I have read them in an exhaustive or passionate fashion.

And why do you like them? Because of their atmospheres? Because of their themes? Their technique?

I like the beauty of Faulkner's poetry. But I don't like his themes, not at all.

The monologues in As I Lay Dying,were they ever a model for you?

I never read the book. I had to open it this year because I was teaching a course at City College of New York and a young female student talked about it.

And Kafka?

Well, I think he truly illustrates the way the environment oppresses the individual. Also, he shows how the unconscious controls our lives. And he talks about the internal prisons we carry inside. But contrary to what Kafka does, I always like to refer all of my fictions to the level of reality. He, on the other hand, leaves them at an imaginary level.

There's another aspect on which critics do not agree: Either you have a parodic voice, or you personally share the universe in which your characters live. What could you say in this respect?

I don't have a parodic voice. Sometimes I use humor because otherwise my themes would be too bitter, too wretched. They would end up being dry. My stories are very somber, so I think I need the comic ingredient. Besides, life has so much humor, doesn't it? And although it's hard to believe it, Argentines are humorous too. I don't think humor is forced upon my universe; it's a part of it. And going back to the question of parody. For me, parody means mockery, and I don't mock my characters. I share with them a number of things, among them their language and their taste.

In an imaginary report for Elle,Gladys, the protagonist of The Buenos Aires Affair, offers her own concept of art: “That night I felt lonelier than ever. Imprisoned by despair I returned to the cottage and, almost crazed, I had an inspiration. I couldn't sleep. At five the dawn found me on the beach, for the first time picking up the debris that the surf had left on the sand. Flotsam, I only dared to love flotsam, anything else was too much to dare hope for. I returned home and began to talk—in a whisper so as not to wake up mama—with a discarded slipper, with a bathing cap in shreds, with a torn piece of newspaper, and I started to touch them and to listen to their voices. That was my work of art, to bring together scorned objects to share with them a moment of life, or life itself. That was my work.” What do you think?

I totally share that attitude. I have the same approach to objects, and I can identify with her misery.

Let's continue with The Buenos Aires Affair. I would like you to talk about the last chapter, in which you introduce that young couple with a small child. They are happy and satisfied. It seems that these characters are trying to balance the frustrations of the rest of the novel's cast. A sort of happy ending, isn't it?

All through her life, the protagonist has managed to survive by creating a set of different personal fantasies. And this set has now been demolished. She will try to commit suicide at a time when nothing can be sustained or redeemed in her life. And it's in that moment when she has a new fantasy. She is awakened by that young couple with child who inhabits the apartment next door. Gladys, as you know, lives through mythical images. She needs those strange fantasies, and even more so during this critical moment, when she has to create new myths.

When I read the novel, I saw them as a set of “real” characters with which Gladys could initiate some kind of communication …

The most important thing is that she can recover from her trance. I give two versions about the couple: the first one is Glady's elaborate fantasy; the second, a real version, is the one the two members of the couple are sharing while trying to achieve a perfect sexual intercourse. The woman is not what Gladys imagines. She is not a creature suspended in a space of total pleasure. Instead, she is somebody with fears. And one of those fears is the possibility of losing something. I believe that people who don't achieve anything in life are isolated and resent those that are successful. Gladys has nothing and that circumstance creates in her a deep anxiety. The woman next door is also anxious, but for other reasons. Mainly, because she is afraid of losing what she already has. I was interested in making my protagonist not give up. Even if she was a weak character full of insecurities and a lack of affection, I wanted her to resurrect.

You wanted to offer an optimistic tone.

Well, Gladys couldn't be worse. If she could only overcome her trance, her redemption could take place.

What could you say about the inclusion of Esther and Cobito in your first novel? Putting aside the autobiographical element, is this a device by which you tried to incorporate all segments of the Argentine society?

Including Cobito and a Peronist girl in the novel was not an attempt to portray the whole Argentine society. It's based on my own personal experience. For the first part of my life, I had been submerged in the reality of the first Peronist regime, and later on in that of the second and third.

You were talking about your work and the collective unconscious …

I always talk about my preoccupations with the contents of the collective unconscious. Of course I am also worried by the unconscious that is not shared with others, yet I suppose there's a great part of my own unconscious that is collective. And if I can locate the contents of this collective heritage and write about it, I'll be able to capture the reader's attention, because he or she and I will share the same commonalities. But it's my own personal unconscious that ultimately creates the novel's aesthetic facade. I think that the author's originality depends on how he or she can make the personal unconscious express itself …

Why do you think Carlos Fuentes, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Severo Sarduy all introduce elements from mass media in their oeuvres, just as you do? Do you share something with them?

I share with them certain preoccupations, true, yet my style is very different from Fuentes's, and I don't have anything in common with Sarduy, Cabrera Infante, or Sánchez.

With whom do you share a style?

Sorry, but I don't know much about literature.

And in film?

In film I believe I have certain affinities with Dishonored by von Sternberg, made in 1932, with Marlene Dietrich. Whenever I see this movie, I think, “Wow, there's a lot I share with it.”

What kind of connection is there between your work and pop art, kitsch, and camp?

I am very interested in what has been called “bad taste.” I believe that the fear of displaying a soi-disant bad taste stops us from venturing into special cultural zones, some of which are even beyond bad taste. I am very interested in those areas and I allow my intuition to lead my path toward them. For instance, in the gruesomeness of certain tangos I see the possibility of a different kind of poetry. I am also attracted to the excessive sentimentalism of a certain kind of cinema. I wonder, what's beyond that? What kind of audience uses these products? What kind of intellectual or intuitive need is satisfied with this type of “culture”? Yes, I'm interested in exploring the different manifestations of bad taste. But of course, not with a cold approach. I am only interested in bad taste if I can enjoy a gruesome tango or watch a movie that makes me cry.

Are you also interested in boleros?

Yes. … For instance, the kitsch of the boleros by Agustín Lara. They touch me deeply. … If we only laugh at them and we don't take them seriously, I feel we've lost something. I think I'm satisfied by other kinds of needs than those that attract the intellectual elite. What are they? Do other people share them as well? Perhaps. We should try to understand these innermost needs. And we shouldn't use irony to reduce their power.

We know a lot about how film helped you evade reality in your adolescent years. But what could you say about how some filmmaking techniques are used in your novels?

In The Buenos Aires Affair, there was a chapter, one that later on was eliminated, in which you could see the cinematic influences in a very clear fashion. It dealt with the protagonist's mother, a demanding and indoctrinating woman who unconsciously wants her daughter to die and stop creating problems, stop suffering. Of course, she can't make that authentic feeling conscious because it doesn't go with her education. Yet when the daughter disappears, I wanted her to have an unconscious desire never to see her again. But it's her daughter after all, and a mother like her can't wish her daughter to die, can she? The woman couldn't allow herself to feel such a horrible thing. In this chapter, I wanted to show the ambiguity of her feelings. I thought of doing so with the help of an omniscient, third-person narrator. It had to be a mischievous third-person narrator, not a subjective one. You see, only after remembering a certain camera angle used by Hitchcock, could I find the proper voice for my scene. It was in Psycho. The first scene, as you remember, has two secret lovers in a hotel room. It's a small room and we see them always through the strange camera eye. Located in the closet or outside the window, it's a camera that spies on them. Hitchcock makes it very clear to us that there's nobody else in the room, only the two lovers. So it's not a criminal or a spy who's observing them but the strange, “spying” camera. Hence, there's an objective and a subjective camera, like there's a third- and a first-person narrator in literature. In my text, I had to deal with evil—the evil feelings felt by this mother, who's unable to rationalize her own malevolent feelings and turns them into an occult element in her mind. I had to use a third-person narrator with a wretched voice, one that could find pleasure in the mother's negative feelings. In that sense, the third-person narrator became a first-person narrator, a devil of sorts that, because of the book's internal economy, never appears again.

Why have you abandoned your fictitious town, Coronel Vallejos? I'm asking you while thinking of other imaginary places, like Yoknapatawpha, Santa María, Macondo …

I felt I had talked about it enough. I lived there until I was fifteen and never returned again. If I had returned, things would have been different.

One of the constants in modern literature is the structural playfulness. Do you share …

Yes, I am interested in that but only to help me solve a certain mystery. I don't feel attracted to it when the exercise is an end in itself.

What do you think about Severo Sarduy's essay “Notes to the Notes to the Notes …”? [See World Literature Today 65.4 (Fall 1991).]

I don't think it can help understand my work. It has charm but the piece tells more about its author than about me.

Why do you write novels?

I write novels because there is something I don't understand in reality. What I do is locate that special problem in a character and then try to understand it. That's the genesis of all my work. Because of my unconscious defenses, I am incapable of facing the problem directly. There are obstacles that impede me from doing so. Yet I can do it through a literary character. It's easier! And since all of my problems are rather complicated, I need an entire novel to deal with them, not a short story or a movie. It's like a personal therapy. There is no freedom in that election. It's not that I choose to do it, but that I'm forced to. It has to be a novel because I need a lot of space. It's an analytical activity, not a synthetic one.

Do you support yourself from writing?

Yes. I'm not a best-seller but through translations, I've accumulated some money. I would very much like to become a best-selling author in order to tell everything about it later on.

But you don't support yourself from any activity other than literature?

No. I began teaching in New York because I needed to stay in the United States and didn't have my immigration papers in order, so working for a university was a way of resolving the issue. It was a surprise because, after doing it, I found that I actually enjoyed it. What I did was teach a creative writing course, and since this course met only once a week, it was convenient. It doesn't take too much time. It's a good distraction, and I am in contact with young people, which is very gratifying. Writing film scripts, an activity I just began doing, distracts me as well. A novel can take two or three years in the making, so it's convenient to put one's mind in another project, especially in a film that can be written so quickly …

Tell me something about writing film scripts.

First, you have to think of a plot line that could be narrated in cinematic terms. If you're adapting, then you have to summarize. There's an interesting thing going on here. I'm not interested in a realistic cinema because I believe realism is nothing but an analysis of reality. Film scripts have a synthetical constitution. Why does realistic cinema lose its effectiveness as years go by? Why does it age? And why does the Hollywood cinema of the thirties and forties still remain so vivid and young? I think there's a reason. It was a cinema about dreams. The intention was to make it the opium of the masses. Dreams and summaries go together. What better model of a synthesis than a nocturnal dream? Dreams simplify, don't they?

Modern American cinema seems to me superficial. … The intention is to understand a certain reality and the result is nothing but a photographing of that reality. The best recent movie, in my eyes, with an artistic level, is Roman Polanski's Chinatown. It's a nightmare! It's not in any sense realistic. I think cinema is closer to allegories than to reality. It's closer to our dreams.

Do you believe movies will ultimately replace novels?

Film has a certain narrative approach and the novel another. But one needs to better understand their differences. One performs a very different act when “reading” a movie and when reading a novel. Your attention behaves differently. In cinema, your attention is centered on images and sounds. If a spectator with a philosophical mind, somebody accustomed to reading books, gets the same kind of information in a movie, he might not fully understand it. The act of “reading” a movie has to do with the act of looking at a picture and the act of reading a book; yet it's neither one nor the other. It's a combination. In film, you can't really go into analytical explorations because the audience will reject that. On the other hand, there are certain literary authors—Hemingway, for instance—who have a cinematic perception of reality. …

Rita Hayworth, Norma Shearer, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Lamour, and Bette Davis are movie stars that have had a decisive influence on you. But what about Argentine stars? I can only remember Mecha Ortíz mentioned in your novels.

It's true. All the others were too close to me and I hated the things they did. But Mecha Ortíz was a femme fatale, a woman with a past, a superior woman, very self-confident, with a lot of experience in life.

Do you remember the enthusiastic reception of Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year in Marienbad in Argentina? It coincided with the rise of the French nouveau roman. When I read the first chapter of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth,it seemed to me there were traces of the “flat voices” used by the authors of the nouveau roman, especially Nathalie Sarraute.

At that time people were talking about a new perception of reality and this literary movement was given credit for it. It was very well received and the first titles published by those authors had many followers. Today, the nouveau roman is almost gone. Their art was uniquely preoccupied with form. What these artists wanted was a formal revolution, a new formal perception of things. They committed a basic error: the content of their books depended on the formal structure. They were convinced that humankind had nothing else to tell, and that the only salvation was to tell stories from another point of view. This aesthetic approach, of course, is only conceivable in a country like France, so ancient; their history is full of outstanding people, so they carry a heavy weight on their back. Who could write in French after Proust or Flaubert? Fortunately, we in Hispanic America are safe in that respect; we don't have giants, huge shadows on our backs. And the French were feeling that they didn't have anything else to tell. For instance, I've always wondered why there isn't a great French novel about the German occupation. It's not that writers lack themes, because things are happening all the time. Nevertheless, the nouveau roman authors weren't interested in telling that sort of thing. As a rule, one should never place form over content.

In cinema a similar thing happened. Everybody went to see Last Year in Marienbad because we all had read Robbe-Grillet's novel, or Nathalie Sarraute's Golden Fruits. And since it was a subjective narrative, it left every interpretation to the viewers. People had confidence in that artistic approach to the world, so we went to see the movie with a positive attitude. But the piece is now ridiculous. I saw it again in the United States last year, and when the actress said “L'année derniere …” everybody laughed.

Returning to your question on the first chapter of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, while writing it I wasn't thinking of any theoretical approach. My only goal was to reproduce a real event—the way my aunt and some other women in the family would speak. As you can see, it had another origin.

Going back to what you were saying on examining the Argentinian mistake—both political and sexual: Would it be different to approach the subject as an essayist rather than as a novelist?

Yes, there's a difference. The essayist has to follow a certain intellectual pattern. He has to deal with a certain discipline. The novelist has the advantage of using fantasy, of being subjective, of identifying himself or herself with what he's writing about. If the novelist shares his or her problems with the characters, with the protagonist, if he or she is able to study his personal unconscious, then a few mysteries can be solved. But to achieve that you need total freedom.

Political freedom?

Yes, most of all political freedom. For someone who writes fiction, in order to activate the imagination and the unconscious, it's essential to be free. It's essential not to have an ideology, not to be a member of a political party. While the writer can have certain political views, he has to be careful not to have his hands tied. And I think one is better on the margin. Writers are not meant for action. Our only compromise is with the individual, personal truth. When the imagination is set free, it can point at the source of our problems, the source of repression. What's better, a poetic intuition or an intellectual work? I think they complement each other. And I think that the more we share our characters' problems, the better we can understand them.

That means that the gap between action and literature, between art and politics …

I think writers are not very serious people. … We are serious when it comes to discipline, but we are impulsive—we have to be, otherwise … where is the writer's temperament? We lack objectivity. The writer needs to react to his or her own internal universe, to his or her own point of view. If he or she doesn't have a personal point of view, it's impossible to be a creator. I don't believe in an ideal objectivity. I think our impulsive spirit and subjectivity are necessary. That's why I don't trust many of my colleagues. On the other hand, I don't think we can handle ourselves in action.

What kind of advice can you offer to young writers?

The other day, Juan Rulfo recommended that the best thing for young writers to do was to read a lot. I disagree! I do believe that reading can help you understand what you're writing and see what others are doing. But sometimes the desire for more information can act as an inhibitor. Why? Because if you're overly conscious of what others are doing, you don't give enough space to your own preoccupations. In fact, sometimes I think that forgetting what others do, being totally alienated from the world, can be very beneficial. It liberates you! Another piece of advice is never to put form over content. The important thing is to investigate a certain reality and find ways to change it.

Could you say something about your experience in the creative writing workshops in the United States?

I can tell you about my experience in the creative writing course at City College of New York. I've never seen a worse situation than that of young writers in the United States. The publishing business in North America is so commercialized that being a craftsman and wanting to experiment with narrative techniques is very difficult. The opposite thing happens in Latin America and in other countries of the world, for instance Spain. In the United States it's very expensive to publish a book, and one cannot work underground or semi-professionally because the bookstores won't stock your books. People are conditioned by advertisements. When a new novel by John Cheever is printed, it's advertised all over as though it were the ultimate masterpiece, when in fact it's far from one. Fortunately, that doesn't happen in our countries. In Latin America, when a book is published, publicity plays a minor role. We have another way of approaching the event, in a manner more in accordance with the product. For instance, a friend may write a book review, or the reader may get advice from a bookseller. In the United States, on the other hand, people don't go to bookstores to look around. Also, booksellers have no erudition whatsoever. You buy what's been advertised! In Latin America, fighting censorship gives credibility to the writer. “I'm censored, therefore I am.” It becomes a source of inspiration. In the United States there is no censorship. The system is so solid, so strong, the writer's voice has no real power.

How have your novels been received by the feminist movement?

Until Pubis Angelical, the feminist movement had received my novels quite well. This particular one, nevertheless, since it deals very directly with a feminist problem, found opposition. The critics complained I used a weak woman as a feminine example. They complained that she wasn't a good role model because she had a problem she was trying to resolve: she wanted to enjoy herself with men but didn't know how to. The objection was that she wasn't a very intelligent woman. Yet, I thought the reader could take care of the problem. In Spain a feminist group condemned the novel. In Mexico, on the other hand, the book sold very well, yet all the book reviews were terrible; ironically, they were all written by men; the Mexican feminists kept silent.

Tell me something about Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages.

Well, after my third novel, I dealt with more recent problems: Buenos Aires, my exile in Mexico (I spent two years there), and also New York. This particular novel dealt with the years I spent in Manhattan, 1976 and 1977, which were truly disgusting. I arrived in the United States—where I had lived during the sixties—in January of 1976. I didn't have an apartment. I was older and New York was less receptive than before. The country was empty of the hippie euphoria. The city was defeated. Add to all that the fact that I didn't have my immigration papers. In that sense 1976 was a horrible year. And it was then when I had a violent encounter with a fascinating American man, a character of sorts. It was an encounter I experienced in English, and I wanted to write about it. I asked the character for permission. I wrote some two hundred pages of notes in English. As you know, until then Spanish had been my psychological and linguistic vehicle; but in this novel I had all the information I needed, yet I sensed I had to write it in English. The counterpart to the North American protagonist is my father. And the North American himself is a left-wing activist, one who rejects the entire system in which he lives, and later on he uses in his own personal relations all the repressive devices that he criticizes in his surroundings. Do you see what I mean? I couldn't let this character slip through my fingers. It was so emblematic, so interesting. In the novel, my father arrives in New York as an exile and faces this guy, who is a sociologist and who, having been fired from every college and university, is now a teacher, a gardener, and a guardian of elders. When my father, in a sick state, arrives, this character takes care of him. My father's English is deficient, of course. For the North American's English, I thought of using a sort of Spanish-in-translation, an idiom a bit blooded, a bit fictitious. I know this was a crazy enterprise, yet … I was compelled to narrate it.

One last question: Why are the tropics so important in your work?

Perhaps because I'm always dealing with the absence of landscape in La Pampa. My greatest aspiration was always to live in the tropics.

A sort of paradise lost, isn't it?

Yes, exactly.


  1. Since the time this conversation took place, five academic books have appeared: René Alberto Campo's El juego de espejos: La textura cinemática en “La traición de Rita Hayworth” de Manuel Puig (Pliegos, 1983), Roberto Echavarren Welker's Manuel Puig: montaje y alteriadad del sujeto (Instituto Professional del Pacífico, 1986), Lucille Kerr's Suspended Fictions: Reading Novels by Manuel Puig (Univ. of Illinois, 1987), Jorgelina Corbatta's Mito personal y mitos colectivos en las novelas de Manuel Puig (Oásis, 1988), and Pamela Bacarisse's The Necessary Dream: A Study of the Novels of Manuel Puig (Barnes & Noble, 1988).

Douglas C. Thompson (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2957

SOURCE: “Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas: ‘True Romance’ for Our Time,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1981, pp. 37-44.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Puig's use of popular forms in Boquitas pintadas and how the substance of the texts subverts those forms.]

Manuel Puig's second novel, Boquitas pintadas (Heartbreak Tango) (1969), is generally considered a follow-up to or an elaboration on techniques which he first experimented with in La traicion de Rita Hayworth (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth) (1968). Chief among these techniques are the devices which have been called “cinematic”1 and multiple narrative styles and points of view in ever-changing combinations. Partly because of his willful eclecticism but more because of his willingness to associate himself and his work with such popular art forms as serialized pulp magazine fiction, the tango, and soap opera,2 Puig has been called a “pop” writer. The popularity of his novels, both in Argentina and abroad, lends credence to the label. Furthermore, the subtitles by which Puig has characterized two of his more recent novels (folletin and novela policial) indicate clearly his intention to write, in his words, “una nueva forma de literatura popular.3 The key word here, however, is nueva, but we have been correctly warned against labeling Puig too quickly.4 Puig uses popular forms but only in order to create something far more serious and meaningful out of them.

The structure of Boquitas pintadas has been described as a “complex narrative line, a form of narrative parataxis which goes beyond the multiple but facile narrative threads of the sprawling soap opera or the novel of panoramic realism.”5 The description is particularly accurate in its assertion that Puig has “gone beyond” the popular form and in its implication that the novel has an underlying unity. The book is divided into two parts of eight entregas6 each. One notes “the almost de rigueur fragmentation of narrative chronology”7 within the structure, but the fragmentation is not a hindrance to the reader;8 virtually every fragment is clearly dated. The narrative chronology, however, is not the only thing fragmented. Puig's narrative style as well is a pastiche, a collage of a wide variety of techniques.9 A total of nineteen different narrative devices occur in the novel, though a number of these are really just variations. The major devices are the following:

1. The official, impersonal bulletin (the announcement of Juan Carlos' death or of the lawsuit against Mabel's father).

2. The letters, occasionally followed by a brief paragraph of third-person descriptive narrative (Nene's letters to Dona Leonor) but sometimes given without such description (Mabel's letters to the Correo del Corazon).

3. Full passages of third-person descriptive narrative (the description of Mabel's room); this device is rarely used.

4. The agenda (Juan Carlos' datebook or the description of the dance).

5. Conversation, used in a number of different ways: the conversation without interlocutor, where we are given only one side of the conversation (the gypsy's reading of Juan Carlos' fortune, and Mabel's confession); regular third-person narration; phone conversation; conversation interspersed with radio soap opera dialogue; and conversation accompanied by the thoughts (given in parentheses) of the speakers.

6. Factual, completely unemotional, almost legalistic narrative of events (Pancho's seduction of Fanny).

7. The use of enumeracion caotica to show the course of an individual's thoughts (Juan Carlos' return to Coronel Vallejos); a more straightforward form of interior monologue is also employed on a number of different occasions.

8. The “day in the life,” a device by which Puig describes the actions of each of a set of characters on a specified date.

The most important device of the novel as a whole is the last one.10 It is used four times, in the fourth, ninth, fourteenth, and sixteenth entregas. What makes the device so important is that, each time, the persons whose activities are traced are the same: Nene, Juan Carlos, Mabel, Pancho, and Fanny (only once is the order changed, and then only to reverse the first two characters). Furthermore, each of the last three days is of particular importance to at least one of the five characters.11 Through this device more than any other, Puig unites the separate strands of the novel.

Although Puig himself calls attention to the popular elements of Boquitas pintadas, the book reveals an affinity with a number of more “serious” literary conventions. By dividing the book into entregas, Puig not only associates himself with soap opera but also places his work in the context of the great romantic writers of the nineteenth century. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo, for example, was first published in serial form, as was Jorge Isaacs' Maria. In France, Flaubert's Madame Bovary was also first published in installments. Such direct association with the past allows us to discuss Boquitas pintadas as an attempt at a romantic novel in the twentieth century.

In asserting that Puig in this novel follows “the new novel dictum that individuals as such are insignificant, that human personality as an abstract generality must be the stuff of the novel,”12 David Foster is led to an interpretation of the novel that is one-sided and incomplete. He refers to “the bleak uniformity of tone” and states that its themes are “the gray anguish of the Argentine middle classes, … the trivial emptiness of routine existence, … and the pitiful attempts by some individuals to achieve some level of emotional satisfaction.” He argues that Puig's attitude is essentially defeatist and pessimistic: “Puig's work … is unashamedly sentimental, but with a sentimentality that is presented from the cold, cruel point of view of one who knows that it is a pathetic defense mechanism against some basic human truths.” Foster is not alone in this reading of the novel, for Lydia Hazera states that its themes are to be found in “the drabness, limited horizons and inevitable fates of Puig's characters”13 and later asserts that the theme of the novel is death.14 Kessel Schwartz describes the book as “an attempt at popular literature and a reflection of the vulgar in Argentine life,”15 and Severo Sarduy apparently finds so little emotion in the novel that it becomes for him an almost purely intellectual exercise: “while it is a serial, almost perfectly conforming to the genre, Boquitas pintadas is a parody, the derisive double of the serial.”16Boquitas pintadas is, then, essentially a “meta-novel,” a novel about writing novels: “it is an archive … an anthology of the novelesque, … a parody of the novel.” Sarduy sees language and the ability of language to convey meaning as the particular focus of the novel: “the real quarry of the book is the art of narration.17 … it shows us the vacuity of language, it underlines its character of a vehicle, a means of transmission and support of received ideas.”18

Such critical comments may be helpful in a specific way, but their general thrust is to encourage misreadings. Puig is interested in human personality on a very concrete level. The characters in the novel (particularly the five “main” ones) are carefully delineated and individualized; they are not confused and blurred. People are the center of the novel—the people of the town, with their hopes, thoughts, and fears, form the core of Puig's narrative. The lives of the characters are limited, and they themselves are unable to transcend their limitations. Nene's attitudes and behavior, for example, are no different after she moves to Buenos Aires. Her primary concern is still for her reputation in Coronel Vallejos; she is terrified, after Fanny's visit, that word might get back that her apartment is largely unfinished:

—I'm going back to Vallejos. I'm going tomorrow.

—Why? What happened? don't you go telling mama you saw my house!

. …

—Are you going to tell mama you came to my house?

. …

—Fanny, promise me that you won't tell Mabel either that you saw my house.19

Buenos Aires exists for her only because of its restaurants and movie theaters; she never seems aware of the city in any other way:

So, I always walk him toward the obelisk, as if we were going no place special, and before he knows it, Mr. Massa is at the obelisk. There you have restaurants by the dozen, and now do you realize what I'm getting at? We finish eating at just about nine-thirty right smack in the theatre and movie district, and he can't refuse.


One cannot assume, however, that because the lives of Puig's characters are limited, they are empty. Not all of them are, and Puig's attitude is far from “cold” and “cruel”; he is, rather, sympathetic and ultimately hopeful.

Although Hazera has pointed out the presence of death in the novel, she assigns too great a significance to it. The book opens with the announcement of Juan Carlos' death, which infuses the entire novel: we never forget that Juan Carlos is dying—that he is already dead. The ineluctable fact of death is not Puig's theme; it is a basic part of the structure of the novel, since it allows him to present his theme.

The second character to appear in the novel, the first to appear as a living being, is Nene. Her letters begin as a series of condolences to Dona Leonor, but gradually they become a form of confession in which she reveals more and more of herself. Her description of her life in Buenos Aires progresses from boredom, to active discontent, to irritability, and finally to despair.20 But further analysis of Nene is revealing: if Nene's letters to Dona Leonor open the book, her death closes it. September 15, 1968, the day of Nene's death, is the last of the four “days in the life” in the novel. Nene's letters to Dona Leonor were written in 1947, twenty-one years earlier. The crux of the book lies precisely in this passage of time. The question that must be answered is: what, if anything, happens to Nene during those years? And a great deal happens as far as her attitudes are concerned.

The bitterness of Nene's letters to Dona Leonor comes from her disillusionment with married life. Things have not worked out as she had hoped, and in reaction she yearns for her past. Her romance with Juan Carlos becomes to her the only thing of value in her life. As we learn more about the romance and, particularly, about Juan Carlos, we find that Nene's view of both him and their relationship is highly idealized. At the same time that Juan Carlos is courting Nene, he is carrying on affairs (we know this; Nene does not) with both Mabel and Elsa Di Carlo and seducing young campesinas. Clearly, Juan Carlos' interest in women (Nene included) is almost exclusively sexual; his indolence and self-centeredness make any other, deeper relationship impossible. But in 1947 Nene does not see this, nor had she seen it ten years earlier—she sees only her idealized vision of their romance.

If Puig's use of such words as folletin and entrega (along with the sentimentality of the plot) is intended to parody “the provincial attitudes of the Argentine middle class,”21 Nene would have to be one of the objects of the parody; but she is not. She is, rather, one of the vehicles of Puig's parody or satire, which is aimed not at the people who believe in the life of the soap opera but at the soap opera itself.

Soap opera, with its sentimental, overly idealized portrayal of human relations does exactly what Nene does in her letters: it elevates love to the point where it becomes something which has no direct connection with ordinary human existence. Nene never had the love she remembers; it was, we learn, a cheap imitation of love. The love she longs for exists only in her mind. It survives and grows in her memory only because she cannot accept the reality of her marriage to Massa after having enjoyed the fantasy of her romance with Juan Carlos. Love is a human capability; if it is to retain any human value, it must remain within the reach of human beings. The hysterical, self-centered, and all-consuming passion of the soap operas is beyond the reach of most people. It is not ideal; it does not give meaning and value to life. Rather, it is destructive; if we allow ourselves to be fooled by it, it makes happiness in love as it actually exists between real people impossible.

Boquitas pintadas attacks the very thing it borrows from so freely: popular sentimental art forms. The book is not a “validation of the popular suspicion that the scandalous successes of the soap opera derive … from the fundamental validity of a uniform humanity upon which its scripts are predicated.”22 It attacks the soap opera because soap opera replaces the fundamentally valid emotion of love with an unattainable and false ideal.

That Juan Carlos' death infuses the novel is essential to Puig's attack. Without death, the idea that soap-opera love is unattainable would perhaps not matter. But since death is inevitable and unavoidable, wasting our time on useless ideals is particularly evil. The lives that Puig describes are limited, but all life is limited. From the beginning of the novel, life is limited by death; however, that life is limited does not mean that life has to be bleak. It is so only if, like Nene in her letters, we fail to accept its limitations or if, like Mabel and Celina,23 we surrender to the limitations without making an effort to impart meaning to life. In Puig's novel, death is a negating force; although it is ineluctable, another force can neutralize its negating power, at least while we are alive: that force is love, human love, and this is the lesson Nene learns.

Nene is the main character of the novel (Fanny's main function is as a foil for Nene). It is Nene's story that the novel traces, and it is she who represents the possibility of happiness in life. In the sixteenth entrega we are told of a conversation between Nene and her husband just before her death. She tells Massa that she has left orders (written twelve years earlier) that she be buried with Juan Carlos' letters, but she says that she has changed her mind. She asks, instead, to be buried with three objects: a lock of her granddaughter's hair, the wristwatch she gave her second son when he took his First Communion, and her husband's engagement ring. She thus replaces the objects which represent an unattainable fantasy (the letters) with objects of true, concrete meaning in her life. She realizes before she dies that her life has had meaning and that it is to be found in true human relations. Her last gesture is to reject and to destroy the fantasy which brought her nothing but the misery of frustrated ideals: “Besides, she asked that the letters that the solicitor was keeping for her be destroyed, and she wanted her husband to do it” (217, emphasis added). Massa and the actual, realizable possibilities of love which he represents survive. Juan Carlos is finally reduced to nothing, a few scattered phrases, empty of meaning, disintegrating into ashes.

Massa and Nene's victory is emphasized by the account Puig gives of each of his five characters in the sixteenth entrega. Nene, of course, has just died. Juan Carlos is dead, remembered ironically by a plaque from his sister, whom he did not like and who represents, along with Mabel, the negating force of death as it exists in life when we do not exert ourselves to oppose it. Mabel herself lives on the verge of misery; her life has been reduced to the day-to-day emptiness of getting by. Pancho is dead and has become one with the cycle of the seasons. Only Fanny, functioning as a foil for Nene, is happy. She is surrounded and supported by her family, and her life is one of peace and contentment. Not ecstasy: Fanny's situation is certainly not intended to be a romantic ideal, but she is content because she has accepted life with its limitations. Within those limits, not outside them, one finds true happiness.


  1. Lydia D. Hazera, “Narrative Technique in Manuel Puig's Boquitas pintadas,Latin American Literary Review, 2, iii (Fall-Winter 1973), 45.

  2. One whole section of Boquitas pintadas is built around the dialogue of a radio novela.

  3. Puig's fourth novel, The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976), continues this approach.

  4. Severo Sarduy, “Boquitas pintadas: parodia e injerto,” Sur, 321 (noviembre-diciembre 1969), 71–77.

  5. David William Foster, “Manuel Puig and the Uses of Nostalgia,” Latin American Literary Review, 1, i (Fall 1972), 81.

  6. Suzanne Jill Levine translates this as “episode,” in keeping, I assume, with the novel's soap opera aspects. I prefer “installment,” which emphasizes the folletin aspect of the novel. However, if Sarduy is correct in his suggestion that the word has a double meaning—“la entrega—en los dos sentidos de la palabra: Tan importante es aqui la periodicidad de los cuadernos como la rendicion de los cuerpos” (Sarduy, p. 72)—then clearly the word cannot be satisfactorily translated.

  7. Foster, p. 80.

  8. Hazera, p. 46.

  9. Hazera, p. 46.

  10. Hazera, p. 50.

  11. The first day, April 23, 1937, is significant only because it is typical; the second, January 27, 1938, is the day of the birth of Fanny and Pancho's son; the third, April 18, 1947, is the day of Juan Carlos' death; and the fourth, September 15, 1968, is the day of Nene's death.

  12. Foster, p. 80.

  13. Hazera, p. 45.

  14. Hazera, p. 52.

  15. Kessel Schwartz, “Themes, Trends and Textures: The 1960's and the Spanish American Novel,” Hispania, 55 (December 1972), 828.

  16. Sarduy, p. 73 (my translation).

  17. Sarduy, p. 72 (my translation).

  18. Sarduy, p. 75 (my translation).

  19. Manuel Puig, Boquitas pintadas, 12a ed. (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1973); Heartbreak Tango: A Serial, trans. Suzanne Jill Levine (New York: Dutton, 1973), p. 138–39. Subsequent references are to this translation, though the original title is used throughout.

  20. Hazera, p. 46.

  21. Hazera, p. 46.

  22. Foster, p. 80.

  23. Though Hazera points out Mabel's role as “villainess” (p. 45), she neglects to mention Celina's similar function.

Frances Wyers (Weber) (essay date Spring 1981)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7591

SOURCE: “Manuel Puig at the Movies,” in Hispanic Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 163-81.

[In the following essay, Wyers analyzes the relationship between Puig's El Beso de la mujer arañaand the movies.]

Movies have a powerful effect on us because the photographic reproduction of the material world is put at the service of wishes and fantasies. The impression of reality is much greater in film than in novels, plays, or figurative painting because we are plunged directly into the imaginary.1 A writer might have recourse to this experience of a paradoxically dreamlike reality or realistic dream by incorporating the devices of cinematographic narrative. By relying on our memories of film, a text might almost make us forget that we are reading instead of seeing. The written page might call for the projection of a visualized story complete with sound track. This particular kind of doubleness, moving back and forth between reading a book and watching an imaginary film, would contribute to and compound the duality that the esthetic experience invariably involves. The special attention that art requires means a bracketing from “non-art.” As Jurij Lotman says, “art requires a two-fold experience—simultaneously forgetting that you are confronted by an imaginary event and not forgetting it.”2 E. H. Gombrich has shown us how our pleasure in illusion rests precisely on the mind's effort in bridging the difference between art and reality, in the oscillation between two series of associations.3

Manuel Puig's El Beso de la Mujer Araña4 is built up on a series of representational and narrative dualities: the characters create—or rather reproduce, modify, embellish—in short, recreate stories, filmed stories, so that the entire circuit of artistic creation and reception is played out before us. The novel has two principal characters (a third one is very marginal): Molina, a homosexual convicted of corrupting minors, shares a prison cell with Valentín, a political activist in Buenos Aires. To pass the time, Molina recounts movies and Valentín offers comments and analyses, political and psychoanalytical. Through this sharing of ready-made dreams we come to know the characters and see them change. In the foreground, then, are two humble fabricators, and beyond them, enriched by the reader's own visual and affective memories of film, the luminous myths and stars of Hollywood.

We remember other weavers of tales. Velázquez' “The Spinners” is an elaboration on the theme of reality and representation as intricate in its composition as “Las Meninas.” In the foreground, large-figured, ordinary women spin, fabricate; behind them, in another room that is also another world, where the figures are fainter, lighter, and painted in a more illusionistic manner, another spinner, Arachne, is about to meet her destruction at the hands of Athena. Velázquez, who painted ordinary scenes and people with great seriousness, here combines the everyday world and the mythical one showing how “representation as such, the imitative or descriptive side of art” can serve as “the basis of the elevated fiction of art.”5

One does not have to suppose that Puig had Velázquez in mind, but he too is interested in the problems of representation. He has modestly said that what gives him most pleasure is copying. “Crear no, no me interesaba para nada. Lo que me interesaba era rehacer cosas de otra época, cosas ya vistas. Recrear el momento de la infancia en que me había sentido refugiado en la sala oscura.”6 Crucial to his art is memory, primarily the memory of dreams and fantasies turned out by the producers and marketers of a highly commercialized art. But copying, as this novel eloquently demonstrates, is by no means a mere passive recording. Gombrich tells us that copying is a process of proposing schemata that are “corrected” against the real object or objects portrayed. To attempt a “truthful record of an individual form,” the artist must begin with an idea or concept.7 Reproduction displays a constructive or reconstructive character. The artist combines and matches. Molina's copies, of course, are representations of other representations, though the films he tells are in no way realistic; he loves whatever is far from daily life: movies about panther women and zombies, improbable adventures, melodramatic stories of love and self-sacrifice, musical comedies, even a Nazi propaganda film whose beauty, he says, must be seen to be believed. At the center of the novel's production, then, is a character, both audience and creator, who uses language to refashion works that are seen and heard. As in “The Spinners” we watch the fabricator(s) mediate between the mythical and the ordinary, illusion and reality, while shifting or “translating” from one medium to another. Ovid's tales become tapestry and then paint; movies become a spoken narrative that is one strand in a novelistic web.

Puig's statement also underlines the protective or consoling function of art, even in its mass-commodity form. It offers respite from a rigid and deadened world; in his case, from an authoritarian and “machista” culture that disdains weakness and sensitivity. The real world is displaced by something more gratifying and more humane. “Poco a poco fui cambiando los términos: lo que era la realidad pasó a ser una película clase Z en la que yo me había metido por equivocación. La realidad eran las películas, las superproducciones que llegaban de Hollywood.”8 And within this novel, remembered movies provide Molina and Valentín with a temporary escape from the narrow limits of their prison cell. Puig's narrative impulse is born of the fertile opposition of two realms, a degraded reality and a sentimentalized fiction. The reader is made constantly aware of this duality.

Within the text the doubleness of life and art is set before us through the age-old device of the story within the story. Molina tells stories. But Beso is quite different from other narratives that use this technique because Molina is not the traditional first-person narrator-witness who appears in the story yet tells it. He does not address the reader but Valentín. Nor is the situation one in which a speaker and a listener are seen from the outside by a third-person narrator who allows the reader to listen in (Conrad's Lord Jim). The novel begins “—A ella se le ve que algo raro tiene, que no es una mujer como todas. Parece muy joven, de unos venticinco años cuanto más, una carita un poco de gata, la nariz chica, respingada …” “—¿Y los ojos?” (p. 9). This sets the pattern of Molina's telling and Valentín's questioning and commenting. Certain other kinds of speech are, however, inserted into this pattern, and I shall discuss their function shortly.

The story-within-the-story intrigues us, not as some critics would have us believe because we are interested in the artifice itself, but because, captivated by the framing narrative, we sense that the inner one must be at least as fascinating, because we see that it intrigues our new acquaintances, the novel's characters. If Don Quijote and Sancho want to hear about Marcela and Grisóstomo, or the “curioso impertinente,” we do too. But in this case the planes are reversed; the book opens directly onto one of the film stories and only later, and gradually, does the frame story piece itself together. From the very start the two speakers are turned almost entirely towards the fictions that Molina recounts. No narrator interrupts their dialogue. No third person ever intrudes his judgments, his distance, his Olympian knowledge. From what Puig has said about his first novel we know that he mistrusted the use of the Spanish language except in the form of the reproduced dialogues or interior monologues of people he knew very well (“a mí el castellano puro me hacía temblar. A lo único que me animaba era a registrar voces”).9 In his second and third novels (Boquitas pintadas and The Buenos Aires Affair) he used the third person. Since, however, “el carácter omnisciente de esa técnica me seguía resultando sospechoso,” he limited it to an inventory of external actions. In El Beso de la Mujer Araña the film stories absorb our attention so completely that we are almost put off when the two men talk about their own lives and concerns. Christian Metz tells us that “films release a mechanism of affective and perceptual participation in the spectator” much more convincing than in any of the other representational arts.10 Here the conjunction of the told film and the imaginary one that seems to be projected “behind” Molina's words heightens the impression of reality.

In film it is impossible to separate narration and description. The distinction can be made only in written narratives. “Cinema is,” according to Metz, “the ‘phenomenological’ art par excellence, the signifier is coextensive with the whole of the significate, the spectacle its own signification.”11 Puig manages to approximate this in a literary text. The book is full of descriptions; the details of dress and locale are lovingly recorded, but recorded by Molina, not by some extraneous narrator. We know that from Flaubert on, the novel has increasingly relied on the evocation of purely visual information, on what Alan Spiegel calls “concretized form” or “seemingly unmediated visual language” (he refers to Conrad's saying that before all else he wanted to make the reader see, and to Flaubert's declaration that he derived “almost voluptuous sensations from the mere act of seeing”).12

Puig creates a special kind of visualized form. Instead of attempting to suppress the voice of the narrator in order to present us with the flat, neutral sound of documentation, he gives us a story-teller whose tales are so enchanting that we concentrate fully on both the speaker and what he tells us, on both visual texture and the perception or interpretation of that texture. We are sucked into imaginary worlds and yet we remain aware of the process of fabulation. We glide back and forth between two kinds of representation. Molina's cinematographic editing strengthens the illusion that we are witnessing a movie and not a written narrative. Hollywood films of the thirties were designed to present events so that the spectator's mind would naturally understand. “The American film makers in this era found that if space were broken up according to the logic of the narrative, it would pass unnoticed as integral or real space. Editors learned to cut a scene into its narrative components and thus follow the line of curiosity of the audience. The film thereby mirrors the perceptual process of the spectator to such a degree that he barely notices that time and space are being fragmented, because he is concerned with the relationships between events not with the intrinsic value of the events themselves.”13 Two examples of Molina's use of such shifts in focus:

El sale sin darle el gusto de decirle adónde va. Ella queda triste pero no deja que nadie se dé cuenta y se enfrasca en el trabajo para no deprimirse más. Ya en el zoológico no ha empezado todavía a hacerse de noche, ha sido un día con luz de invierno muy rara, todo parece que se destaca con más nitidez que nunca, las rejas son negras, las paredes de las jaulas de mosaico blanco, el pedregullo blanco también, y grises los árboles deshojados. Y los ojos rojo sangre de las fieras. Pero la muchacha, que se llamaba Irene, no está. Pasan los días y el muchacho no la puede olvidar, hasta que un día caminando por una avenida lujosa algo le llama la atención en la vidriera de una galería de arte


la otra se vuelve a la casa, que es como un hotel de mujeres muy grande, un club de mujeres, donde viven, con una pileta grande de natación en el subsuelo. La arquitecta está muy nerviosa, por todo lo que pasó, y esa noche al volver a su hotel donde está prohibido que entren hombres piensa que para calmar los nervios que tiene tan alterados lo mejor es bajar a nadar un rato. Ya es tarde de noche y no hay absolutamente nadie en la pileta. Ahí abajo hay vestuarios y tiene un casillero donde cuelga la ropa y se pone la malla y salida de baño. Mientras tanto en el hotel se abre la puerta de calle y aparece Irene.

(p. 39)

These passages illustrate not only a film-like editing but also the contributions of the speaker such as “ha sido un día con luz de invierno muy rara” and the color notations for what is surely a black and white movie. Certain kinds of information also suggest the intrusion of the speaker: “ella queda triste pero no deja que nadie se dé cuenta.” Molina's accounts almost always contain extratextual explanations that make us aware of two simultaneous series, the story and the intervention of the story-teller. He introduces material whose source is not specified. On the novel's first page we are told about a woman drawing a panther in the zoo. Suddenly the animal sees her and growls. Valentín asks if he couldn't smell her before and Molina answers “No, porque en la jaula tiene un enorme pedazo de carne, es lo único que puede oler” (p. 9). Is this “fact” established in the film by camera close-ups or does Molina make a sensory whole on the basis of visual memory and his own “naturalizing” strategies? Another example:

Y ella es como si le pasara una nube por los ojos, toda la expresión de la cara se le oscurece, y dice que no es de una ciudad, ella viene de las montañas, por ahí por Transilvania.

—¿De dónde es Drácula?

—Sí, esas montañas tienen bosques oscuros, donde viven las fieras que en invierno se enloquecen de hambre y tienen que bajar a las aldeas, a matar. Y la gente se muere de miedo, y les pone ovejas y otros animales muertos en las puertas y hacen promesas, para salvarse. A todo esto el muchacho quiere volver a verla.

(p. 11)

We do not know if the “information” about the mountains, the wild animals, and the ways people try to protect themselves comes from this movie or from other movies or from some general mythology transmitted through “popular culture.”

Through such laminations the text welds narration and description. Molina's accounts reveal his own desires, wishes, fantasies, and consolations. Indeed, at one point Valentín accuses him of inventing half of the picture and Molina protests, “no, yo no me invento, te lo juro, pero hay cosas que para redondearlas, que las veas como las estoy viendo yo, bueno, de algún modo te las tengo que explicar. La casa, por ejemplo.” Valentín: “Confesá que es la casa en que te gustaría vivir a vos.” Molina immediately senses that Valentín will now formulate some theory about the origin of his homosexuality (“Y ahora tengo que aguantar que me digas lo que dicen todos” [p. 25]).

In this way Molina's personality emerges from his narratives. The reader comes to recognize the characteristics of his verbal style and the kinds of interpretations he is apt to make; he is much more present to us than the so-called “autonomous characters” in Unamuno’s novels or than other story-tellers in more recent works.14 Molina, however, insists that his accounts are accurate; he assumes that what he describes would be evident to any other viewer: “A ella se le ve que algo raro tiene” presupposes agreement. But constantly he infuses his descriptions with his own esthetic values as well as his sense of history made concrete through the changes of fashion or dress.

Bueno, de golpe se ve un teatro bárbaro de París, de lujo, todo tapizado de terciopelo oscuro, con barrotes cromados en los palcos y escalera y barandas también siempre cromadas. Es de music-hall y hay un número musical con coristas nada más, de un cuerpo divino todas, y nunca me voy a olvidar porque de un lado están embetunadas de negro y cuando bailan tomándose de la cintura y las enfoca la cámara parecen negras, con una pollerita hecha toda de bananas, nada más, y cuando los platillos dan un golpe muestran el otro lado, y son todas rubias, y en vez de las bananas tienen unas tiritas de strass, y nada más, como un arabesco de strass.

—¿Qué es el strass?

—No te creo que no sepas.

—No sé qué es.

—Ahora está otra vez de moda, es como los brillantes, nada más que sin valor, pedacitos de vidrio que brillan, y con eso se hacen tiras, y cualquier tipo de joya falsa.

(pp. 56–57)

At this point the impatient listener says “no pierdas tiempo, contáme la película.” Eager to get on with the story, Valentín sometimes finds Molina's descriptions too profuse. But we, the readers of the novel, see his digressions as part of the whole work; they characterize him. Characterization and plot are two sides of the same coin.

In his Theory of the Film, Béla Bálazs talked about microphysiognomy and microdrama, about a realm of surfaces, dramatic gestures, emotional expressions revealed not through words but directly in a world immediately accessible to visual perception.15 The autonomy of the senses that distinguishes modern art finds natural expression in cinema where sights and sound (musical score, for example) orchestrate meaning. In film our eyes constantly interpret. We are reminded of this by certain of Molina's statements like “ella miente,” “él se da cuenta que es extranjera por el acento,” or “él la trata como amiga pero se nota que en el fondo ella está enamorada de él, aunque lo disimula.” These are “readings” of a visual script. At first glance Molina looks and sounds something like an omniscient narrator, but he is rather a narrator-interpreter who conveys his personal version of the story and its motivating factors.

Molina's rather naïve style points to film's affinity to folk art16 and to the teller's roots in a popular culture which we all share. The text opens before us a wide range of perception, interpretation, and recreation, thus heightening the illusion of a reality too rich to be contained in words, a reality that stretches beyond our descriptive powers. As Michael Polanyi says, we always can know more than we can tell. “We recognize the moods of the human face without being able to tell, except quite vaguely, by what signs we know it.” So any describing or naming requires the sympathetic co-operation of the receiver. “Our message has left something behind that we could not tell, and its reception must rely on it that the person addressed will discover that which we have not been able to communicate.”17 The text shows us the workings of this collaboration in Molina's story-telling and Valentín's questions.

Valentín is an active listener, eager to comment and theorize. At first Molina is put off by this but Valentín justifies himself: “Me gusta la película, pero es que vos te divertís contándola y por ahí también yo quiero intervenir un poco. No soy un tipo que sepa escuchar demasiado … y de golpe me tengo que estarte escuchando callado horas” (p. 21). Knowing full well that the pleasure of art is always active, he proposes that they talk about the films together. “Si te parece bien me gustaría que fuéramos comentando un poco la cosa, a medida que vos avanzas, así yo puedo descargarme un poco con algo” (p. 22). They discuss characters as if they were real persons and speculate about others who do not even appear in the movie. Imagination supplies a missing cast. “A mí me gustaría preguntarte como te la imaginás a la madre del tipo” (p. 22). Sometimes Molina corrects or modifies his own view to agree with Valentín: “Él entonces se ablanda de nuevo, y la toma en los brazos, tenías razón vos, que para él es como una nena” (p. 36). In other words Molina and Valentín do exactly what our teachers and literary critics always used to tell us not to do.18 They abstract the character from the film in order to analyze psychological features that are only hinted at and to construct a past history which would explain the feelings and actions portrayed. Valentín’s psychoanalytical and political commentaries constitute a personal reality beyond the film. Characters exist in the free space of speculation.

As readers we attend both to the story and to a mode of presentation that activates a particular kind of receptive behavior. Gombrich refers us to Philostratus's biography of Apollonius of Tyana in which the hero claims that “those who look at works of painting and drawing must have the imitative faculty.”19 Listening to Molina and Valentín we insert ourselves in the same conversation and thus participate in a game of the imagination between readers and text. This book calls for the reader's collaboration more effectively than a novel like Cortázar's Rayuela which makes such a point of it. Psychologists have told us that the movies individualize and isolate us; they contrast this supposed lonely anonymity to the sense of community created in a theater audience. But movie goers know otherwise; we know how we shape the film in our conversations about it (television allows us to do this more immediately, without the restraints of the silent audience). The movie thus becomes a shared spectacle that can take on the quality of a dream told to others. In a scene in Buñuel's “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” an army officer asks a private to recount his dream to the guests at a dinner party; the soldier's dream enthralls both the characters in the movie and the spectators watching it. A similar exchange of telling and picturing links Molina, Valentín, and the novel's readers. To the doubleness of the narrative material Puig adds the dialectics of the communicative circuit.

Since the written text refers us to another medium, its images and techniques, we might make a comparison with the so-called “transposiciones artísticas” of the Hispanic Modernist writers who evoked other texts, sculpture, paintings, myths of other times and places in order to situate their works in a museum without walls. The device, whether employed seriously or ironically (as often by Valle-Inclán), distances the figured world of the text by making apparent its constructed, secondary quality. The repeated references to this imaginary museum keep the reader from being absorbed by the story. But we do not lose ourselves in the museum either because the narrator's insistent display of similarities and divergences between his productions and the ready-made ones puts all of them in a cultural deep freeze. In such texts the narrative stance almost destroys the mimetic illusion; instead of a story we find ourselves reading a literary essay on the relations between the arts. We are scarcely concerned with “what happens next?” as we follow the play of artistic allusions.

In Puig, however, everything is at the service of plot. “A mí me interesa el espectáculo, la comunicación directa con el público. El cine es inmediatamente accesible. Imagen; interés narrativo.”20 If Molina tells movies so well it is because for Puig, as for many of us, the most captivating narrative art is film. As Metz says, film is “the supreme story-teller … its narrativity … endowed with the nine lives of a cat.”21 So film is not a new kind of “transposición artística” but a signal to the reader that we are in the realm of pure story-telling. (Pop art in the sixties was the most recent avatar of this device. The blow-ups of comics show us the dots of the printing process and not the allure of the comic-book fantasy. The technique is at once demystifying and utilitarian; it appropriates isolated images from a different medium in order to use them as raw materials for a new work of art. Pop art is cannibalistic and ironic. Puig's is integrative and his use of film is anything but tongue in cheek.)

Because what most interests him is “the image, narrative interest,” Puig recreates for us the compelling narrativity of movies. Far from being distanced from the fictions we are drawn into them. Some critics find in the author's use of popular forms an alienating effect. For example, Alicia Borinsky, writing about La traición de Rita Hayworth, says that “alienation is the structuring principle of the novel,” not a theme but an effect. Such a view goes along with moral and esthetic judgements about the writer's materials: “Trash appears in the novel as the effect of a complex system of artifices.”22 But “bad taste” and “trash” may also be in the eye of the beholder and in the hierarchies of a given social-economic order. Puig is simpler, more direct. “Yo no creo que el folletín y la novela policial sean géneros menores, porque son los que me gustan, por eso trato de demostrar su validez.”23 Their tales and images are as valid as any and they are a part of the cultural heritage of most of us. It takes only the sensitive recreation of the artist to activate the reader's esthetic response. Robert Escarpit reminds us that it is not absurd to think that “las historietas de dibujos tan despreciadas, tan criticadas, merecerían un día la consideración de género literario, cuando los que hacen de ellas su lectura habitual posean los medios intelectuales y materiales necesarios, por una parte, para formular un juicio estético sobre ellas, y por otra, para lograr que este juicio se tenga en cuenta, pudiendo participar así en la vida literaria.”24 Popular culture (“mass” culture) is the very kernel of Puig's literary works. By absorbing the moving-pictures, El Beso de la Mujer Araña takes on their sheen. Throughout its history, the novel has drawn on so-called “extra-literary” forms, and we see here the continuation of that tradition. Not alienation but reintegration.

Although Molina's telling of movies constitutes the bulk of the book, other forms of discourse appear. Some are variations of the principal one. Molina imagines or remembers a film he evidently does not recount; it appears in italics (pp. 104–16), interrupted by a brief dialogue between Molina and Valentín on the usefulness or uselessness of political action; it ends with the only segment in which we can read Molina's thoughts about Valentín, angry thoughts which explain the silencing of the film (“a mamá le gustó con locura y a mí también, por suerte no se la conté a este hijo de puta … hijo de puta y su puta mierda de revolución” [p. 116]). A second movie-like fiction, also in italics, appears a bit later (pp. 128–33, 148–51); it seems to be a day-dream in the mind of Valentín; the style, quite different from Molina’s spoken style, builds on obsessively repeated nominal phrases (“una mujer europea, una mujer inteligente, una mujer hermosa, una mujer con conocimientos de política internacional, una mujer con conocimientos de marxismo” [p. 128]). Anaphora is the organizing principle which alternately advances the “plot” and holds together a sequence of shifting modifiers that enact the gradations of intense ambivalence: “un padre que fué ajusticiado como criminal, un padre que fue tal vez un criminal, un padre que cubre de ignominia a su hijo, un padre cuya sangre criminal corre en las venas de su hijo” (p. 131). The divided feelings that emerge in this pictured fantasy have to do with the hero's mother and father, Europe vs. America, racial mixing (an embodied sexual ambivalence), and, repeating and encompassing those relations, with the inevitable betrayals called forth by the class struggle in a dependent Latin America. Valentín's fantasies are compulsive and speechless, addressed to no neighbor, locked in an inner world that can only reflect, without telling, the impotence of his class (“un muchacho que abre fuego contra su propia casa, un muchacho que abre fuego contra su propia sangre” [p. 149]).

Other kinds of discourse stand against the telling or dreaming of movies—the bureaucratic prose of the prison records and two dialogues, in play-format, between the warden and Molina (pp. 151–77 and 201–03). The speakers are identified only by their function in the penal system, “director” and “procesado.” The reader learns that Molina has been “planted” with Valentín in order to extract information about his political activities and associates, but also that Molina has secretly reneged on this agreement. The objectivity of the theatrical form makes us sensitive to the duplicities of both warden and prisoner. But what lies behind their speech is not the depth and multiplicity of fiction or fantasy but the simple reversal of deceit.

On a different level of doubled consciousness are the fragments of stories or images in the minds of both Molina and Valentín inserted in italics throughout the second half of the novel (pp. 164, 167, 170, 173, 176, 177, 180, 192, 193, 213, 216, 217); these private stories or thoughts never surface in dialogue. The book closes with two brief sections, the police report on Molina's release and death at the hands of Valentín's associates (we are told that Molina seemed to be prepared for this), and Valentín's feverish monologue in which fantasy mingles with film scenes and imaginary dialogue.

Still another kind of language is found in the long excerpt from the publicity service of the Tobis-Berlin studios. Whereas Molina's speech is both self-reflective (“me imagino”) and attuned to the other's understanding (“¿verdad?” “¿me entendés?”), the prose of the studio advertising release is authoritarian, bent on filling up any porosity and on inhibiting interpretation or intervention. It over-explains and never invites the reader to conjure up pictures and give free reign to associations: “Leni se recuesta en el pasto y mira los ojos azul límpido de Werner, ojos de mirar plácido, confiado, puesto que están puestos en la Verdad” (p. 94). Value judgments are imposed through the supreme self-confidence of the anonymous writer. Good and evil are clearly identified in a prose which would have us believe that the movie camera records the “truth” of history—the evil of the Jews (“hebreos errantes portadores de la muerte. Todo ello puntualmente registrado por las cámaras” [p. 91]). Myth rules supreme in “documentary” film.

A long-running footnote, interspersed at different moments throughout the text (pp. 102–03, 133–35, 141–43, 154–55, 199–200, 209–11), presents in objective, discursive prose a survey of various theories on homosexuality, pre-Freudian and Freudian. It ends with the views of Marcuse and Norman O. Brown on sexual repression and the work of Anneli Taube on sexuality and revolution and the revolutionary non-conformism of homosexuality. Puig apparently saw no way of incorporating the theoretical material into the text itself; whatever the author's reasons, the device reinforces the sense of divergent perspectives on human behavior, counterposing different psychological interpretations to a fiction in which homosexuality is particularized and dramatized in the life of a character who, though in no way a revolutionary, comes to love his revolutionary cell-mate.

The split between drama and theory also shows up in the contrast between Molina's taste for “illusion” and Valentín's attempts to explicate the constructions of fantasy. “¿Por qué cortarme la ilusión, a mí y a vos también?” asks Molina, and Valentín answers that he must lead his companion to “un planteo más claro” (p. 23). When Valentín himself succumbs to illusion, when he identifies emotionally with a character or expresses his fondness for an invented person, he attributes it to “cosas raras de la imaginación” (p. 28). Yet for Molina, his friend's psychoanalytic analysis is “todo imaginación tuya.” Valentín counters that “si vos también ponés de tu cosecha, ¿por qué no yo?” (p. 29). Fiction and its exegesis are equally products of the imagination. Molina tells stories; Valentín tries to fit them into the ideal scheme of his political beliefs, a scheme that makes sharp distinctions between duty and pleasure, between the future world and the present (“Está lo importante, que es la revolución social, y lo secundario que son los placeres de los sentidos” [p.33]). But the two men, the “dreamer” and the “reasoner”, draw closer together, they come to care for each other and to make love; two different kinds of fantasy give way to affection and sexual expression. (Early on Valentín had said “es curioso que uno no puede estar sin encariñarse con algo … Es … como si la mente segregara sentimiento, sin parar” [p. 47]). Near the novel's end Valentín describes Molina as the spider woman, “la mujer araña que atrapa a los hombres en su tela” (“—Qué lindo!” says Molina, “Eso sí me gusta” [p. 265]), but it is Molina who is finally caught and lets himself be killed in the web of Valentín's revolutionary dreams.

Almost throughout we find only the present tense. The fragments of imagined or remembered film are in the present tense. Valentín's scenario for a political movie is in the present. The two dialogues between warden and prisoner are in play-format, necessarily present although, since those passages refer to Molina as “el procesado,” they are cut off from the rest of the text. The movies told are all in the present tense which is, after all, the tense we naturally use in describing a film. The traditional tense of prose fiction is past though readers adapt to it in such a way as to imagine the story unfolding before them. The illusion of the present grows in this text not only because of the verb tense used but because cinema itself is so immediate. Susanne Langer compared it to the dream, in which different senses are enthralled and co-mingled: “The ‘dreamed reality’ on the screen can move forward or backward because it is really an eternal and ubiquitous virtual present. The action of drama goes inexorably forward because it creates a future … the dream mode is an endless Now.”25 In El Beso de la Mujer Araña that “endless now” is the convergence and reliving of film narratives rescued from the past.

The past becomes present in memory. Although memory is central in the novel, we find the past tense only in the dry, bureaucratic prose of the day-by-day police report, here truly depersonalized and reified in describing the end of a life. Molina always tries to remember, urged on by Valentín when he falters: “Hacé memoria” (p. 12); “es que la memoria me falla” (p. 18). At another moment, “Y a todo esto se me olvidó decirte que a la mañana ella con todo cariño siempre le pone alpiste al canario, y le cambia el agua, y el canario canta,” followed by a quick shift to the on-going text: “Y llega por fin el marido” (p. 27). Repeatedly we are reminded that Molina pieces together his stories from memory: “Bueno ahora lo que sigue no me acuerdo si es esa misma noche, creo que sí, la otra se vuelve a la casa” (p. 39).

Memory and narrative are the hallmarks of our consciousness. Indeed, our consciousness is nothing else but the tying of memory to projected actions, the creation of a vicarial self that exists not just now, but before and after. Julian Jaynes calls such projections “narratization.” We create a self in time “spatialized into a journey of my days and years.” That self does not really exist in the here and now except in so far as I make it part of the story I tell myself about it. Consciousness means telling stories, narrating. “It is not just our now ‘analog I’ that we are narratizing; it is everything else in consciousness. A stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact. A child cries in the street and we narratize the event into a mental picture of a lost child and a parent searching for it.”26 This narratization transforms the jumbled here and now into a coherent story. Metz goes so far as to say that narrative, by its very existence, suppresses the now (accounts of current life) or the here (live television coverage). “Reality does not tell stories, but memory, because it is an account, is entirely imaginative.” For that reason, he tells us, “a process of unrealization (“irrealization”) is at the heart of every narrative act.”27

This is the secret of narrative's fascination for us. Because we narratize our selves, we are ever in need of models of action. We are intrigued by all the different ways of narratizing. We want to see how others do it. We listen to gossip (a much-maligned form of narration), we read novels, we go to the movies. Nowadays many of us prefer the movies to novels. Puig's book gives us both, a kind of double feature. Or rather a carefully spun web that twines the reader's memories into the fabricated lives of Molina and Valentín, a web that seems to stretch out in time and space, linking a prison cell in Buenos Aires and Velázquez and Ovid and Rita Hayworth.

But memory retrieves other things as well. Because we find in Puig's novel a common store of remembered films, we cannot help but consider the basis of that coincidence of recollection. We remember that the movie industry of this world, the First World, has produced and sold, both here and in the Third World, the movies—and the ideologies which go with them—that have conditioned or influenced all of us. The cinema is one of the most forceful modes of communication and social indoctrination, as well as a primary stimulus to the spread of a consumer mentality that is a necessary support of capitalism in our day. “Trade follows the film” was a favorite dictum of the economic expansionists of the 1920s. All Puig's novels show an obsession with the products of an advanced and often useless technology; for example, in La traición de Rita Hayworth and Boquitas pintadas, cosmetics, home appliances, the shifts of fashion in clothing, furniture, and hair styles are central topics in the dialogues and thoughts of the characters. North Americans and South Americans share the images of Donald Duck (see Dorfman and Mattlehart's excellent study of Disney comics),28 Rita Hayworth, the iconography of horror films, science fiction, and the western. Economic and cultural imperialism unifies the world, providing a shared cultural heritage.

Obviously we share it in different ways. The communality of the movie culture stands in sharp contrast to the economic dichotomy on which it is based, the polarization between the metropolis and the periphery of the world capitalist system. There are no political or economic analyses in the novel except in the mouth of Valentín, where often enough they sound urgent and shallow. Yet the reader is conscious throughout of the contradictions within which the work is situated and to which it points. In a dependent Argentina two men are jailed by a regime that must defend an economic system and its accompanying cultural myths with a ferocity and brutality unnecessary in the metropolis, in the “advanced industrial world.” Homosexuality and militant leftist politics violate both Hollywood's moving-picture code of the nineteen thirties and forties and the social code of today's Argentina. Different applications of those codes are dictated by distinct historical moments: the moralistic sentimentality of the movies is an indirect repression of “aberrant” sexual and political behavior; the imprisonment and threat of torture and death is a direct repression of deviation or opposition to established order.

Against repression, the two prisoners have only their thoughts and fantasies. Yet Molina's narratives call up the creative collaboration of readers and viewers. Arachne spins an Ariadne thread that makes a path outwards, even though it is only imaginary.29 Molina and Valentín put the ideologies and images of Hollywood to their own use and we are invited to do likewise. We may not have seen “The Kiss of the Panther Woman” but we have seen enough movies like it to visualize sets, lighting, and camera angles. We picture a jail cell in Buenos Aires; beyond that we picture not the elements of the everyday visible reality of the First World—a middle-class apartment, furniture, a woman's face—but rather those elements contained in films we remember. Although the book would have us find our materials in the movies we all know, our visual imagining is freed from the inalterable features of a given actor or set; we are allowed to cast and direct our own film. Wolfgang Iser, speaking of the disappointment readers feel on seeing a novelistic hero on screen (a person previously pictured but not seen), says that the reader's perception is simultaneously richer and more private than that of the film-viewer confined to physical perception.30 This novel, stimulating our movie memories, leads us back and forth between two media so that our perception becomes certainly richer and more private, but more communal as well, because we sense the continuity of movie viewers from Chicago to General Villegas. This continuity, this sharing of a culture no matter how “degraded” in the eyes of some, permits a collaborative artistic activity that retrieves and refashions works made for indoctrination and manipulation.

For Valentín, Molina is the spider woman who draws people into her web. In an alternate image he sees her in the deepest jungle trapped in the web, but then, no, the web grows out of her body (p. 285). The narrative too pulls us inward and reaches out, releasing us to picture and narratize in the extendable space and time of imagination. At one point Valentín is sad because the picture has ended and he says that it is as if the characters had died (p. 74). But we all know (as Unamuno keeps telling us) that they come alive again in a reader's world, say in Barcelona or Ann Arbor.

El Beso de la Mujer Araña, like any good novel, shows the artist at work. The activity of art is set against the repressions of our society. By appropriating its power to enthrall, the artist turns the commercial product against itself. Our dreams may be prostituted by Hollywood, but ultimately our own dreaming comes to the rescue. The text shows us that an ordinary person, Molina, the reader, Puig the story-teller, can make art out of anything. Art does not exist in some special, sacred place, the creation of a mind different and better than ours. It is the inventive force in all of us.


  1. See Christian Metz, Film Language. A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. M. Taylor (New York, 1974), and “The Fiction Film and its Spectator,” New Literary History, 8, No. 1 (1976), 75–105.

  2. Semiotics of Cinema, trans. Mark Suino, Michigan Slavic Contributions, No. 5 (Ann Arbor, 1976), p. 17.

  3. Art and Illusion. A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, 1960).

  4. Barcelona, 1976.

  5. Svetlana Alpers, “Describe or Narrate? A Problem in Realistic Representation,” New Literary History, 8 No. 1 (1976), 23.

  6. Manual Puig, “Entrevista” with Saúl Sosnowski, Hispamérica, No. 3, 70–71.

  7. “Copying … proceeds through the rhythms of schema and correction” (Art and Illusion, p. 74). See also pp. 73, 87.

  8. Puig, “Entrevista,” p. 69.

  9. “Entrevista,” p. 71.

  10. Film Language, p. 4.

  11. Film Language, p. 43.

  12. Fiction and the Camera Eye. Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel (Charlottesville, 1976), pp. 4–5.

  13. J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories. An Introduction (New York, 1976), p. 160.

  14. I refer to the tellers of “aventis” in Juan Marsé's Si te dicen que caí (Barcelona, 1976).

  15. Theory of the Film (Character and Growth of a New Art), trans. Edith Bone (New York, 1953).

  16. See Erwin Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures,” in Film. An Anthology, ed. Daniel Talbot (Berkeley, 1959), pp. 15–32.

  17. The Tacit Dimension (New York, 1967), pp. 5–6.

  18. For example, W. J. Harvey cites L. C. Knight's criticism of those who would abstract Hamlet from the language which gives him vitality in order to “pursue the chimera of our imagination.” Harvey observes that precisely such speculation may compose a large part of the character's reality (Character and the Novel, [Ithaca, 1965], p. 205).

  19. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, p. 203.

  20. Puig, “Entrevista,” p. 72.

  21. Film Language, p. 45.

  22. “Castration: Artifices. Notes on the Writing of Manuel Puig,” GaR, 29, No. 1 (1975), 104, 98.

  23. Puig, “Entrevista,” p. 73. Hans Magnus Enzensberger has pointed out that “potentially, the new media do away with all educational privileges and thereby with the cultural monopoly of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is one of the reasons for the intelligentsia's resentment against the new industry.” (The Consciousness Industry [New York, 1974] p. 106).

  24. La revolución del libro (Madrid, 1965), p. 55.

  25. Sussane K. Langer, “A Note on the Film” in Richard Dyer Mac Cann, Film. A Montage of Theories (New York, 1966), p. 204.

  26. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston, 1976), p. 63.

  27. Film Language, pp. 23, 21. Metz's definition of narrative is a “closed discourse that proceeds by unrealizing a temporal sequence of events” (p. 28). In relation to the function of memory in any art Mario Praz cites Antonio Russi (L'Arte e le Arti) who claims that “in every art, through memory, all the other arts are contained” (Mnemosyne: The Parallel between Literature and the Visual Arts [Princeton, 1970], p. 57). Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses; she is also the mother of consciousness.

  28. How to Read Donald Duck. Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comics, trans. David Kunzle (New York, 1975).

  29. In a slightly different context J. Hillis Miller speaks of the conflation of Arachne and Ariadne in “Arachne's Broken Woof,” GaR, 31 (1977), 44–60.

  30. The Implied Reader. Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore, 1974), p. 283.

Manuel Puig with Judy Stone (interview date October 1984)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711

SOURCE: “Manuel Puig Dreams in Technicolor,” in American Film, Vol. 10, No. 1, October, 1984, pp. 70-1.

[In the following interview, Puig discusses how he began his career in the film industry before becoming a novelist.]

Night after night, in a Buenos Aires penitentiary, Molina, a thirty-seven-year-old homosexual window dresser, re-creates movie magic for his Marxist cellmate, Valentin. Molina's inimitable way of spinning out melodrama—with loving attention to all the details of sets and costumes, the characteristics of the stars, and the convolutions of the plot—reflects the lifelong obsession of Manuel Puig, the distinguished Argentinean novelist whose original ambition was to be a movie director.

In the novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the first of Molina's plots is drawn from the original Cat People. The German film plot is invented. The one about a maid and an aviator is from Enchanted Cottage, a 1945 fantasy starring Dorothy McGuire. The “films” about activists in Colombia, the one set in Mexico, and the tropical romance are original. Another story is inspired by I Walked With a Zombie. (Only two are used in the Babenco film.)

Puig, a slight, handsome man with elegant Spanish features, talked with dry humor about the origin of Molina's tales during an interview at his light and airy bachelor flat in Rio. Ten years ago, Puig left Argentina following threats on his life; he lived in Mexico and New York before settling in Rio three years ago. His study, filled with plants and copies of his seven novels in twenty-four languages, contains shelves of film books: The Silent Clowns, The Swashbucklers, Gods and Goddesses of the Movies, Hedda and Louella, The Films of Lana Turner, Harlow, The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, and The Story of Italian Cinema, to name a few.

Puig's dark eyes light up with the passion of a true movie buff when he mentions his videocassette collection of seven hundred films. There is boyish excitement in his voice when he talks about the German silents and Garbo movies he would like to obtain. The novelist's witty, satiric, and nostalgic references to Hollywood illuminate the drab and desperate lives of his characters in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Heartbreak Tango, and The Buenos Aires Affair. Critics have compared Puig's dazzling, innovative work to that of [James] Joyce, [Vladimir] Nabokov, and [William] Faulkner.

“I wanted a discussion on roles in Kiss,” Puig says. “What is a masochist? What is a sadist? What is a user? I wanted a story in which a sadist would become a masochist and a user would become the one used. I wanted to explore the basic dynamics of human behavior and show that sometimes a person becomes trapped in a role when there are possibilities of being many other different things, and if just circumstances would allow, he would change. At the same time, the book is very much about the Argentina of 1973. There was ideological repression and social repression. I wanted to put those two things together. The rightist government was suspicious of any leftist ideology and the leftists were puritanical in the sexual area. The repression was expressed in different ways. What I mainly wanted to talk about was the possibility of people changing.”

Kiss was never published in Argentina, although Spanish-language editions could be found in bookstores there. Puig's position as an independent socialist was considered suspicious. “I had no party to protect me,” he says. “‘There were moments when people threatened me to leave the country, saying, ‘If you stay, you'll be killed.’” His family continued to receive such calls even after he left Argentina.

Years earlier, it had been Puig's feelings of vulnerability that led to his intense involvement with film. “When I was very young, I found that movies were my thing,” he says. The rest of the story can best be told in his own words.

“I grew up in a small town in the Argentina pampas. It was very remote. A dry plain with absolutely nothing. It was far away from the sea and far away from the mountains. People who are born there and die there without ever leaving don't know what nature is about. That place is the absence of landscape. It was really tough. The only place where I felt safe was in a movie house. There was one theater. They showed American movies mostly. Monday, there were serials, plus a B Columbia or Republic picture. Tuesday, there was a revival of an Argentinean movie. Wednesday: a B American. Thursday: a woman's picture. Friday, the day for the maids, there would be a second revival of an Argentinean movie. Saturday, an American film, and Sunday was the premiere of an Argentine film or a superproduction from America. I went every day. I felt that outside this small town, everything was like in an American movie. I didn't like the Argentinean movies, because they sounded too much like reality.

“MGM movies were the most unreal, so they were my favorites. The more they were unlike my small town, the better I liked them. The musicals were my favorites. I thought in real life people would sing and dance at certain moments. My supercolossal favorites were The Great Ziegfeld, The Great Waltz, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. But before them came Eleanor Powell. The Rogers-Astaire films had a certain irony; they didn't take themselves seriously and I wanted them to take themselves seriously. That's why I preferred Eleanor Powell.

“When I went away to school in the early forties, Buenos Aires was an unbelievable town. It was the kingdom of show business. It was a haven for refugees from Europe. You could see films from all over the world. (This was before Perón, who came in '46. Then everything became problematical.) I saw German musicals and French heavy drama. There was a tradition of film consuming there. We were getting B-films to Z-films from everywhere. I was very curious about them all. By then, my favorite stars were aging and I couldn't accept their replacements. During my childhood, it was the stars I loved, the MGM ladies—Garbo, of course, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer. Even Greer Garson. Up to Garson, I was totally devoted to MGM.

“Then the directors began to take over. By '46, it was the beginning of Italian neorealism. Rossellini and De Sica were special. I was particularly impressed by Clouzot because he was very flashy. I was totally dazzled feeling the presence of the director. I remember Clouzot's Quai des orfèvres [1947]. It was called Jenny Lamour in America. A detective murder story. I thought directing was my thing, but my parents wanted me to study more. I took up philosophy and studied languages furiously because I thought without languages nothing was possible. I wasn't interested at all in Argentina. I had a terrible repulsion for the place. All that had started in the movie house.

“In 1956, I left Argentina because I had a scholarship to Cinecittà in Rome. I had that strange, maybe unconscious feeling that abroad everything would be like in MGM musicals. The minute I arrived in Italy, I knew that things were not so.

“I became very chummy with Nestor Almendros. I was studying direction; he was studying photography. I was twenty-three; he was twenty-five. We were both of Spanish-language origin and we hated dubbed films. We couldn't accept them, and in Italy there was nothing else. In Cuba, too, when Nestor was growing up, they used to get all the foreign films. He had seen everything.

“The Italians looked on us as ‘those people from underdeveloped countries,’ but we knew much more about films than they did. They resented that. They had that prejudice: ‘Coming from Buenos Aires, did you ever see a film?’ They didn't know that Buenos Aires was a thousand times better. Even after the war, the Italians would get the more commercial American films and that was all. French films they would show for one, two days; there was no market.

“I liked the beginning of neorealism, when there were creators behind it. Then it became just dogma and very farfetched. It's crazy; nobody has written about that. Zavattini became the theoretician. The filmmakers were left-wing; they used causes, but they didn't serve the cause well. Some of them used it for their own advancement. The filmmakers had a terrible dislike for America. They were right about colonialism: what Reagan is trying to do now with El Salvador—that type of thing. But then the Italians considered Hollywood as totally reactionary: hedonistic without the least social consciousness. Everything that was Hollywood was wrong. At the same time, Hollywood knew about storytelling. So storytelling was considered wrong. To consider that there were ways of telling a story better than others—that was reactionary. A film had to live only by its soul, its social meaning. No structure was to be taken into consideration.

“Really, it was terribly castrating. I knew that this awful tyranny of the critics was wrong. I agree with democratic socialism, not the Soviet Union's kind of thing, but the arts, I thought, should never be submitted to political custody.

“I stayed in Rome for a year and then I went to Paris. Cahiers du Cinéma had started. Art houses were showing old MGM films. They were rescuing things. By then, I was not sure about anything. When I arrived, Queen Christina was playing at an art house. In Italy that would have been considered diva stuff, star stuff. In Italy, they considered star a four-letter word. By then, I was thinking, Who is the author of Queen Christina? That face is not the author of the film.

“By then, I was already writing my first scripts, but they were all copies of the films of my childhood. There was always a bit of Rebecca or Wuthering Heights or Smilin' Through. While writing, I felt enchanted because it was like seeing them again, but I was not enchanted when the work was finished. Friends told me to do something about my own people. Soon I found that my stories were nourished by an accumulation of details and repetitions. The first script I tried to do in a different way became my novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.

Manuel Puig with Barbara Mujica (interview date May-June 1986)

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SOURCE: “The Imaginary Worlds of Manuel Puig,” in Américas, Vol. 38, No. 3, May-June, 1986, pp. 2-7.

[In the following interview, Puig discusses the movie adaptation of his novel Kiss of the Spider Womanand his work as both a screenwriter and a novelist.]

Manuel Puig has been recognized as one of Latin America's leading novelists since 1968, when Betrayed by Rita Hayworth was published. Puig's seven novels deal with a wide range of themes and take place in a variety of locations—a small town in the Argentine pampas, great metropolises such as Buenos Aires, Mexico, New York. His most recent novels are Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, written in English during a long stay in the United States, and Blood of Requited Love, fruit of his residence in Rio de Janeiro. Besides his novels, he has written two plays. At the end of last year, Puig became an international figure, catapulted into the public limelight by the spectacular success of the movie based on his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman.

In spite of this dramatic triumph, Puig hasn't changed. As unassuming and friendly as ever, he answers questions about his craft with precision and care, but seems clearly more at ease talking about his parents, his brother, or his apartment in Rio, where he now lives. Puig and I haven't seen each other for four years. I tell him that he doesn't look any older. He laughs modestly and insists that it's not true. He asks with sincere interest about my family and my work.

The novel that inspired the movie was published in 1976. It is constructed around a series of conversations between Valentín, a political activist, and Molina, a homosexual window dresser, who share a cell in a Buenos Aires prison. Valentín has been jailed for his Marxist participation, and Molina for the corruption of a minor. In order to pass the time, Molina tells his cell mate the plots of movies that he has seen. Through the reactions and comments of both prisoners, the reader begins to penetrate the character of each. Valentín, who at first appears to be a hardened revolutionary, is in reality a sentimental materialist who allows Molina to pamper him and to provide him with a supply of delicacies that, through a trick, the window dresser manages to get from a local grocery store. Molina, who at first appears to be a mush-minded romantic, turns out to be a shrewd manipulator who convinces the prison officials that he will exchange information about Valentín for a parole.

Puig's novel is the first detailed portrayal of a homosexual in Spanish American literature. Molina—a compendium of homosexuals that the author interviewed in Argentina during the 1960s—defies some stereotypes and confirms others. He is a gentle and sensitive man with a sincere need to nurture. He protects and coddles Valentín, and little by little wins his cell mate's trust, respect and love.

Although Molina is strongly attracted to his companion, it is Valentín who initiates sexual relations between the two. It is the rebel Valentín, and not the bourgeois Molina, who is unable to survive without physical gratification. What Valentín really wants—in spite of his Marxist diatribe—is a good-looking girl “with class.”

Puig's portrait of Molina is perceptive and compassionate. One cannot help but share the frustration of this sorrowfully alienated character who views himself as a failure, yet is capable of manipulating Valentín into a position of dependency and the head of the prison into one of trust. Valentín is an equally complex character who, through his relationship with Molina, comes to recognize the inadequacy and inaccuracy of his own self-image. Although Valentín and Molina are archetypal characters, the primary theme of Puig's novel is not political activism or homosexuality, but friendship—the bond that develops between two human beings, making possible the transformation of both.

Like Puig's other works, Kiss of the Spider Woman resembles a puzzle that takes form as each piece is put in its proper place. The six movie plots—three of which were invented by Puig—are masterfully interspersed with dialogue that reveals particles of information about the characters. It is up to the reader to put the pieces together in order to reconstruct the circumstances that led to the prisoners' incarceration and the elements of their personalities. Puig throws the reader off the track again and again by including fragments of dialogues and monologues that appear to be contradictory or unrelated, but that finally fall into place.

I ask Manuel Puig if he is happy with the film version of his novel.

[Manuel Puig:] Well, I didn't write the script. I gave up the rights to the novel and, of course, they consulted me when they prepared the text. When I saw the script and the first versions of the film, I was just furious. The thing is that Molina exists. He's a real person. I have an image of Molina in my head, and William Hurt, who plays Molina in the film, is completely different. Molina is gray, anonymous. And they put in Hurt, a great big blond guy … although Hurt does manage to convey his humanity to the viewer. The same thing with Raúl Juliá, who plays Valentín. He's older than the Valentín that I had in mind. The Valentín in the novel is a young man about 20. But afterward, I was surprised to see that the audience got the message that I was trying to convey, although through a different route. Frankly, I didn't expect such a favorable reaction on the part of the public.

[Barbara Mujica:] They eliminated almost all of Molina's plot descriptions.

Well, showing a film within a film is problematical. For example, they couldn't show Cat People because of the rights problem. The only film from the novel that they used was a Nazi movie that I made up. The island with the spider woman was just something they invented to keep the original book title.

And, of course, in your novel there are no women. But in the film Sônia Braga is a romantic projection of both Molina and Valentín. She's the star of the Nazi movie with whom Molina identifies, and she's the perfect woman—rich, gorgeous and revolutionary—whom Valentín dreams about. She's the spider woman who stings both their imaginations.

David Weissman [who produced Kiss of the Spider Woman] and I are going to do a new film with Sônia. It's called The Seven Tropical Sins.

Has the success of Kiss of the Spider Woman changed your life?

The truth is that to me, none of this is real. In Rio the film hasn't come out yet, so I'm almost not conscious of this great success that everybody is talking about here. In Brazil they know me for my plays and my novels. They don't know me for my scripts because Argentine films don't play there. In literature there's interchange between countries, but not in films. I still haven't made money from the film, and no projects have come out of it. There are some possibilities in Hollywood, but nothing sure. What can make a difference is if a lot of money comes out of a project. That can change the structure of a person's life. But, for now, my feet are still firmly on the ground.

You've written two plays, an adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Under a Blanket of Stars.

Yes, Kiss opened in Spain and was an immediate hit. In Italy another play based on the same novel came out and was also a big hit. Under a Blanket of Stars is the first play I've written directly for the stage. It opened in Ipanema Theater in Rio in August 1982. I'm still not exactly sure of the results. …

Your first love was always films.

Of course. It was really an accident that I started to write novels. I originally wanted to write for films. I grew up in General Villegas, a town in the province of Buenos Aires, during the 30's and 40's. I used to go to the local movie theater with my mother. It was our escape. I hated my town. There was an authoritarian, repressive atmosphere, and I saw everything in terms of a second-rate cowboy picture, a B Western. The townspeople were the villains, not the heroes. What I wanted was to leave, and when I was old enough to go to high school, my family sent me to Buenos Aires because there was no secondary school in the town. I thought that once I got out of Villegas, everything would be MGM, everything would be Technicolor. But in Buenos Aires, there was even more authoritarianism than in the town. I decided to leave Argentina. I wanted to learn languages—Italian, French, English—the languages of the movies. I thought that in Spanish people degraded themselves. In my opinion, Spanish was a language for the underdeveloped. I got a scholarship to study in Rome, at the Cine Citta, and once I got there, I worked on several films. But everything was the same as in Villegas. I remember a picture with Jennifer Jones. Her husband was the director. It was the same old story—the man gave the orders and the woman obeyed. What I mean is, it was the same old authority problem. Besides, I was no good at directing. I was so insecure. While I tried to make up my mind what to tell the actors to do, they did whatever they pleased.

How did you get started writing novels?

Well, I began writing scripts, but the ones I wrote were like the ones I liked as a kid. They were romantic, for another generation. My scripts weren't a success, and I decided that I didn't like writing for films. What I liked was going to the movies. I had written my scripts in foreign languages that I knew imperfectly. Spanish terrified me. I didn't know grammar, I didn't know the right way to say things. I had no faith in my Spanish. But I was in my late ’30s—the terrible ’30s. I had to prove I had done something. So I started a new script. I began to write about my childhood, in order to understand it better. All my novels are autobiographical in the sense that they focus on some unresolved problem of mine. Well, I began by making detailed descriptions of the characters, not in the third person, but in the first person. In the third person, you have to be objective. You have to judge your characters. But in the first person, you just let them talk. I thought, O.K., if they make a mistake with the subjunctive, that's their problem, not mine. You see, I felt that I had lost my language, my “Argentinity.” So, I tried to listen to the voices of my childhood. In my head, I could hear my aunt talking from the laundry in the house. She wasn't saying anything important, but the words flowed. I wound up with a series of monologues.

That turned into your first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.

Yes. Afterward I added things to connect the monologues—letters, pages from a diary. Finally, I finished the novel without a single word in the third person.

And now do you prefer the novel as a means of artistic expression?

It's just that in films you have to be sure of what you want. With the novel, you can erase, throw away pages.

Still, you've written other scripts.

Yes, I did a film version of my novel Heartbreak Tango. It's very hard, because in a film everything has to get resolved in a half hour. You have to eliminate a lot of things. I took on the job without much conviction, but I thought, well, if somebody's going to murder it, it might as well be me. Afterward, I was asked to do a script based on the novel. The Place without Boundaries by the Chilean writer José Donoso. Working with the Mexican director Arturo Ripstein was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I also worked on the script of The Impostor, based on the story by Silvina Ocampo.

So you've gone back to films in spite of your first negative experiences.

Well, I've discovered something. The analytical treatment that I gave to my first scripts was literary. This procedure just doesn't work in films. I had felt myself to be a prisoner of realism. The stories were fast-moving, allegorical epics, not run-of-the-mill, everyday experience. But I hadn't achieved that special synthesis that films demand. The nonrealistic films of the ’30s—Casablanca, for example—reflect people's dreams during that period. Which made me think that realism doesn't find its best mode of expression in films. Realism, that is, everyday life, doesn't work in films because a film doesn't offer the same possibilities as a page. The reader has a kind of patience that the viewer doesn't have. Films have to provide constant stimulation. We can't stop the film to reflect. We can't turn it back to have another look at the details or refresh our memories. I don't mean to say that films are inferior to the novel. They offer a great many possibilities—music, color, the opportunity to experiment with casting, the juxtaposition of facial images. What films produce is magic. But they're two different media. My novels have continued to be realistic. There are certain subjects that are better for literature. But now I like to work in the theater. My play Under a Blanket of Stars combines the real and the imaginary.

You don't intend to write more novels?

I have to confess that I'm going through a crisis. I have in mind a nonrealistic novel, but I can't find the right voice. I'm on my fourth or fifth draft, but it just isn't working out. And I can't find a subject that excites me to turn to realism, so I won't be able to continue along those lines, either.

Do you still like to go to the movies?

I've stopped going. Now I get bored. Before, there were those familiar faces. For me, Joan Crawford wasn't an actress, she was a neurotic relative who had to be taken care of. I don't have the same relationship with today's actors and actresses.

Do you like living in Rio more than in New York?

I've had enough of big cities and their pollution. What's the point of that kind of masochism? I don't have to work in an office. I can work anywhere, and that's why I looked for a place where nature still helps man to survive. Before selecting Rio I tried other cities nearer to my publishing centers [New York, Barcelona, Mexico City]—for example, Cartagena, Colombia, the east coast of Venezuela. But I need the city, too. I like the anonymity of the metropolis. And a big city as well as a beach. Only Rio offers that.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was filmed in Rio instead of Buenos Aires.

That's right.

And your novel Blood of Requited Love also takes place in Brazil.


How has Blood of Requited Love been received?

It hasn't made waves. An English translation came out, published by Random House, but it hasn't gotten much of a reaction.

The atmosphere is very Brazilian, and there is an incomparable richness of detail in the descriptions of the town, the flirtations, the soccer games, the clothes, the food, everything. I think you expose the psychology of your characters marvelously well through these descriptions. …

I don't know. …

And the themes are typically yours: an adolescent crushed by the demands of a male-dominated, materialistic society, as well as by economic need. He has no way out but through the invention of a fantasy world in which he is the hero. All his feelings of inferiority are resolved through fantasies in which he's the conquerer—that is, in which he succeeds in proving himself sexually. But we don't really understand the nature of these projections until the end of the book. And when we finish, we feel a deep sense of compassion for this terribly desperate young man. In spite of the cultural differences, he has quite a bit in common with other characters of yours—for example, Toto [Betrayed by Rita Hayworth] or even Larry [Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages].

It's that society invents norms. At an age when no one really knows himself, it imposes a series of rules that make no sense. Cultural demands become a straitjacket that is imposed on a young person. … I believe that sex roles are learned. In The Buenos Aires Affair, the characters are bisexual.

What has been the reaction to your novels in Buenos Aires?

Lately, very favorable. Now there's no problem.

You haven't lived in Argentina for a long time. Do you want to go back?

Of course, but my personal circumstances haven't permitted it. I don't want to return for just a few days. I want to go for a longer time, at least six months, especially to the countryside. For the moment, I'm happy in Brazil. Rio is wonderful, although I have to speak Portuguese, which for me is something of a problem.

Inga Karetnikova and Susanna Barber (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “Cinematic Qualities in the Novel Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1987, pp. 164-68.

[In the following essay, Karetnikova and Barber trace the role film has in the structure and content of Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman.]


Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig is an entirely cinematic book. Its content and style, indeed every sentence of the novel, appeals directly to the reader's visual perception. There are no author's digressions or abstract concepts which often intersperse a novel's text; Puig's main concern is with what people do and say, and when he does reveal what they think, it is through visual (cinematic) images rather than words. Virtually the whole novel is written in the present tense, which reinforces the effect of actions taking place right now, this moment, in front of you. There is no space or time for the reader's meditation; he is absorbed in visualizing the text—in a state more of seeing a movie than of reading a book:

And then you see them later on they're out in the dark night air, her lying in a hammock, with a good close-up of the two faces, because he bends down to kiss her and it's all lit up by the full moon kind of filtering through the palm trees … (Puig 165).

Perhaps Kiss of the Spider Woman could be considered a “written film”; this would explain the specifics of the novel's form and style. Without recognizing the cinematic nature of Puig's text, one could reach the wrong conclusion, as one critic did, that the novel is a “structural failure” (Sorrention 1).

Kiss of the Spider Woman was published in 1976 but attracted attention only recently, after the release of the film by the same name, directed by Hector Babenco. While the film was commercially successful, it misrepresented the book to some extent. Impoverishing novels when turning them into films is almost unavoidable, but in the case of Kiss of the Spider Woman it is more than that. The depth of the content, the dynamics of the drama, and the full dimensions of the characters are lost in the film, and this is not simply because of unsuccessful “translation.” Puig's novel is an accomplished “film” in itself, and Babenco's film is only a shallow version of it.

It is well known that there are three main stages in making a film: writing, shooting, and editing, but historically these stages did not appear simultaneously. At the turn of the century, shooting was the sole stage in making a film. By the 1920s, with the trend having been set by Porter and Griffith, editing became the most essential stage in film-making. For a long period of time the writing stage was almost entirely ignored. Although artistically accomplished scripts began to appear in the 1920s (e.g., Nosferatu by German writer Henrik Galeen), it was not until a decade later that the importance of writing was fully understood. Today, now that the techniques and aesthetics of shooting and editing are highly developed, we are able to see that the success of cinema depends largely upon the inventive ideas and humanistic depth of film's dramatic content. The writing stage—scripting—has become increasingly important and sophisticated; indeed, just as early films were created by shooting and editing alone, today, paradoxically, a film could be fully visualized without any shooting or editing. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a quintessential example of that.


The novel is set in a South American prison where Molina, a window dresser convicted for corrupting minors, is describing movies to his cellmate, Valentin, a political activist. The movies that Molina recounts are from the 1930s and 1940s, some of them with an easily recognizable Hollywood touch. They are romantic, suspenseful, highly sentimental, and full of melodramatic cliches (“such trivia” says Valentin at first), yet these film-stories create a common ground for communication between two very different individuals—an intellectual political fanatic and a coquettish, homosexual window dresser. The fiction of the films exposes real feelings and eternal human problems, and by experiencing them together, an atmosphere of openness and sincerity develops between the cellmates. While discussing the films' situations and characters, their conversation inevitably slips into their own pasts and their dreams: they “probe each other's past like duelists—parrying, lunging, seeking out the vulnerable center” (Herrick 19).

It is hardly surprising that film plays such a pivotal role in Puig's novel. As a former film student and film-maker, he is very fond of movies, especially old ones: “Most of the movies I saw growing up were viewed as totally disposable, fine for quick consumption … [but] it's great stuff, the people who consume it are nourished. It's a positive force” (Freedman C11). Puig is also convinced that film-watching is a form of escapism which gives people hope: “They help you to not go crazy. … It doesn't matter that the way of life shown by Hollywood was phony” (Freedman C11).

For Molina and Valentin, films literally become the substitute of life. Escapism for them is a matter of survival. All that a moviegoer experiences—identification with film characters, total emotional involvement—is intensified for Molina and Valentin, particularly the ending of every film they experience:

Molina: “Tomorrow we’ll be all finished with the film.”

Valentin: “You don't know how sorry that makes me. … It's a shame to see it ending” (Puig 37). With the end of a film the illusion disappears and only the reality of the jail remains.

Valentin: “I've become attached to the characters. And now it's all over, and it's just like they died” (Puig 41).

The films recounted by Molina not only help both men to transcend the reality of their predicament; they also influence their behavior and even change their personalities.


Throughout the book, Molina related five movies to Valentin: a story of a panther woman; a drama of a French singer and a German officer in German-occupied Paris; a political film about a race-car-driver and guerrillas in Latin America; a thriller about a girl from New York and her macabre visit to an island in the Caribbean; a tragic story of a poor newspaper reporter who falls in love with an actress who already has a vengeful and powerful tycoon for her lover; and one film which Molina recalls just for himself about an ugly housemaid who is loved by her employer after he suffers severe war wounds which make him ugly too. Scenes of the films are interwoven with scenes of the two prisoners' daily lives, their dreams, and their growing closeness, friendship, love affair, and parting. This combining and shuffling of different “footage,” intercutting, is a purely cinematic device; in fact, it is the very nature of film.

Puig uses a whole range of “cuts” in his text. He links life and film footage in order to maintain clear narrative continuity. All the “cuts to” and “cuts from” move the plot of the novel further and further to its culmination—Molina's death for Valentin's cause (he was killed, like a movie heroine, while meeting Valentin's comrades), and then its resolution—Valentin's enlightening dream in which he comes to accept life the way it is: full of emotions and sentiments; intense and illusive like Molina's films.

Puig also makes some “cuts by association.” He goes from the coolness of dawn, which wakes up the panther woman, to the prison cell: “The cold wakes her up, just like us,” says Valentin (Puig 14); from a film heroine abandoned and scared in a vast jungle to Molina “scared of everything, scared of kidding myself about getting out of here” (Puig 214); from the cellmates' discussion of their last night of love-making to a dancing couple in a Mexican palace talking about their “perfect encounter, (that's) just one night of carnival and that's that” (Puig 224).

The novel also contains examples of “discontinuity” editing, when episodes mismatch each other. For instance, a soap opera scene in Monte Carlo is “edited” with Valentin's suffering from diarrhea; the panther woman stalks her victim while the prisoners carry on a leisurely conversation. The contrasts brought together by these “jumps” heighten the novel's dramatic expressiveness and make its images more intense.

Some of Puig's cuts remind the reader of Eisenstein's intellectual montage; i.e., he communicates with the reader not by means of dramatic continuity, but by “colliding” different textures together: reality, films, dreams, and memories. Puig expresses abstract ideas that are not present in any of the single textures, alone—they become apparent once certain images are brought together in sharp juxtaposition. For example, when Puig “edits” together Valentin's recollections about his love for a waiter, scenes from a film about a romantic French singer, and scenes of Molina's and Valentin's growing intimacy, the message becomes very clear; life and films have striking similarities, they influence each other, and film has enormous impact on life. Movies are part of our lives, and it is largely due to them that our sense of reality, like Molina's and Valentin's, “isn't restricted by this cell we live in.” This is the “sub-message” (sub-text) that Puig endorses in his book.

Intercutting from one texture to another is also used as a device to create suspense for the novel's characters and for the reader. From time to time, for example, Molina stops in the middle of recounting one of his films in order to get Valentin into becoming more involved in them, more intrigued, and more pensive about them: “I like to leave you hanging; that way you can enjoy the film more,” says Molina. Puig, in turn, interrupts scenes of Molina's and Valentin's life with films, and by doing so creates suspense for the reader so that he cares more about the couple and their relationship than about the films' melodramas.


When reading the novel, one strongly senses the presence of a camera. Many of the descriptions, it seems, are made through its lens. The camera tilts up and down, pans, moves in tight on an object or figure, then recedes to capture the entire scene, sometimes travelling slowly, sometimes quickly:

“She looks fairly young. … petite face, a little cat-like small turned up nose. … She looks at her subject: the black panther at the zoo, which was quiet at first, stretched out in its cage. … the panther spotted her and began pacing back and forth in its cage and to growl at the girl. … It's winter, it's freezing. The trees are bare in the park. There's a cold wind blowing” (Puig, 3–4).

Sometimes the author uses technical language to make his cinematic descriptions even more cinematic: “And the camera again shows you the silvery garden, and there you are in the movies but it's more as if you were a bird taking off because now you see the garden from above, smaller and smaller, …” (Puig, 56).


In his novel, Puig masterfully reveals cinema's similarity to an essential human function, dreaming. He shows that film is related to dreaming as naturally as music is related to the heartbeat or the rhythm of walking. In Kiss of the Spider Woman the substance of the characters' dreams and the substance of the recounted films are almost one and the same: the free flight of fantasy in space; the instant transitions forward and backward in time; the easy switch of the imagination from the long shot of an entire scene to a close-up of a detail; the very natural combination of reality and symbols. Molina's film images are often loosely connected, in free associations, like the images that fill Valentin's last dream:

I keep swimming underwater. … it's so very deep … the only one who knows for sure is him, if he was sad or happy to die that way, sacrificing himself for a just cause. I think he let himself be killed because that way he could die like some heroine in a movie. … I'm swimming with my head above water now so that way I won't lose sight of the island coast, … such a strange woman, with a long dress on, that's shining. … she's wearing a mask, it's also silver, but … poor creature … she can't move, there in the deepest part of the jungle she's trapped in a spider's web, or no, the spiderweb is growing out of her own body, she's smiling but a tear rolls out from beneath the mask … and I ask her why she's crying and in a close-up that covers the whole screen at the end of the film she answers me that that's just what can never be known, because the ending is enigmatic … and the spider woman pointed out to me the way through the forest with her finger, and so I don't know where to even begin to eat so many things I've found now, … thanks to the spider woman, and after I have one more spoonful of this guava paste. … (Puig 279–81).


In the beginning of the novel there is an enormous contrast between the exotic panther-woman story and the reality of the prison cell, although on a deep subconscious level the panther-woman is Molina's image of himself: “She's not a woman like all others” (Puig 3). The subsequent films that are recounted introduce several other themes which are repeated over and over again—love at all costs, betrayal, fear, repression, liberation, and sacrifice—and when Molina and Valentin talk about films; they gradually reveal themselves. The films and the cellmates' lives move closer and closer together, and at the end of the novel reality and illusion merge together. The film teller, himself, becomes a “heroine” and his own life turns out to be no less romantic and unusual than life portrayed in his films.

In the last of Molina's recounted films, the heroine becomes a prostitute—she needs money in order to feed her mortally ill lover. Molina, like the film heroine, continues to collaborate with his jailers in order to get food for Valentin. In this highly sentimental film, the man dies—as is going to happen to Molina very soon—and only his song for his woman is left; “I never thought … I could become … so obsessed with you … it's you I remember … I love you more … cry for me …” (Puig 257–59). This love confession becomes Valentin's and Molina's, too. “And well … that's all … folks …” says Molina as he finishes recounting his last film (Puig 259). Reality and illusion, life and death have become one.

Works Cited

Freedman, Samuel. “For the Author of ‘Spider Woman,’ Hollywood Provided Hope” New York Times, 5 Aug. 1985: C11.

Herrick, William. “Alienated Within and Without.” The New Leader, 28 June 1982: 19–20.

Puig, Manuel. Kiss of the Spider Woman. N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1976.

Sorrentino, Gilbert. “South American Fantasy, Obsession, and Soap Opera: Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages,Washington Post 1 Aug. 1982: A1–2.

Marcella L. Paul (essay date May 1988)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6482

SOURCE: “Cancer as Metaphor: The Function of Illness in Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical,” in Chasqui, Vol. XVII, No. 1, May, 1988, pp. 31-41.

[In the following essay, Paul analyzes the use of illness as a sign in Puig's Pubis angelical.]

Among the recurring themes in the narrative of Manuel Puig is the problem of personal alienation and integration in contemporary society.1 His novels frequently explore this issue as it is affected by the relationship between the sexes, addressing power-possession, the repercussions of male dominance and the possibilities of positive change.2 A study of Puig's narrative reveals that his developing ideology of power and integration is expressed not only through the plot structure and characterization, but also through the interplay of signs in the discourse. One set of signs that is closely linked to this theme is illness and the various mutations of that sign which are elaborated in Puig's narrative: asthma, tuberculosis, poison/torture, mental illness and cancer.

The sign illness is first generated in the discourse of Herminia, the unmarried piano teacher in La traición de Rita Hayworth, who believes that asthma has restricted her life, prohibiting any integration with society and ending a potential career. Asthma functions in that text as both an excuse to avoid risks and as a source of true suffering and isolation. Through shared symptoms, prohibitions, and fears, asthma also implies the potential for destruction and death which is suggested by the sign tuberculosis in Boquitas pintadas. In El beso de la mujer araña, Valentín's poison-induced illness serves as an agent of transformation, mediating the movement between masculine-feminine, adult-child, powerful-powerless. In each case, illness implies a loss or lack of power, a degree of isolation, and the possibility of death.3 These implications of the sign are first questioned in Puig's fifth novel, Pubis angelical. This article will examine the discourse of Pubis angelical4 and, through an elucidation of the way in which the sign cancer/illness is generated, developed, and finally supplanted in the text, demonstrate a critical moment in Puig's evolving ideology.

The protagonist of Pubis angelical is an Argentinian woman, Ana, who is being treated for a serious illness in a Mexican clinic. Ana's mental discourse is presented through transcribed sections of her diary. Events that precede her admittance to the hospital or which occur outside of the clinic are narrated through recorded conversations between Ana and her lover Pozzi and her friend Beatriz. Juxtaposed and intercalated with the segments of dialogue and diary is a long fantasy sequence, narrated in the third person, which tells the story of a mother and daughter and offers metaphoric parallels to Ana's situation.5 The structure of the novel produces a play between the first person of the diary and dialogue, and the third person of the fantasy and results in a multiplication of Ana's: a paradigmatic, metaphoric disintegration. This multiplication or desdoblamiento is grammatically expressed in Ana's first-person narrative: she repeatedly refers to herself in the first-person plural.

Throughout the text Ana is preoccupied by two things: the complex and unsatisfactory relationship between the sexes, and her own poor health. She questions the doctors' hopeful prognosis and fears that she has terminal cancer, the taboo illness of the twentieth century. Cancer has been metamorphized by contemporary society, as were tuberculosis and mental illness in the nineteenth century,6 and the extra-textual implications of cancer are inevitably evoked by any mention of the disease. An outstanding characteristic of the illness is the secretiveness which has been associated with it. The presence of cancer is often denied or concealed by both cancer victims and their doctors, and this secrecy suggests that the illness is viewed as dirty and evil as well as painful and life-threatening. The militaristic language which is used to describe cancer research (i.e. the war against cancer) both expresses and sustains the common understanding of cancer as an invasion of foreign cells which attack and take over the body, replacing the you with the non-you. This same imagery converts the patient into a battleground upon which others fight, waging a war for his or her life. Finally, cancer has also come to describe this patient, to signify a certain type of victim, a specific personality which is thought to be susceptible to the disease. Cancer is commonly believed to be “a disease of insufficient passion, afflicting those who are sexually repressed, inhibited, unspontaneous, incapable of expressing anger.” (Sontag, 21) Since it is thought that the victims' repression of anger and violent emotions, their inability to feel, cause the disease, there exists the accompanying belief that cancer is contracted because the victim unconsciously allows, or even wills, its presence.

Ana's discourse suggests that much of the content of this societal, extra-textual sign cancer is shared by the inter-textual sign illness. For example, the ill woman's thoughts often turn to the control or power which her husband seemed to exert on her and her response to that power:

Fito. Qué ganas de echarle en cara unas cuantas. Pero cuando lo tenía frente a mí nunca me animé a decirle lo que pensaba de él. No era por miedo ¿por qué era que me callaba? Yo creo que ese tumor me vino de acumular rabia. (29)

Here Ana suggests that her contained, accumulated anger has caused the tumor, the destructive growth inside her. In this case, the relationship between illness and rage is one of contiguity and displacement: the two are metonymically integrated. Men also experience anger, according to Ana, but the effects of their anger are very different:

[Los hombres] se enojan tanto … En ese momento les sale no sé qué furia de adentro, les sale como un buitre de adentro del pecho. A mí me dan miedo cuando están así … Debe ser porque a ese buitre no le importa nada de nadie. Es un pajarraco que lo único que sabe es atacar, sin medir las consecuencias. (227–8)

The two images of anger elaborated by the discourse are both agents of destruction. However, the men's rage is described as a vulture which flies out of the man and attacks others, while the woman's anger is restrained or repressed, and produces the tumor which destroys the self. The link between illness and femininity is clearly established: men get angry, women get sick.

Not only is Ana troubled by the presence of a destructive, repressed anger, she is also disturbed by a corresponding absence of positive sensations. She repeatedly complains that several months after marrying Fito she stopped enjoying sex. Fito wanted Ana to go to the doctor and see if this change had a physical basis, thereby suggesting an interrelationship between a loss of sensation and illness/injury. She refused to go, denying a physical cause for her condition: “Me emperré en que no … Yo estoy segura de que no, que la razón no era física.” (56) The same incapacity to enjoy sex recurred with Pozzi: “Y con Pozzi … desde el principio vi que tampoco sentía mucho.” (57) Again, Ana's history and discourse link her sexuality to illness.

Ana's physical problem is echoed by an emotional inadequacy. She professes a lack of love for Beatriz (“No siento por ella ese cariño que sentía antes por mis amigas” (75), and she writes about Pozzi, saying:

Es buen mocísimo, es simpático, es inteligente, es sensible, siempre tiene tema de conversación, es sexy, tiene buen corazón ¿qué le falta entonces? Nada. Entonces no hay duda que es mi culpa, que yo no puedo sentir nada por nadie. (87)

Ana questions her own attitude towards Pozzi and concludes that she is incapable of loving anybody. She also confesses to feeling little or nothing for her daughter (“yo en Clarita nunca pienso. Ni me acuerdo de ella” [281]) or her mother (“No la aguanto” [75]). This lack of feeling results in a physical separation between the three women: Ana's mother wants to come and visit Ana in the clinic, but Ana refuses to allow her to do so.

In a conversation between Ana and Pozzi, the woman insinuates that this emptiness or absence of feeling is eventually replaced or filled with envy: she covets the health of others.

[Ana]—¿Y por qué me acaricias? ¿por qué tan afectuoso?

—No me saques la mano así, parece que te diera asco.

—Mirá, en este momento lo que me das es envidia, que vos estés sano y yo no. (142)

Ana's envy for others' health functions in her discourse as an excuse, an explanation of her behavior and attitude.

Ana's inability to enjoy sex offers a physical parallel to her incapacity to feel love. Although both of these problems precede the onset of her disease, illness functions as an explanation for them, as a way in which to justify the mysterious lack of feeling, to explain the inexplicable.

The many possibilities and implications inherent in Ana's condition are explored and expressed in the text through the elaboration of a complex sign, doll, and the movement and interplay between the several mutations of this sign.7 This metaphoric sign first appears in the opening passages of the novel. Ana fantasizes about a famous actress who has abandoned her career to marry an extremely wealthy man. After the wedding, the husband drugs his bride before having sexual intercourse with her; the next morning the woman awakens from a terrifying nightmare in which she was viewing an operation:

[un] medico obeso … con un bisturí le abría el pecho: a la vista aparecía—en lugar de corazón—un complicado mecanismo de relojería. Era una muñeca mecánica, y rota, no una mujer enferma. (9)

In this passage, the husband's violation of his wife is expressed through a metaphoric parallel which again links sexuality and illness: a repulsive physician cuts open his patient. The patient, who appears to be a woman, is then revealed to be a mechanical doll with clock-work instead of a heart: she is not ill, but broken. The sign implies an unreality, a lack of humanity, which is hidden or secret, masked by a female exterior. The mechanical nature of the figure, literal on the level of fantasy or dream, reappears as a metaphor in reality when Ana records a remark of Pozzi's in her diary:

Pozzi me lo dijo, que yo era una máquina y que organizaba mi semana como, no me acuerdo lo que mo dijo, como una hormiga no, pero algo desagradable era. Claro, él podía organizar su semana y yo no. Otra palabreja que él usaba era manejadora. Que yo lo quería manejar a él como manejaba los encuentros reglamentarios con Clarita. (91)

Pozzi's transposed speech substitutes machine for Ana, implying a high degree of emotional detachment, an ability to be extremely organized and calculating. She reports that he also labeled her manejadora, saying that she desired to control others. These characteristics are apparently tied to femininity; Ana suggests that whereas she is deprecatingly labeled una máquina, Pozzi is simply organized. The sign being elaborated, the mechanical doll/woman, suggests both the state of being manipulated and the concurrent, threatening ability to be manipulative in turn.

A further mutation of the mechanical doll occurs late in the novel in a futuristic fantasy about the actress's daughter W218. This young woman's situation is the result of radical, institutionalized, sexual oppression. She is dehumanized by her number-name, she works as an official government prostitute, and she depends on a personal, portable computer for the assessment of her emotions and situation. The government programs the computer and controls W218 through this machine; however, this machine is not part of the woman:

“Ojos llenos de lágrimas + extraño peso en el centro del pecho + espera interminable de carta + …”, en vez de continuar con las tristes premisas decidió oprimir el botón rojo que cancelaba la consulta. Iban en aumento sus sospechas respecto a la discreción del centro de Asistencia Electrónica. (199)

Here, the woman is depicted as able to abandon or disregard the computer and act independently.

An important variation on the sign mechanical doll appears early in the novel when Ana related her mother's criticism of her divorced lifestyle. Her mother insists that Ana should be home caring for her child instead of working, and Ana comments: “Y qué razón tiene, eso es lo errado, no aceptar nuestra condición de mujer, de muñeca sentimental, qué se le va a hacer?” (24) Ana's discourse substitutes muñeca sentimental for mujer, or for a certain kind of woman who accepts the traditional male-female roles. The metaphoric sign implies a state of passivity, of being a cared-for object. Ana's self-interrogation implies that she has not accepted this condition of muñeca sentimental, but also questions her rejection of it. Later, when conversing with Pozzi about their past relationship, Ana confesses:

— … me pareció que si me mostraba disponible te ibas a cansar de mí.

—¿De veras eso pensaste?

—Sí, este tipo me va a tratar como un juguete, pensé. (176)

Here, the metaphoric sign toy which is employed in her discourse suggests a plaything, an object that men use, and then may tire of and discard. It is a mutation of the muñeca sentimental which is also an object, but cared for and kept. A further parallel to this image of a toy appears in the fantasy sequence about W218. The young woman is unexpectedly able to read men's minds when she turns twenty-one and when she has sex with her lover, LKJS, she hears the man's stream of consciousness:

Me das pena … me recuerdas esa pobre muñeca que mis hijas arrojan constantemente al suelo, la muñeca de trapo, la más sucia; la que nunca se rompe y por eso maltratan. (239)

In this passage irony results from the play between the different levels of knowledge. LKJS's ignorance leads him to underestimate W218 and suppose that she is an object which is vulnerable, helpless, and mistreated. The reader knows that W218 is telepathic at this point, overhearing all of the man's thoughts, and therefore much more powerful than he.

Ana's discourse generates the polisemic figure of the doll, a sign which not only describes the protagonist's situation as a maquinaria exquisita,8 but which also incorporates and expresses the multiple, complex links between the feminine condition and illness which are suggested by the text. Pozzi's accusation that she is a machine and Ana's own experienced loss of sensation lead to the appearance of several mechanized doll-women in her fantasy. These mechanical figures are described as being operated on or manipulated by men, but also as being capable of manipulation themselves. They also suggest a related contradiction between appearance and interior. The final articulation of the sign demonstrates a movement from a clock-work heart to a separate computer that can be—and is—disregarded. Ana's discourse additionally develops the related sign doll-toy which metaphorically substitutes for woman, and suggests that she is an object or plaything. In this case, instead of offering mutations of the metaphor, the fantasy reveals the truth of it (as perceived by Ana): the protagonist's fear that Pozzi would treat her like a toy is realized when W218 hears her lover refer to her as a rag doll.

Ana explores her condition as a broken doll not only in order to understand it, but in order to change it; she wants desperately to be fixed, to get better. The prognosis for her physical condition remains unknown to both the protagonist and the reader throughout most of the novel; the narrative represents Ana's search for the significance of her illness, of her condition. Ana looks to her friends and her doctors for insight and information, but finds their language and gestures difficult to interpret. Ana recounts one exchange between herself and the doctor to Beatriz:

— … después le pregunté para cuando los rayos, y me miró raro.

—No serás tú la que desconfía demasiado?

—Beatriz, todos los operados de tumor después se aplican rayos, como precaución. (18)

In her search for the significance of her symptoms, Ana notes the absence of the prescribed treatment for tumors. When she questions the doctor he responds to her question with a strange look. This look and the accompanying absence of a verbal answer constitute a signifying act. We have, as Genette describes, “a language that betokens what is not said, and precisely because it does not say it” (265).9 Beatriz responds to Ana's account of the conversation with a question, suggesting that the sick woman is too suspicious, and therefore suggesting also that the doctor was being truthful. But Ana also fears that Beatriz herself is withholding information from her. She writes in her diary:

Hay algo, no sé, algo demasiado devoto en ella [Beatriz]. Que no sea lo que estoy pensando. Que no sea que ella sabe que mi enfermedad no tiene cura. Ella es mi mejor amiga en México, y el; médico pudo habérselo dicho a ella sola. Que no sea eso. Tal vez todos lo saben, menos yo. (75)

Beatriz's manner, the “algo demasiado devoto,” communicates the very information that she is trying to conceal from Ana. Her behavior constitutes a signifying act or intention which is meant to imply affection and concern, but instead suggests pity.

The signifier cancer is only articulated once in the text, during a conversation between Pozzi and Ana. The man has come to visit Ana and, finding her feeling poorly, suggests that he should leave so that she can rest. Ana replies:

—No te asustes, el cáncer no contagia.

—¿Qué estás diciendo?

—Un chiste, Pozzi. Te estoy haciendo un chiste. (142)

Ana labels her illness with the signifier cancer in an apparent attempt to provoke a reaction from Pozzio and to ascertain the truth about her condition. Pozzi is aware of the nature of her illness, but affects ignorance; he denies the relationship between the signifier cancer and Ana's symptoms. Ana then says that she is joking, implying an incongruity between the signifier cancer and the context. She goes on to compare her symptoms with the doctor's comments:

—Me dicen que … el tumor era benigno y esto que siento ahora no tiene nada que ver con lo que me sacaron … Me siento mal, me operan, y a las cuatro semanas me vuelven los mismos síntomas de antes. Habría que ser muy tonta para no darse cuenta … [the doctors] Me tranquilizan, me dicen que todos los enfermos se imaginan cosas. Pero soy yo la que siente los dolores. (142–3)

In this passage, Ana's discourse contrasts the doctors' assurances with her own, experienced pain. Ana believes that pain implies serious illness; the doctors do not deny this relationship, instead they insinuate that the pain exists only in her imagination.

Ana suspects that she has cancer because of the pain which she experiences and the simultaneous refusal of the doctors and Beatriz to acknowledge it: the very absence of the signifier cancer in their discourse serves to reveal its presence. The presence of cancer is also implied by Ana's circumstances which match those of the mythical cancer victim: she is alienated from her family, unable to feel, described as machine-like, and full of repressed anger. The presence of cancer is suggested through the presence of its metaphorical content, which then functions as a way to both describe and justify her condition.

It is Pozzi who provokes Ana's rebellion, who incites her to reject the crippling connotations of her illness. The man has come to Mexico in order to enlist Ana's help in his efforts to obtain the release of two Peronistas who are under arrest in Argentina. He wants Ana to call Alejandro, an admirer of hers and a powerful supporter of the government, and invite him to visit her. Pozzi's colleagues would then kidnap the man and attempt to trade him for the two political prisoners. Ana, suspicious of the Peronistas and frightened for her own safety, has refused to contact Alejandro despite Pozzi's emotional pleas and political arguments. During the final, crucial meeting between Ana and Pozzi, the man asks her one more time to call Alejandro for him. He tells her that his action would be a way to achieve a good, hacer bien, while she still could. When Ana asks Pozzi what he means by mientras pudieses, he responds:

—Basta de macaneos, Anita, por favor. Vos sabés a qué me refiero.

—¿Qué? ¿te crees que me voy a morir?

—Vos lo sabés, mejor que yo.

—Yo no sé nada. Yo quiero curarme, eso es lo único que sé. (221)

Pozzi doesn't say cancer, but the absent signifier nevertheless functions in the discourse as he insists that Ana understands the context of their conversation, that she is aware of the referent. She volunteers “te crees que me voy a morir,” asking him if the sign to which he is referring implies death. He again turns the responsibility for naming the object back onto her, refusing to articulate the signifier cancer or even to use metonymy, to describe it. Ana refuses to admit any understanding of the context of the conversation.

Pozzi then confronts Ana openly with the seriousness of her condition, telling her that the doctors operated on her but couldn't do anything for her, and are pessimistic about the outcome of a second operation. He states: “La probabilidad de salvarte es mínima … el tumor está en el estomago pero también en una parte del pulmón, ya está ramificado” (221). Although Pozzi is articulating Ana's exact fears by telling her that her symptoms signify impending death, the woman continues to deny any knowledge of her condition, even disclaiming her pain.10 Pozzi finally says:

—Yo desde que lo supe tengo una inmensa tristeza, Ana. Vos sos parte de mí, la parte del placer, no sé como explicarte, del lujo. Vos eras mi lujo, Anita. Pero no está en mí cambiar las cosas. Lo único que pudo hacer es pedirte que aceptes la realidad, y hagas lo más que pudas con lo que te quede vivir. Y ojalá suceda un milagro, y todo se arregle. Pero … (222)

The man's discourse metaphorically substitutes a “parte de mí”, “la parte del placer … del lujo” for “Ana”, implying that instead of being a separate person, she is a part of him and exists to give pleasure to him. Pozzi's request that Ana accept reality is ironic: what his discourse now implies through realidad directly contradicts his previous evaluation of her situation. Realidad in this context signifies a personal, mutable, interpretation of situations and events instead of an objective perspective.

In previous conversations, the absence of cancer in the characters' discourse revealed its presence to Ana; now the presence of “illness” signifies its absence. As Todorov states: “speech if true, is false, if false, is true … Words do not designate things but the contrary of things” (101–102). Language has come to indicate the opposite of what the speaker intends to express. The gap, or the difference, between Pozzi's earlier denial of Ana's illness and his new realidad replaces the word as the signifying act. This difference reveals language to be a manipulative tool rather than a means to signify a truth: by saying she is ill Pozzi is evoking the content of the sign, the implication of powerlessness and impending death that may facilitate his attempt to persuade her to act. Instead of allowing herself to be manipulated, the woman denies her illness, and refuses to call Alejandro.

Ana's last, critical conversation with Pozzi provokes or, perhaps, reveals profound changes in the woman's perspective; this development is further effected and expressed through the interplay and substitution of metaphoric signs. The final conversation with her lover is followed by a segment of the futuristic fantasy about W218 which relates a violent encounter between this young woman and her lover, LKJS. The government suspects that W218 will be able to read minds when she turns thirty, but she is unexpectedly able to do so when she turns twenty-one. The woman then over-hears her lover’s thoughts and learns that he is an enemy agent sent to kill her. The juxtaposition of this event and Ana's conversation with Pozzi suggests that W218's sudden ability to hear her lover's thoughts offers a metaphorical parallel to that incident.

W218 responds to her lover's betrayal with violence: she stabs him after they make love. When the courts find her guilty of attempted murder, W218 volunteers to provide sexual services to the terminally ill patients of the Hielos Eternos hospitals as punishment for her crime. After spending several months among the sick inmates, W218 succumbs to illness herself and is placed in a ward next to an old woman who is dying. This woman begins to relate her personal history to the W218:

no me quieren porque todas aquí están resignadas a morirse, menos yo … Lo que más rabia les da a estas ancianas apolilladas es que yo no me doy por vencida y hasta he intentado fugarme … sí, más de una vez. Por eso me tienen por loca. (264)

The old woman does not accept the common belief that illness signifies isolation at Hielos Eternos and eventual death. Because of her rejection of the content of this sign, she is labeled mad. The long monologue which follows is a narrative embedded within the narration of the fantasy, or in Genette's terms, a meta-metanarrative, which tells the story of a woman who did indeed escape from the hospital of Hielos Eternos in order to find her daughter. The woman begins narrating in the third person, in the past tense:

Se escapó con el camisón y nada más. Era una mujer joven, claro, y tan bella como tú. Y yo sé lo que pasó, a mí me lo han contado, no puedo decirte quien, pero sé lo que pasó. (265)

The physical description of the young woman suggests that there is a metaphoric relationship between her and W218. The narrative itself is an example of metonymic embedding: a story within a story within a story. The narration continues:

Y es que el frío, la locura, el viento, la audacia el hielo mismo, el ansia de ver a su hija, las estrellas, todo junto hizo que ella se desintegrara en el aire. Por eso nadie la pudo perseguir y traerla de vuelta. (265)

The old woman describes a fantastic escape from the hospital effected through the disintegration of the self. At this point in her narrative, the woman makes an abrupt switch from third person to first person: “De pronto se desató un viento extraño y el camisón se alzó, mostreándome desnuda” (266). She describes how the men around her trembled when they saw that she had a pubis angelical: “mi pubis era como el de los ángeles, sin vello y sin sexo, liso” (266). She describes her daughter:

y el viento le alzó la faldita y no cupo idea de que mi hija, poque también ella era un ángel puro. Y sólo entonces me di cuenta de por qué no me importaba más que ella en el mundo, de por qué la quería tanto, porque sería una mujer a la que ningún hombre podría rebajar! (267)

The sign being elaborated in this discourse, the pubis angelical, suggests the absence of female sexuality and of the concomitant vulnerability to men. The old woman ends her narration by saying:

y debe haber sido de la alegría que se me trastornó la cabeza, fue de la alegría que me volví loca … no le hagas caso a tu otra vecina de cama, no me quiere porque dice que estoy loca, y que soy peligrosa, no, yo nunca le hice nada a nadie, y me da furia nomás cuando me dicen que perdí la razón porque murió mi hija, que no es cierto, ella está viva, y me quiere … (267)

For the old woman, her madness is a result of happiness; the people around her believe that it is the result of grief. These contradicting points of view suggest a feminist critique of the word mad: the diagnosis of insanity is being used to discredit a woman whose vision of reality differs from the norm, who refuses to comply with the restriction placed upon her by society.11 As she finishes the narrative, the other ill women “fijaban ojos burlones sobre la cama 27,” (267) but W218: “tuvo la sensación de que el relato era verídico.” (267)

This movement between grammatical persons in this meta-metanarrative, (it shifts from the third person to the first and is directed to a second person), corresponds to the parallels between the different women and suggests that they are all polivalent metaphors for the I. The old woman's discourse elaborates the metaphoric sign pubis angelical, a figure which opposes and supplants doll. This new sign suggests a rejection of, or escape from, illness and a corresponding invulnerability to men. It also suggests the inverse of the figure who appears to be a living woman but is revealed to be a mechanical doll; here the daughter is understood by others to be dead, but is known by the mother to be alive.

Immediately following the Hielos Eternos portion of the final fantasy Ana awakes from an operation that she did not know that she was scheduled for and finds Beatriz at her side. Beatriz tells her that it went well and that the doctors are optimistic about her future health:

quitaron el tumor, y la ramificación no era lo que se creía. La pudieron quitar toda. Estaba en el pulmón, la parte ramificada … Tienen la esperanza de que no reaparezcan más … brotes. (268)

Beatriz reports the doctors' findings, offering a description of the state of Ana's disease which is strikingly similar to that which Pozzi recounted earlier.12 This time, however, the accompanying prognosis is optimistic. Ana is naturally hesitant to believe the doctors' hopeful evaluation of her condition as related by Beatriz: “Tengo miedo de que me engañes … o de no entender … lo que me decís …” (269) Because the truth of her illness has been hidden from her for so long, Ana now doubts the transparency of her friend's speech; language has come to signify the opposite of what the speaker wants it to signify. Ana's new attitude toward her disease, however, supersedes the question of whether or not the operation was truly successful. She asks Beatriz to immediately call her mother and daughter and ask them to come to Mexico to be with her. Beatriz responds to her request:

—Anita … lo que te dije de la operación es cierto también.

—No me importa … aunque me quede … poco tiempo, lo que me importa es alcanzar a verlas … otra vez.

—La vas a poder abrazar, bien fuerte.

—Más que abrazarlas … lo que quiero … es …


— …

—Dime ¿qué quieres?

—Más que abrazarlas, quiero … hablar con ellas, … y hasta pueda ser … que nos entendamos … (270)

Ana no longer cares about the prognosis for her illness, nor does she deny its existence as she did with Pozzi. Instead, she focuses her attention on the metaphorical signification of the disease—the state of separation and isolation, the inability to feel love or express anger, the fear of destruction—and she rejects these implications. She seeks to end the separation between herself and her mother and daughter which has characterized their relationship, and expresses hope that language will again function to communicate instead of to block communication; that not only will they speak to each other, but also understand one another.

Ana's final resistance to the accepted content of the metaphoric sign cancer represents a critical juncture in the trajectory of Puig's narrative: for the first time, an ill character rejects the symbolic content of her illness. Ana's refusal to accept the accepted implications of illness implies a much broader repudiation of societal norms, of the doll status traditionally accorded to women. She ultimately refuses to see herself as a broken doll that needs fixing, (a condition and a solution inextricably bound up with her female sexuality), and replaces that image with the vision of a woman with a pubis angelical, a self-sufficient figure who is invulnerable to men. In Ana's earlier fantasies, the woman's response to betrayal was to injure or kill the treacherous lover, inevitably destroying herself as well as the man.13 The sign pubis angelical replaces this violence with separation: instead of striking out at the man, the woman now closes herself off from him and seeks to regain a unity with other women.

In Pubis angelical, Puig denounces the traditional sexual roles implied by the metaphoric signs illness/cancer and health. He also addresses the complex, problematic nature of language, a system which often serves to obfuscate or manipulate rather than to communicate. As demonstrated by the text, the words health and illness, sanity and madness, are not neutral labels which reflect objective diagnoses, but rather powerful, political instruments which are used to maintain the sexual status quo. The prescription for getting better involves an awareness and repudiation of the metaphoric content of these signs.


  1. Since the appearance of Manuel Puig's first novel, the role of alienation in his narrative has been the subject of much critical discussion. For example, Alicia Borinsky, in her article “Castration, Artifices, notes on the writing of Manuel Puig,” asserted that alienation is the structuring principle of La traición de Rita Hayworth.

  2. Puig's interest in sexuality, power, and oppression has always been apparent in his narrative. His ideology, however, has become more organized and explicit with time. Puig, discussing the writing of La traición de Rita Hayworth with Ronald Christ, commented:

    In the first book I was dealing with the oppression of women, with a latent homosexual child growing up, and I didn't want to make any judgment about those cases. I just wanted to describe them. I didn't understand why the women were like that, or why the child was being modeled into a homosexual. But lately I've seen the motivation. Now I think I know. (60)

    Puig's concern with this motivation increased, and by his fourth novel, El beso de la mujer araña, both reviewers and author recognized the emergence of a critical, organized stance on the part of the narrator. At that time, Puig defined his own attitude to Danubio Torres Fierro saying:

    Estoy convencido de que el sexismo es un problema más grave que, por ejemplo, las determinantes económicas o las luchas laborales. La lucha por la liberación social tiene necesariamente que pasar por ahí. La escuela de la explotación está en la relación hombre-mujer. (512)

  3. These trans-narrative systems are explored and analyzed in my doctoral dissertation, Transformation Metaphors in the Narrative of Manuel Puig. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1984.

  4. Nueva Narrativa Hispánica edition (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1979). All further references are to this edition.

  5. Bart L. Lewis, in Pubis angelical: La mujer codificada, discusses the actress and her daughter as “signos codificados” which offer metaphoric parallels to Ana, a “signo dinámico.” In his article, Lewis suggests that these women are “tres modelaciones de la mujer como víctima.” (531)

  6. I have taken this explanation from Susan Sontag's excellent essay, Illness as Metaphor, in which she analyzes the metaphorization of tuberculosis, cancer, and mental illness.

  7. Bart L. Lewis, in Pubis angelical: La mujer codificada, relates this doll imagery to the later image of the pubis angelical stating: “Las imágenes de la mujer como maquinaria exquisita, pubis angelical, canal erótico de un mensaje social, se comunican en las historias de la actriz y la mujer del futuro … La actriz es un icono cultural, represents la femineidad, pero es un cuerpo-canal, signo de una belleza unívoca, febril y doliente por ser perfecta.” (536) While doll certainly does imply a sexual objectification or codificación of the woman, the various mutations and transformations of the sign within the text suggest that the narrative vision of the actress and her daughter is complex and ambiguous.

  8. Bart L. Lewis, 536.

  9. In his essay Proust and Indirect Language, Genette discusses the different ways in which language, in attempting to conceal, reveals. He states: “Truth can be made apparent only when it is not said” (265). Tzvetan Todorov addresses this same issue in his essay “Speech according to Constant,” in which he explores the various relationships between speech and what it signifies, i.e. the symbolic relation, the synechdochic relation, and the case of self-reference (“the relation of signification is reduced to zero”), (90–91) Todorov asserts:

    “speech, if true, is false; if false is true. If we want to combine these two rules into one, we must say: words do not signify the presence of things but their absence.” (101)

  10. Pozzi says to Ana: “¿Pero no te dabas cuenta que estás perdiendo peso, y que los dolores aumentan cada vez más?” Ana replies: “Yo no me daba cuenta.” (222)

  11. Puig is clearly interested in the sign madness, as metaphor for difference and alienation, and as a diagnosis through which society censors non-conformist thought or behavior. In La traición de Rita Hayworth the piano teacher, Herminia, relates the story of El loco, a man who suddenly loses all sensation in his fingers, and is labeled mad by the townspeople. Their accusations are prophetic: when his lover betrays him, he loses his mind. Puig explores madness further in The Buenos Aires Affair.

  12. Pozzi told Ana: “La probabilidad de salvarte es mínima … el tumor está en el estómago pero también en una parte del pulmón, ya está ramificado.” (221)

  13. This recurring image of the woman who appears passive and vulnerable and who is revealed by a touch to be dangerous appears not only in Pubis angelical, but throughout Puig's first five novels: in La traición de Rita Hayworth, Toto touches his girlfriend Alicita and she turns into a crocodile; in Boquitas pintadas, Pancho is stabbed to death by his betrayed lover; in El beso de la mujer araña, Molina tells the story of cat women who turns into panthers upon being kissed. For a study of this ambiguous figure, see my doctoral dissertation; “Transformational Metaphors in the Narrative of Manuel Puig,” University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1984.

Works Cited

Borinsky, Alicia. “Castration, Artifices, notes on the writing of Manuel Puig.” Trans. Norman Holland and Stephen F. Houston. The Georgian Review 24 (Spring 1975): 4.

Christ, Ronald. “An Interview with Manuel Puig.” Partisan Review 44 (1977): 60.

Genette, Gerald. Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lewis, Bart. “Pubis angelical: La mujer codificada.” Revista Iberoamericana 49 (1983): 531–540.

Puig, Manuel. Pubis angelical. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1979.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Random House, 1979.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, New York: The Cornell University Press, 1977.

Torres Fierro, Canubio. “Conversación con Manuel Puig; La redención de la cursilería.” Eco No. 173 (1975): 512.

Manuel Puig with Ronald Christ (interview date Autumn 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7141

SOURCE: “A Last Interview with Manuel Puig,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 571-80.

[In the following interview, Puig discusses questions of sexuality and repression raised by his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman.]

The last time I talked to Manuel Puig, he was calling from the airport, as he usually did when just passing through New York; this time he especially wanted to know about our friend Gregory Kolovakos. That was April 1989, and Gregory was dying of AIDS, as we all knew. Already grieving the recent death of another friend, Enrique Pezzoni, the brilliant editor and publisher in Buenos Aires, we commiserated; and he came as close to raging as I ever heard: “Will this plague ever end?” In less than six months Manuel himself was dead, not an AIDS victim but a postoperative casualty in a relatively backwater hospital, like one of his characters. There had been no difficulty in removing the source of Manuel's gall, if indeed he ever really had any; but his heart relinquished him.

Gregory had also linked us ten years before, when he suggested to the relatively new gay magazine Christopher Street that I might be the person to interview Manuel. Kiss of the Spider Woman was big at the time, and I knew the book well. Earlier, Seaver Books had been interested in Puig but unable to see the worth of his latest novel, and so I suggested my editing the early chapters over a weekend in order to demonstrate that the translation, not the novel, was the problem. Jeanette Seaver liked the result, considered it, but finally begged off; so the translator revised his work, more or less in line with my initial editing, and the novel predictably came out from Dutton. In those days Gregory and I worked together at the Literature Department of what was then the Center for Inter-American Relations, and his recommendation to Christopher Street only extended our daily endeavor in one more useful, friendly way.

For me this interview turned out like the others I had done with Manuel—hilarious hard work—but with differences: his earnestness replaced the cautious defensiveness I knew so well; his effort exceeded the usual pickiness, and he revised laboriously, when we talked (having me turn off the machine while we worked something out, rehearsed a line); later he rewrote, cut, and expanded everything; and still later he had us recite it to make sure his script “worked.” On one hand, certain points truly mattered to him: he wanted to clarify the political importance of the notorious footnotes in Kiss of the Spider Woman, for instance. On the other, he cared about getting the star attributions right.

The latter worry I first encountered on a flight back from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Manuel and I had participated in one of the many conferences organized there by Zunilda Gertel. I was apologizing to him for having perhaps spoken too long during my section of the program (I had seen his lips twitch, pulled on individual strings, and his mouth jerk as I did the critic's job of comparisons, literary history, and the like). He wasn't interested. “Who was I like?” he asked. Guessing, I mumbled some old actress's name. “How?” I tried again. Better: “Well, but don't you think I had just a little Claudette Colbert?” Telling him I hadn't thought about it, but, yes, when he answered the question from that dark-haired fellow about halfway back, he had tilted his head—to the side, chin slightly up, eyes big, bright—and telling him that suited. “And you? How were you?” Turned out how I was was a mix too, and none too flattering, in my eyes, at the time at least. Of course this was all twinkling, yet as we refined more and more how we were like this one or that, I saw the serious critical purpose: he was judging, denotatively as well as connotatively, according to a scale as delicate and intricately calibrated as that used to appreciate the Japanese tea ceremony or the tango. Years later, in the interview, his seeming jokes on star readings engaged his full intelligence and sensibility no less, just as in Under a Mantle of Stars the Daughter's line to the effect that it does not matter who you are but how you are represents Puig's profound superficiality to a T. (By the way, we read every line of that translation aloud too, switching parts, changing inflections, discussing, and there's only one phrase I left in that I think he was wrong about.)

After all our rush and work, the interview appeared without our seeing galleys, without the section on the footnotes—and without our ever being paid. Manuel gnashed, Gregory sulked a little, and I finally deposited the papers, along with lots more, at the University of Texas's Humanities Research Center in Austin, which has generously assisted me in preparing this definitive version. The record straight, my promise kept, I dedicate it to Manuel and Gregory, whose stubborn frailty gave us so much.

[Ronald Christ:] A homosexual affair in an Argentine prison makes quite a jump from your previous fiction.

[Manuel Puig:] I wouldn't call it a “homosexual affair.” In that cell there are only two men, but that's just on the surface. There are really two men, and two women. I agree with Theodore Roszack when he says that the woman most desperately in need of liberation is the woman every man has locked up in the dungeons of his own psyche.

Where did you get the idea for having the gay prisoner tell the plots of films to the political prisoner?

That was the very first idea I had for the novel: that these two guys would meet through a mediator—films; that otherwise they couldn't talk to each other. One is heterosexual, the other isn't; they're both defensive. The gay one doesn't have much education, but a great fantasy.

He's been educated at the movies.

Yes, so he tells the other one films at night, to help him fall asleep. They can't face certain subjects directly. Slowly, and unconsciously, they reveal themselves.

But that's true in almost all your fiction, isn't it? The meeting of people in popular art forms, like films, tangos, radio programs. Right from the little boy in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth who goes to the movies every day with his mother and writes about them at school.

Yes, the beginning of Kiss of the Spider Woman is all there in the boy's composition class from Rita Hayworth. In a repressive society some people only dare discuss matters metaphorically.

But now we can see how you've developed the theme from a little boy in school to adults in jail, from provincial life out on the pampas to urban life in Buenos Aires.

Sure, because I moved to the city. My childhood was in this small town in the pampas, and my later experiences are all city experiences. I started going to a boarding school in the capital at thirteen, and then my family moved to Buenos Aires when I was seventeen. So, I can't say much more about small towns, because I've got this impression that in the first two novels I've said everything about them that I've got to say.

You started your career wanting to write movie scripts, and, in a sense, Kiss of the Spider Womanreturns to that wish since it's almost entirely in dialogue.

That was not intentional at all. My two previous novels had used a lot of technical narrative devices—stream of consciousness, letters, diaries, classical third person—and I thought this new novel would need all those again. Anyhow, I thought that the first chapter could be handled more easily in pure dialogue. And once I got started, I just couldn't stop! I saw that the dialogue was the real vehicle for the narration, that dialogue where what isn't said is very important, where what's skipped expresses maybe more than the rest.

That's another constant in your books, isn't it? Like the one-sided conversation in Rita Hayworth or the passages in The Buenos Aires Affair describing what the characters don't see, don't consider.

Here it's especially important, since we have two characters, and they meet only in words: they almost cannot look at each other, let alone touch each other, because they are men and that's forbidden. The communication is only verbal in the prison; but what characters do without paying attention always interests me: what's not in the focus of your attention but is there anyhow.

While you were writing the novel, did you ever think of turning it into a play?

Technically, that would be very difficult. The development of the plot is too long and fragmented to be fit into a play. I've been approached to make a theatrical adaptation, but it's hard for me to forget the novelistic structure the plot was born with. I'd need to think of a totally new structure, a theatrical one.

So you started with a movie set in New York, the 1943 Cat People.

But it wasn't Cat People in the first draft. It was more of a Dracula thing in the first chapter. The structure of the novel was all set. I was here in New York around the end of '73, when I'd left Argentina, and I was gathering all the materials for the novel … I'd done a certain amount of research.

What kind?

First of all, I'd met with prisoners in Argentina.

Political prisoners?

Yes, it was very easy in June of '73, because when the Peronists came into power again, the president was Campora, and he freed all political prisoners. I asked a lawyer friend who defended political prisoners to help me meet some of them, and that was very useful. Two months later the political equilibrium tilted to the right, and I decided to leave the country.

Did you interview gays too, like the prisoner Molina?

No. I knew that type very well, and I wanted to work with an unsophisticated type, a reactionary, in a certain way. The type of homosexual who rejects all experimentation, all new trends. They've accepted the models of behavior from the '40s—you know: the subdued woman and the dashing male—and they have, of course, identified with the subdued though heroic woman, and they don't want to change that fantasy—or they can't. Although they're film-crazy, these types would even reject all the new kinds of movie heroines and heroes. They're still attached to the prototypes of One-Way Passage and Now Voyager. I think that's one of the main topics of the novel: can people change their eroticism after a certain age? I believe it's almost impossible. Those sexual fantasies have crystallized during adolescence and imprison you forever. I'm saying all this with a Claude Rains cocked eyebrow.

All right, the cocked eyebrow, but if there's a kind of parody of the homosexual …

No, not parody. Parody is a word I don't trust too much, because it carries some degree of scorn. I don't let myself go in the direction of scorn very often. The character is parodic in itself. If he's mimicking a woman of the '40s, a film character of the '40s, he's already parodic. It's not me who's doing the parody. Greer Garson wouldn't have liked me to do that.

What about the revolutionary, Valentín?

Oh, no, there's no space for parody in his case. I've tried to give realistic portraits. Sure, both, in their own ways, are excessive; but the excess is not in my treatment of their nature.

The revolutionary learns a lot from the homosexual. What about the homosexual from the revolutionary?

That I leave up to the reader. But personally, I think that Molina just uses the melodramatic possibilities offered to him by the revolutionary, the possibilities of becoming an underground heroine.

But the homosexual comes to be protective of the revolutionary. For example, he doesn't give the authorities all the information he could.

Yes, but not for ideological reasons, for sentimental ones.

And in a way that prepares for his death, which is melodramatic, staged.

Yes, a movie death. And the character chose, I didn't.

What made you give up on Draculaand choose Jacques Tourneur's Cat People?

I was doing research—here in New York at the Public Library—for the Nazi language I needed for chapters 3 and 4 of Spider Woman, the characteristics of the language of Nazi propaganda. Around then I saw Cat People on TV. I had seen it many times, and it was a favorite; but somehow I hadn't thought of it, and now I just couldn't resist. I said to myself: this has to be in the book, because the character would have chosen it. The choice was an imposition by the character. He would have told that story.

Did you have the other movies in mind already?

Yes. The Nazi film was almost ready, but I have to explain that it's an invented movie. It happened like this: I couldn't find just one, a single Nazi film that would serve my purposes, so I invented one that has pieces from many—mainly from Die groβe Liebe (The Great Love) with Zarah Leander, from 1942, you know. And the Mexican film I hadn't got ready yet. For that I went to Mexico a few months later and saw a lot of Mexican cabaret films, a genre in itself, which is unfortunately almost unknown in the States.

So quite a bit of research went into Spider Woman?

Yes, but for each of my books I have to do that.

Which inevitably leads us to those footnotes in Spider Woman.

I had to read a lot. I realized the reader wouldn't be able to judge the action without the appropriate information on the origins or causes of homosexuality. At the beginning I thought all this information should come through the mouths of the characters; these quoted texts should be present there in the cell somehow. Since one of the characters is learned, an avid reader, I thought of having those books in the cell; but it wasn't possible, simply because that kind of information had been violently denied to people. It's only recently that we're starting to see books that present an organized explanation of the origins of homosexuality. In Freud, in Jung, in all the main psychoanalytic texts the information is fragmented; and, of course, it's destined to an elite audience, to a very few specialists. General information is very recent. In this respect I very much like Dennis Altman's Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. It's easy to read and covers a lot. For instance, it makes very clear, accessible comment on hard-to-read books like Marcuse's.

Do you expect readers of Spider Woman to take the views in the footnotes seriously?

Of course, of course. This information's been denied violently to people, as I was telling you. Only now, in the States, in the last ten years, are these subjects starting to be discussed openly with a certain orderliness. It's very recent, and it's restricted to this part of the world. And you must remember that my novel was destined, first of all, to a Spanish-speaking reader. So I said to myself: well, the information's been violently denied, so I'll violently incorporate it into the narration; it will be there as an explanation, a footnote, having nothing to do with the text—the literary text, I mean.

It's the only point in the novel where the narrator intrudes on the text.

Yes, it's my voice, but not my judgment. I simply repeat, in a condensed form, the judgments of specialists.

How did you decide when to add a footnote?

I thought that there were moments when the lack of information in the characters reinforced the dramatic potential, the conflict.

A little like a chorus in classical drama, giving background for the protagonists, heightening the conflict. But, you know, the information's been violently denied here in the States as well. A number of people I've talked to have asked, “Are those footnotes real?” They suspect that the notes are fiction too.

I didn't anticipate that. All the notes are quotations—except for one.

Are you willing to say which one?

Well, I … you see … I … I advanced an idea of my own; but I wanted to present it under a very respected name, not a fiction writer's name, and well … it's there …

And we have to find it for ourselves. Another detective mystery, like your other works. But are the notes authentic quotations?

For the English, I gave the translator the texts, but I don't know what he did. But, no, they're not direct quotes, anyhow. They're paraphrases.

How have the footnotes—the whole homosexual topic, for that matter—been received in Latin America and Spain?

Some of the critics have assumed, very pedantically, that the notes are common knowledge and that, really, they were not necessary. Can you believe that? “We all know those things,” they say. In the Spain of 1976! In the Mexico of 1977! And that's totally untrue! In those countries people have very little information about the origins of homosexuality. Or none at all.

Do you have a theory?

No, not really. I've chosen, in the book, to present those that seem to me to be the most interesting.

Are the attitudes toward homosexuality in Latin America very different from those here?

Well, to begin with, the rejection is universal. Universal. But here in this country there's been an advance, a very great advance, in the way homosexuals want to work up a new self-respect. The liberation movements, et cetera. The way they create their own places. All that has, for me, one very positive aspect: the self-respect. But, at the same time, I see a great danger in the American attitude, and that's in the way homosexuals tend to think of themselves as totally different from heterosexuals and segregate themselves drastically. Which means denying the true origin of it all. For me, the only natural sexuality is bisexuality; that is, total sexuality. It's all a matter of sexuality, not homosexuality, not heterosexuality. With a person of your own gender, with a person of the opposite gender, with an animal, with a plant, with anything. Just as long as it's not offensive to the other party. I see both homosexuality and heterosexuality as specializations, as limiting matters. I see exclusive homosexuality and exclusive heterosexuality as cultural results, not as a natural outcome. If people were really free, I think they wouldn't choose within the limits of one sex. At the same time, I believe in the couple, whether heterosexual or homosexual. I think that with one person you develop things in time, sex also becomes much, much richer, more refined. I don't mean monogamy necessarily, but …

But going back to the rejection business, I believe gays shouldn't imitate the mistakes of heterosexual people, who are so frightened by their latent homosexuality and have to think of themselves as totally different from gays. Segregation is wrong. Ghettos are wrong. Of course, I realize that a minority has to get together in order to demand respect with a certain strength; but anyhow, the basic issue—no matter how ideal and remote it may sound—of a sexual community, neither hetero nor homo, should not be forgotten.

The problem's reflected in the book, where there can't be any free choice, and the cell is a microcosm of society—a cell.

The characters have no choice at all.

Which means that the novel, like your others, is critical of society.

Yes. You see, I wanted to reproduce in the cell what the situation is outside: that we're restricted by cultural conditioning, restricted to a very limited choice.

Do you think some readers will misread and think you're representing homosexuals as silly queens?

No, no, I hope not. There's enough discussion inside the book to show that all homosexuals are not like that. Molina's just the last of the romantics, the last of the romantic women. That interests me. In the '70s the only women who can still cling to the old cliché are the people who adopted those models of behavior and have no way to experiment with them. Molina wants to get married to a straight man and become a subdued wife. Since the experience is impossible, he will never be able to kill the illusion. In present society, or at least until very recently, you didn't have much choice: you either followed your mother or you followed your father. And they were very typed. A woman's behavior in the '40s was determined by the mystique of the era, and a man's too: it was either Myrna Loy or Clark Gable. If those parents had been free people, their children would be free too. There wouldn't be such delimitation. After all, why should the field of the mother be so separated from the field of the father? Two absolutely separated planets? You know, the orbit of sensitivity was the mother's, and the orbit of action was the father's.

Doesn't this show up in the way Molina is formed almost exclusively by films and the revolutionary by books? With the difference that the reader never learns precisely which books the revolutionary reads.

Of course. And the reader isn't told those titles because he already has information on all that. We know what a young man on the Left is like, what his world is, what he reads.

But while the revolutionary's formation, his reading, is respected in silence, there's a criticism, implicit at least, in the camp sensibility of the queen.

I don't agree. I don't deal much with the revolutionary's formation, but I do with his resulting reflexes. And if there's some conscious criticism on my part, it's of the “extremist” or “segregationist” attitude of both the revolutionary and the homosexual. What's more, I don't know how it sounds in the book, but my intention was to be more severe with the educated character, since he'd had more access to information. For the other character, the only available models of behavior were film romances. Films were his spiritual food.

Now they're becoming that food for educated people as well.

Yes, but with a different perspective. Back then it was an attitude of total belief. Films were taken as the real world, especially for people living in underdeveloped countries. These phony fantasies coming from the developed countries were looked at as the reality, as what the world should be like.

So the queen has her eye out for the foreign, the exotic, while the revolutionary is looking to his own country.

Since the rejection is total in Latin American countries, the homosexual has no other way out except for escape, so there's great difficulty in developing liberation movements. Don't forget that most of these countries are under military rule.

Last summer Dennis Dollens and I were watching the Gay Pride march with Luisa Mercedes Levinson, and she said she wished she could show that parade to the generals running her country. You can't have that sort of event in Argentina, can you?

Look, it's not possible to have a gathering of over twenty people! The perennial state of siege thing. What's more, in my country there's active persecution now. There can be no homosexuals, for instance, on TV; they can't be interviewed, they can't act. I don't mean open homosexuals only; I mean the closet cases as well. Censorship knows about them.

It's official?

No, no. Nothing's official.

And your books are banned there.

Yes, with the exception of the first two, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Heartbreak Tango.

Not banned throughout Latin America though.

Now get ready for something special: I'm not distributed in Cuba either. So Argentina on the Right and Cuba on the Left: they both have something to object to in my books. In Cuba none of my books could appear. Extraofficially I was told my work was too concerned with eroticism. Even worse, Kiss of the Spider Woman is concerned with homoeroticism, and that Castro certainly doesn't like. The harassment of homosexuals in Cuba is well known, and, I hate to say that, because there are aspects of the Cuban revolution I respect and admire.

Still, there is, after all, one positive aspect to sexual life in Latin American countries. And it's true of Latin countries in general. Well … let's go by stages: the fact that mothers are really subdued by their husbands in those countries gives rise to a decidedly “feminine” type of homosexual son, one who will in general try to be his mother, be compelled to repeat the subdued-female role. So, the straight macho tends to see the majority of this kind of homosexual as women. The Latin macho, to top it all, has no doubt about his “manhood,” so he goes ahead and has sex with a gay man—exclusively an active role, of course, at the beginning—without feeling “contaminated” at all. All this has one horrible side: the fact that what makes it possible is that the roles are so stiff—or, better, say rigid. But anyhow, there is a form of bisexuality achieved on the part of the macho. It's a sick formula, but the contact is established. In many cases what starts as a shady affair ends up as a friendship: the straight eventually marries, and the gay designs the bride's gown while waiting to be godmother to the children. In the States I guess a straight man would feel he's a closet case forever if he once had a locker-room escapade with a buddy. One more example: in machismo countries a straight woman would more easily accept a lesbian's proposal too, because a woman there is so stripped of any sexual threat that it arouses no great fears.

I've met many Latin American homosexuals who are married, have children, live an ostensibly heterosexual life, but maintain a homosexual life on the side.

Among the higher classes. It used to be almost standard but never spoken about. The homosexual side would be thought of in the following way: “He's a nice person, but once he killed somebody; still, he's basically nice.” It would be a stigma of which nobody speaks. But I think that's true among the higher classes in all countries.

But when Valentín has sex with Molina, it doesn't reflect what we've just been talking about.

No. Valentín does it rationally. This guy's really a very honest person, someone who hates oppression, and he ends up in that cell with a screaming queen. But, unknowingly, he reproduces a system of exploitation in the cell. When he realizes he's exploiting the weaker person in that tiny world, he becomes truly guilty, and he tries to remedy the situation. The rational excuse for him to act sexually—of course, he acts sexually because he needs to: the queen's not attractive, maybe she's a middle-aged person; but you know, a body's a body on a desert island—the excuse he gives himself is more Christian charity than justice, but …

What about the emphasis on pain in their intercourse? I recall Molina's expressing pain and Valentín's saying that if it didn't hurt, he'd let the queen do it to him.

There's this cliché among women, women of the '40s or '50s, who'd always say, it hurts! It was part of the act. A frail romantic woman had to be equipped with a very narrow vagina. But in the novel it's part of the female act the gay character's putting on.

Both are caught in their ignorance and conditioning: a victim of mass fantasy and someone deluded into thinking he understands the structure when he doesn't even grasp the power of his cellmate. But the story's not a parable.

If you tell a real story, the criticism is implied. If you choose a good situation, a representative story, then the situation, the situation itself, is critical. But not all “real” stories have meaning—or even interest.

So your virtual absence as narrator in no way implies that you're absent so far as social criticism goes.

Well, I'm present from the moment I choose to tell this story and not some other, and I've chosen this one because I think it has meaning. I try to give the reader all the possible data. I don't want my judgment to be oppressive. The reader should have space in which to make up his own mind. And there I'm in the hands of the fates.

How did you reach your decision, from your first novel on, to stay outside the narrative as much as possible?

I think that's because I'm veddy moderne. No, really, it's because I'm convinced that Freud killed the novel of the nineteenth century. Before Freud you thought a person's psychology was entirely contained in his conscious, with a little margin for those obscure things that were hardly talked about: the instincts! So the authors who thought they knew a character's conscious—what was there to be shown—felt really in command of the situation. Those authors acted outrageously but innocently; they were innocent, and that bathed them in grace. But they were shrewd: they dealt mainly with heroes, not with the enslaved little man. Then Freud comes along and reveals the whole back room! To which we have no direct access. Which means that you can never, never say, “I'm sure about this character. I'm sure of why he behaves like this.” You can present fragments of behavior but never the totality. You can never say, as Tolstoy did, “Anna was jealous” or “Anna hated” or “Anna loved,” because now we know that those feelings are so much more complex than they were supposed to be. Among the twentieth-century writers, I admire Kafka especially. What is he interested in? Cobwebs, the world of the unconscious, the system that somehow manipulates us, the bars we're not aware of but which are there and don't let us act freely. What the reader is mainly searching for now is not heroes but the man in the crowd and why he can't act otherwise. But it's extremely difficult to capture that invisible net of repression. Anyhow, that's what interests me: to try to capture the unconscious of the characters. And the more common the characters are, the more archetypal they are, the more they interest me. Because they're in the same cell with millions. Heroes don't interest me. Not really. I know I can't approach the unconscious contents directly; they won't reveal themselves. One has to beat around the bush.

But sometimes you do go after unknowable material, as at the end of Spider Woman, where we read the unconscious fantasy of Valentín.

I thought it would be interesting to have access to his mind at a moment when he's free; and, with a very controlled person like him, that can only happen under sedation.

That's the only time he has any happiness, where the last words of the novel read, “… this dream is short but this dream is happy.”

Yes, that's right, but there's also the film he completes in his nightmare in chapter 7.

So, as a narrator, you must notbe omniscient.

Sure, how can I be omniscient, how can I be a masterful third person, an authoritarian third person, if I'm not certain of so much?

To be omniscient is to reproduce the repression?


And the dramatic method of plays and films is less repressive?

Well, let's see … I wouldn't go that far. But what can I say? Since films have to be accepted by such vast audiences, they are devised, not unconsciously but in a very special way; so they become part of the imprisoning bars and are consequently limiting fantasies, and, in a way, they can be restrictive.

Whom do you design your fiction for?

It's always to please one person in particular. To convince one person of something. It has always been like that. I don't know, for me writing is always an act of seduction. At a certain point there's an important person in my life—doesn't need to be a sexual challenge—someone I respect who doesn't respect me. We disagree about something. And I write to show that person I'm not as dumb as I sound. By the time I finish the novel or the novel comes out, that person isn't important any more. By writing, I've exorcised some kind of devil that was there. At least, it's been like that with my five novels.

Going back to Kafka, is he important to you in your own writing?

You see, I was exposed to literature after I was exposed to films. The films were really the big, big artistic influence in my life. But I have to say there are two modern literary wizards for me: Kafka, as I said, and Faulkner, who can fascinate me almost as much as von Sternberg or Hitchcock. Kafka resorted to fantasies for his comment on the manipulation of the unconscious, but Faulkner dared go into reality; and somehow, his descriptions of environment give us an access to that unknown swamp of the unconscious. I would have liked to say that with a Michael Chekhov accent: he played the kind analyst in Spellbound beautifully.

What about nonliterary writers?

I find the new French school of psychoanalysis very interesting. Very hard to follow, but interesting. Lacan and his disciples.

What interests you, the notion of “mirroring”?

Yes. It's hard enough to try to understand it, let alone say anything about it, but I have the impression that there's definitely something there. But films are the real influence—von Sternberg and the whole MGM look, if I can define it that way. No especially great directors at MGM, but a certain visual style, contributed by producers like Thalberg and Mayer and second-rate directors like Fleming, Leonard, Mervyn Leroy. And the faces of their women.

So, for you, it's the stars, the fantasy, that matters rather than the qualities that cinéastes discover in films?

Yes. For me it is the fantasy that stars embody. The constellation of vices and virtues. As a child I was afraid of Harlow, but I adored the subdued-though-heroic woman, who in the '30s was Norma Shearer and in the '40s became Greer Garson. I protected the waif Louise Rainer. As for Garbo and Lamarr, they were too strong and too beautiful; they didn't need me. Unless they died in the end, like Garbo in Camille or Lamarr in Lady of the Tropics. Then they suffered glamorously. They died, and I died with them, only to go to heaven along with them. Very, very dangerous clichés. Because the enjoyment of suffering was there; there was a streak of masochism.

But very different from the fantasies of masochism you see today.

Oh, I hate that! I'm glad we came to that. I think it's awful, and it has a simple explanation: since in the States nobody punishes homosexuals any more, they have to punish themselves. I find it extremely silly. And it's just a fad—the exploitation of the sicker side of the homosexual condition. I hope this phase will be over soon.

If your character were growing up today, who'd be his model?

What wouldn't I give to know! But for that you must be twelve! I ought to have a son in Argentina now in order to know how Laura Antonelli impresses him.

All your fiction presents this generational conflict, doesn't it?

Well, yes. In the new book the heroine is over thirty and belongs to that group who can't identify with the older models but can't identify with the models who arose after the sexual revolution either.

How was Spider Womanreceived in Spain?

With respect, or should I say “respectful distance”? Part of my interest in giving all the information on homosexuality came from thinking about the young reader in Spain, who has suffered the most violent denial of information of any reader in Western Europe in our time. They had censorship for almost forty years! And I thought: what about people with sexual problems? The young people, the teenagers who really haven't even had access to Freud! Not to mention Marcuse. So, what about giving them some information about sexuality? Because I really have something against specialization. When I say that somebody's “homosexual,” I think I'm not saying the total truth. It should be said: homosexual / latent heterosexual. Recently a newspaperman who'd read Spider Woman asked me if I'm a writer for homosexuals. It made me so mad, this need for ghettos, as if a novel about a homosexual wouldn't be interesting to a heterosexual! As if the novel wouldn't speak to that imprisoned woman in the man's body we talked about before. (And let's not forget about the man bottled up in every woman!) In a free society, though, where women and men would stop acting within the limitations of roles, their children would be free too. But certainly not people of our generation. Maybe the adolescents of '79—in America—yes, but not in other countries. Seeing the relaxation of roles, they may be able to enjoy the body of any human being. These days, for people raised in the '40s, there's not much room for bisexuality, not because it's unnatural but because of cultural castration.

So the book is really subversive in relation to the system of sexual repression.

I hope so.

And that fits in with what we once discussed: the sexual repression of older people, of unattractive people.

That's the subject of my new novel! The one that's coming out in Spain in March, Pubis angelical. It's all another form of discrimination. The state should take care of that. The sexual satisfaction of the old, the ugly, and the deformed.

Socialized sex, like socialized medicine?

Yes, yes. Certainly. … I'm saying it with a straight face.

May I quote that: “a straight face”?

Yes! And, if possible, add a Ronald Colman idealistic stare into the void, as in the last close-up in Tale of Two Cities.


1932 Manuel Puig born on 28 December in General Villegas (Buenos Aires Province), Argentina, to Baldomero and María Elena (Delledonne) Puig.

1936 Develops a love for moviegoing, especially Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell musicals and films with Dietrich and Garbo.

1942 Begins to learn English, the language of such favorite films as Rebecca, Gone with the Wind, and Blossoms in the Dust.

1943 Younger brother dies.

1946 Completes elementary school. Moves to Buenos Aires to attend high school, a boarding school he dislikes. Finds consolation in Sunday matinees. Discovers Freud in Spellbound.

1947 Reads Gide, Hesse, Huxley, Sartre. Favorite stars now include Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth. Clouzot's film Quai des Orfèvres (Jenny Lamour in the U.S.) inspires Puig to become a director.

1950 Enters the school of architecture at the University of Buenos Aires.

1951 Studies French, English, and Italian at the university, the languages of film.

1953 Begins military service.

1956 Travels to Rome with a scholarship to study at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.

1958 Moves to London. Gives lessons in Spanish and Italian and works as a dishwasher. Writes his first filmscript in broken English.

1959 In Stockholm. Writes second script, “Summer Indoors,” a comedy in English inspired by films featuring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant.

1960 Returns to Argentina. Works as an assistant director of Agentine films. Writes first script in Spanish.

1961 Back in Rome working on films.

1962 Still in Rome, jobless.

1963 Moves to New York. Works for Air France at Idlewild Airport and begins writing his first novel.

1965 Finishes novel La traición de Rita Hayworth in February. Visits Tahiti. In December La traición is a finalist for the Seix Barral publishing house's Biblioteca Breve Prize; Puig signs a contract with Seix Barral but then the novel runs into censorship problems.

1967 Returns to Buenos Aires, signs another contract, and again has problems with the censor. The journal Mundo Nuevo publishes two chapters from La traición de Rita Hayworth.

1968 The novel is finally published in Argentina by a small firm called Editorial Jorge Alvarez.

1969 Gallimard publishes French translation of La traición, and in June the work is selected by Le Monde as one of the best novels of 1968–69. In September Puig's second novel, Boquitas pintadas, is published and becomes a best seller.

1971 First English translation of Puig's work, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, is published in New York.

1973 His third novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, appears. Heartbreak Tango is published in New York.

1974 Boquitas pintadas, adapted for the screen by Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, is awarded the best-script prize at the San Sebastián Film Festival.

1976 Puig returns to New York after spending about two years in Mexico. His fourth novel, El beso de la mujer araña, appears. The English version of The Buenos Aires Affair is published in New York.

1978 Puig's film adaptation of José Donoso's Lugar sin límites garners the best-script prize at San Sebastián.

1979 His fifth novel, Pubis angelical, and Kiss of the Spider Woman are published.

1980 His sixth novel, Maldición eterna a quien lea estas páginas, appears.

1981 Puig moves to Rio de Janeiro.

1982 His seventh novel, Sangre de amor correspondido, and Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages are published.

1983 Publishes two-act play, Bajo un manto de estrellas, in Barcelona.

1984 English translation of Blood of Requited Love appears in New York.

1985 English translation of Puig's play Under a Mantle of Stars is published in New York. Film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman is released, directed by Héctor Babenco and starring William Hurt, Raúl Juliá, and Sonia Braga; Hurt later wins an Academy Award and the best-actor award at Cannes for his performance as Molina.

1986 English version of Pubis Angelical is published in New York.

1987 Puig receives honorary doctorate from University of Aberdeen.

1988 His eighth novel, Cae la noche tropical, appears.

1989 Puig moves to Cuernavaca, Mexico.

1990 Accepts invitation in June to visit the University of Oklahoma in April 1991 as the special guest of the Thirteenth Puterbaugh Conference on Writers of the French-Speaking and Hispanic World. Dies on 22 July in Cuernavaca, suffering cardiac arrest following routine gall-bladder surgery.

1991 Puig Conference held in April at OU; Autumn issue of World Literature Today publishes the conference papers and other essays on Puig. Fall 1991 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Puig and William Gass. English edition of Tropical Night Falling is published in New York.

Note: The above information dealing with Manuel Puig's life from 1932 to 1969 is adapted in part from his autobiographical piece “Growing Up at the Movies: A Chronology,” in Review, 72 (Winter 1971-Spring 1972), New York, Center for Inter-American Relations, pp. 49–51.

Bella Jozee (essay date Autumn 1991)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4305

SOURCE: “Manuel Puig: The Masks and the Myths,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 643-47.

[In the following essay, Jozee traces Puig's narrative technique and the author's presentation of myth in his work.]

When I met Manuel Puig in 1971, he had already published two of his eight novels, La traición de Rita Hayworth (1968; Eng. Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, 1971) and Boquitas pintadas (1969; Eng. Heartbreak Tango, 1973). From that point onward until his death we corresponded, and for a time we resided in the same city, Rio de Janeiro, a fact that occasioned my sharing in the creation of his books by reading, offering opinions on, and reviewing many of his original works before their publication. In the following article I maintain the basic interpretation postulated in previous studies dealing with aspects of the meaning of Manuel Puig's universe, which I now reexamine with new considerations.1

Fundamental to the poetics of the novel is the development of a criticism that seeks to surprise the work in its literariness. One of the aspects of the literary revitalization brought about by the contemporary novel is the problem of the narrator and his point of view. The point of view establishes a transformational process of various discourses in an altogether new discourse.

In contemporary fiction the narrator is included as a participatory character in the work, one who is placed within the circle of protagonists created by his own discourse. Among Manuel Puig's has been the exclusion of the author from his narrative space. 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.

Puig's novels are made up of voices that create reality. The characters evoke a world and situate the reader within their context by way of dialogues, letters, and monologues. Through the dialogues (which many times hide more than they reveal) the characters are linked with empirical reality: in their consciousness they project tensions, conflicts, and memories. The characters are represented and presented by their own discourse—crystallized syntagms, expended words—within which they can build their own universe. They express themselves through the use of lyrics from tangos and boleros or film texts, and, curiously, such expression in turn creates them as characters. The novels are transformed into games of mirrors, and the narrator becomes impersonal or tends to disappear completely (for example, through purely scenic presentation).

On the level of the story line the distinctions carried out by Jean Pouillon are pertinent.2 The fictional quality of the narratives does not diminish its psychological worth, and the theory of points of view is explanatory in terms of the logic of the actions and relations among the characters. Pouillon combines point of view with time. All the characters reflected in Toto's consciousness enter into the interior monologue with their own “truths.”

As a unique case of “vision with,” the interior monologue multiplies the points of view. The temporality of what is narrated about the characters and their feelings is analogous to the durée of personal experience, with its redoubling by the subject of the past and the future, beginning with a contingent present. What is experienced by the narrator-character “with” can be perceived and is situated in the interior of the narrative and participates in the same events at the same moment in which they are produced, without mediation on the part of the narrator, who no longer mediates everything. Now the reader is confronted with an unknown world, with sequences he must piece together and intuit. The resources employed by the novelist demand that the reader become integrated as an active agent with the narrative, since he disposes of the elements that constitute the text as organization. Such is the case with a novel like Michel Butor's Modification (Eng. Changing Time), in which the narrator is “absent” and the point of view is situated within a character's mind. The “subjects” of the verb no longer refer to “psychological” characters, whereas the temporality of the writing revives that of the fiction. The author does not reveal the hero's reality but instead provides his own revelation of all the points of view, his awareness of himself, as a secondary reality. There is representation, not expression; the hero does not become confused with the author, and there is distance between character and author.

Toto's monologue, on the other hand, is more an interior discourse. It is directed in a vital way to all he thinks and says, a process that also appears in Heartbreak Tango, when Pancho addresses Mabel in his monologue: “Don't you have any regrets?” (154).3 All the characters introduced in the interior discourse assume an impossible original contact among voices in a real dialogue. They resound within the interior of a single consciousness, becoming capable of mutual penetration. The developmental process of Toto's inner life is to a great degree a process of discovery and confirmation by himself and others of what, in reality, he has known for a long time. The character anticipates judgments and formulates the words of others about him by including in his discourse their replies. The author does not construct a character, a type, a temperament, but rather a word from the hero about himself and his world.

Virginia Woolf has explained the disappearance of the objective narrator by evoking the impenetrable obscurity of life that does not allow omniscient observation but instead, in a contradictory way, advocates a faithful imitation of reality, a nonwithdrawal from life. This problematic broadens our concept of the novel. Criticism, according to Wolfgang Kayser, still has not placed enough importance on the relation between the narrator and reader, or on the prescribed role of the reader.4 Both are poetic and correlative elements of the universe. Within the art of fiction the narrator is never the author but rather a role assumed by him. According to Kayser, in Madame Bovary, beginning with the second chapter, there no longer exists a personal narrator or character-narrator. We are not reduced to the characters' word, to think only their ideas, to feel their impressions. There is an intermediary to tell us what they think and feel.

Such does not occur, however, in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. The protagonist sees his universe and narrates it.5 In the classic novel all enunciation remains outside the narrative; in the modern novel all enunciation is immersed in what is spoken. With Puig the author's word does not oppose the hero's. Puig does not speak of the hero but rather with him.

The seventeenth-century novel concedes to the personal narrator a distinct and varied role. The first-person narrator moves with surprising facility between his point of view as narrator, which is rather imprecise, and the narrated universe, as if he simultaneously had the right to dual citizenship: as narrator outside and as character or presence inside the fictional universe. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the figure of the narrator was renounced and his omnipotence limited, and he therefore represented a distanced, three-dimensional vision. In his book on Dostoevsky, Mikhail Bakhtin establishes an opposition between the polyphonic and the monologic genres of the traditional novel.6 The former is characterized by the absence of a unifying narrative consciousness, which encompasses the consciousness of all characters. This is what occurs in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth: there is no consciousness on the part of the narrator, who is isolated from the rest on a superior level and who assumes the discourse of the whole. He presents us with a distinct version of the esthetic law of James and Lubbock by determining that the vision should correspond to what Pouillon calls “with.” The new position of the author in relation to the character is dialogic, rigorously respected, and affirms the character's independence, inner freedom, infiniteness, and indecision. For the author, the character is not a “he” or an “I” but a completed “you”—that is, another “I,” different yet equal. Therefore, in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth there is no description of situations; instead there are conversations, monologues, and confessions that multiply the points of view with unrestrained freedom of syntax. A subtlety of uncommon procedures allows Puig to judge the shadows, the silences, to capture the characters in a web of images and reflections in which his personality is placed in question.

According to Todorov, point of view refers to the manner in which events are perceived by the narrator.7 The individual personality of the psychological novel had to undo itself in order to reveal the archetypal configurations of the human being, who is as nontemporal as myth. In the mythical dimension, past, present, and future are merged; the characters are open not only for the individual past but for the collective past as well, as masks of an eternal process that transcends humanity itself.

In traditional novels psychology has been demonstrated 1) by the examination of simplifying words (love, jealousy, pride) applied to the immense complexity of the inner world, and 2) by the attempts to penetrate the mental universe of the characters through the examination of the “confessions” necessary for decoding. In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth the rupture of the past in the present, of the unconscious in the conscious, is the formal expression of a world in which the continuity of empirical time has no meaning. The phrase gathers associations, and its charge of emotions intermixes, as in stream of consciousness, actual fragments of objects or real people by embracing the future or lived experiences from long ago, asserting them with greater strength and reality than “real” perceptions. The narrative discourse is, in this way, one word among others: the word of information about the absence of representation and the word of the hero. There are no dominant words, be they of the author or the protagonist. The author does not judge, and therefore his perspective is no more complete than that of others.

Puig does not impose a narrative style; it is introduced in each of his characters, without third-person descriptions, by the presence of a voice capable of narrating in the third person that needs to exist due to the internal demands of the story but that knows how to disguise itself, to disappear among his characters, and, in the final analysis, to detach itself from them. Although there are many third-person narrators, they are practically inconsequential. The narrator bases the narrative on objective discourse, retaining only the indispensable elements for the story's composition (spatial placement of the characters: “illuminated by the new florescent light of the kitchen” [H, 10]), or becomes absent from it, by transferring new reports to the active agents of the narrative. For example, the speech of the Gypsy (76) and the photograph of Pancho in the portrait album (34) anticipate the subsequent actions of the characters. This transfer is possible only because the narrative is directed toward the characters (who are responsible for the action and are its motivators). From this arises the autonomous highlighting of Juan Carlos, Nélida, Fanny, Pancho, and Mabel. The absence of an omniscient narrator thus gives rise to various points of view that predominate over the various perspectives.

The narrative of Heartbreak Tango is centered on two viewpoints, the first-person (in the correspondence) and the omniscient. The latter assumes two temporal levels: descriptive and narrative. The narrative process will assume a referential base through realistic representations: letters, agendas, announcements, photo albums, official documentation, clippings from periodicals and magazines.8 These texts, added to those from the radio, quotes from other works, songs, intercalated genres (such as a composition by Casals or intimate diaries), are superimposed in a polyphonic montage. In this way the work comes to have other texts as referents in order to capture reality in a globalizing way. These extratextual ties are organized in a unique system and, out of their context, are transformed in art by the new meaning and the new effects of meaning they acquire.

The same event is seen from different angles, as in Fanny's monologue.

With this clothespin I hang one tip of the petticoat with the tip of the white silk shirt, another pin to the other tip of the shirt, and don't you touch the checked napkins, and tomorrow you'll all be dry, will it be cold on the street corner in my new dress? but the clothes hanging in the laundry room won't get black from dust. “What's your name?” they're going to ask Panchito. “My name is Francisco Ramírez, and I'm going to study to be a police officer,” when his father's old his officer's job will go to his son for sure. But one day I'll be walking with Panchito on the street 'cause he already walks by himself, will he be bowlegged forever? “… and the gaucho all in wonder, speaking softly to his saddle, said his gal would not come back …” it's a sad tango, because when his gal dies the gaucho is left alone with his horse and he feels so lonely. (H, 146)

The narrator also utilizes different points of view with respect to a single character: “He always looked at me when I went by the bar. … Hail Mary, full of grace, God is with thee, blessed art Thou amongst women” (195). The time of the chronological and present pronouncement (Nélida's writing) is superimposed onto the time of the enunciation, a time both present and past: “When we stopped speaking to each other, and after what happened to Celina, we sent back the letters” (12–13). This superimposition is reiterated by the coexistence of a present awareness (made sad by Juan Carlos's death) that bears an absent memory (the evocation of her relationship with Juan Carlos). Moreover, the present space (Buenos Aires) is superimposed onto the past space (Vallejos), and the exterior space reiterates the interior one (tango lyrics—a couple's separation—are identified with Nélida's thoughts [24]).

The epistolary form is a kind of Ich-Erzählung. It acts as the word reflected by another. The letter is characterized by an acute awareness of the existence of the interlocutor, the addressee. It is directed to a specific person, aware of his possible reactions or response. It takes into account the absent interlocutor. Letters or intimate diaries are familial genres that can be considered extraliterary.9 The exchange of letters among characters constitutes one of Manuel Puig's favorite devices. The epistolary form seems to be a direct way of giving life itself to the characters: each can tell his or her story, totally or partially, but is shown as he or she wishes to be seen, which is not as it always is in reality. The letters serve as a narrative device and are taken as the object of another language, as a form of ideological concretion. Heartbreak Tango makes use of letters that are directed to someone who does not read them and that are answered by yet someone else. The reader is totally engrossed in the scheme of the plot, in the fascination of the game, into which suspense is introduced: the rewriting of the letters of Juan Carlos's mother that were not written by her. The enjoyment of the text is a result of that suspense, of the connected discovery of a secret. This indirect narrative method inscribes the means of communication, which register a multiplicity of languages. Taken out of their context and inserted into the narrative, those extracts become informative in their estrangement. The interweaving of different codes contributes to the polysemy and depersonalizes the author. In his final work, Cae la noche tropical (1989; Eng. Tropical Night Falling, 1991), Puig incorporates other discourses that assume the status of texts, providing stereotypes that are transformed into voices that engage in dialogue.10 Faced with the impossibility of finding themselves, they mask themselves, choosing models in which they are projected (cf. the diaries and the letters). What interests Puig is the problem “of the oppression of the environment on the individual, the question of the unconscious, the world of prisons we carry inside us without knowing it.”11

The narrator of the novels is the mythical creator of a universe who remains a shadow. He hides behind a game of masks tied to the myths of mass culture. The transformation of the story into myth increases the whole range of possibilities that did not otherwise exist, even while potentialities can still be activated by memory. To the myth of the lost paradise of childhood is added the myth of the cinema, the realm of happiness communicated by films of the thirties that form part of the petit bourgeois models. The myths established in the heart of the middle class, which is eager to climb socially, are re-created by Puig. The characters desire to violate social norms. They try to dismantle social discourse through the myth created by the cinema, establishing an alternative system to reality. Models (or masks) are proposed, and they fabricate their own myths by way of their readings of “an already given mythological subuniverse.”12

In the twentieth century mass culture pervades Western culture with new instruments of communication, as a response to the demand of emerging sectors of the middle class, that give rise to a new writing. The function of mass literature is to attune the individual's consciousness to the world, but by entertaining it as in a game. For this reason, it utilizes recognized forms and mythical elements: the detective novel, science fiction, comic strips, the soap opera, and, in particular, the serial, whose mass-cultural characteristics are placed in opposition to “literary” tradition.

For the belle époque, the serial provided a form of escape. For Manuel Puig, on the other hand, it is a means of getting to the heart of certain problems. Puig shows the inauthenticity of certain ways of life as well as the alienation due to the means of mass communication, which are linked to the alienation of discourse. The results are serialized lives and beings, beings who are deprived of humanity, and passions that become diluted and dissipated in the hope for a Prince Charming. Only death will free them from limitations and from the vicious cycle. Facing death, they understand that they have lived heroically, that they have created a monumental existence amid the artificial paradises created by society.13 One can, in this way, point out an (esthetic) engagement of the author with myth, since Puig avails himself of the serial—the mythical discourse established by a fixed society seized by the still-powerful ideological lords (the values of consumption and class power)—to try to penetrate the myths of the petite bourgeoisie. Through that narrative model, which is sustained, according to Roland Barthes, by the “mythical word,” the banal (cursi) universe of the characters is constructed.14

Puig adopts the form of the serial as a notable experiment in literary discourse, inasmuch as the world of the serial needs no narrator, is endowed with the neutral ubiquity of the press or of historiography, and disappears in the impersonality of its anonymous technique. From there the duplicity of the narrative structure emerges: the consciousness that narrates is always present, whatever takes place. Although Puig remains at a distance from his characters, he does not eliminate distance with regard to his fiction, and he restructures language anew. In this way, he undertakes an important renovation within the fictional genre by expanding the discursive space. Puig creates dialogic texts wherein polyvalence establishes points of view and the text becomes a complex network of reading possibilities. The use of an intra- and intertextual deconstructive discourse questions the hegemonic politics maintained by traditional fiction. The apparent heterogeneity and the lack of causality offered by a body of texts, ordered by juxtaposition, manifests the presence of multiple narrator-characters who habitually eliminate the mediation of the impersonal and detached narrator, whose omnipotence Puig always condemned.

In a paradoxical way, the mutable forms of the “mythic word” will demonstrate the impossibility of authentically living the myth (a world without restrictions) in the present, in a way in which those characters will never overcome the corrosion of time and cultural immobility, which is resented by a society directed by set notions regarding morality, religion, and sex. We can provide some examples from Heartbreak Tango of elements endowed with mythic meaning: the day of the spring festival, when the entangled conflict between Nené and Cecilia developed and desire was established (Mabel and Nené versus Juan Carlos); the heroes, exemplary models of social conduct from American cinema who correspond to artificial paradises; the photo albums that emphasize a mythological behavior in modern man, whose vestige is observed in the desire to secure the distant past and to reencounter the same intensity with which something is lived for the first time (according to Mircea Eliade); the institutions of pleasure, the product of the society of abundance and of what Baudrillard calls the egalitarian ideology of well-being (which is questioned in the discourse of the novel through commercial language). In sum, they are going to accentuate passivity—the evasion and privation of History, the characteristics of bourgeois man, as distinguished by the characters of the novel's discourse.

The modern forms of myth are going to favor a basic paradox, by reason of the serialized context of the characters: the illusion of those who are not able to situate their personal experiences on the level of myth. In this sense, the mise en abîme is exemplary of the composition of the thirteenth episode of Heartbreak Tango, in which two levels of fiction are correlated: fiction 1 (the novel) and fiction 2 (the radiophonic novel). The second reiterates the likely construction of the author's characters and makes fictional those of the second level of fiction. The imaginary relations among the characters on this plane emphasize the romantic myth of Ideal Love that utopically establishes the rupture of social and moral barriers. The unconventional realization of Mythical Love is an achievement for the “real” characters of fiction 2—metacharacters in relation to the characters who comment—whose existence is moved by good bourgeois sense: in Nené's case, the fear of the spread of tuberculosis conditions her isolation from Juan Carlos; in Mabel's case, separation from Juan Carlos is going to make possible the stabilization of her feminine “status,” that of sexual castration. Juan Carlos is a mythic character. Although absent, he becomes present in the other characters' memory.

One of the fundamental aspects of Manuel Puig's work is the synthesis of the myths of our time, of the instruments that contemporary man utilizes to gain knowledge and to know himself. Perhaps someday the profound influence of Manuel Puig as responsible in part for the new writing and for the revitalization of Hispanic American fiction will be better determined. With his renunciation of any theoretical-literary model, he broke new ground with each successive new work. His universe of beings will accompany us from here on out, but a profound night now falls upon us.


  1. Bella Jozef. “Manuel Puig: Renovación por el lenguaje,” in Literatura de la emancipación hispanomericana y otros ensayos, Lima, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1972, pp. 287–89; “Manuel Puig: Reflexión al nivel de la enunciación,” in Nueva Narrativa Hispanoamericana, 4 (1974), pp. 111–15; “La dimensión renovadora del folletín,” paper presented at the 19th Congress of the Instituto International de Literatura Iberoamericana, Pittsburgh, June 1979, published in Texto/Contexto, Madrid, 1980, pp. 163–71; “El folletín como modelo,” in Romance hispanoamericano, Sāo Paulo, Atica, 1986, pp. 180–87.

  2. Jean Pouillon, O tempo no romance, Sāo Paulo, Cultrix/Edusp, 1974.

  3. Manuel Puig, Boquitas pintadas, Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1972. English translations are taken from Heartbreak Tango, Suzanne Jill Levine, tr., New York, Dutton, 1973, and are referred to by the abbreviation H.

  4. Wolfgang Kayser, “Qui raconte le roman?,” in Poétique, vol. 4, Paris, Seuil, 1970, pp. 498–510.

  5. It is not by chance that I use the verb ver (to see): the glance is of fundamental importance in Puig's novels. I cannot develop the theme here, and I refer to several considerations: “Solidāo e morte na noite tropical,” América Hispânica (Rio de Janeiro), 4 (July–December 1990). In an interview he granted me he claimed: “Mis recuerdos más lejanos están ligados a las sensaciones de un malestar ante la gente y de una enorme placidez durante las funciones de cine donde yo no era más que una mirada” (My most distant memories are linked to feeling ill at ease toward people and an enormous serenity during the rituals of the movie house, where I was nothing more than a glance). The italics are my own.

  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, La poétique de Dostoievski, Paris, Seuil, 1963.

  7. Tzvetan Todorov, “Les catégories du récit littéraire,” in Communications (Paris), 8 (1966).

  8. For Plato and Aristotle, verisimilitude is “the relation of a specific text to another generalized text that is called common opinion.” According to Todorov, “It is the mask assumed by the laws of the text and that we should accept as a relation with reality.” Aristotle, Poética, Porto Alegre, Globo, 1966; Plato, A república, volume I, Sāo Paulo, 1965. For Julia Kristeva, “truth would be a discourse that approximates the real: the verisimilar, without being true, can be the discourse that approximates the discourse that approximates the real” (Communications, 11 [1968]).

  9. Mikhail Bakhtin, Esthétique et théorie du roman, Paris, Gallimard, 1978, pp. 466–67.

  10. Manuel Puig, Cae la noche tropical, Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1989.

  11. Jorgelina Corbatta, “Encuentros con Manuel Puig,” Revista Iberoamericana, 49: 123–24, (April–September 1983), pp. 591–620.

  12. The utilization of heterogeneous materials can be called bricolage, a term used by Claude Lévi-Strauss in La pensée sauvage (Paris, Plon, 1962, p. 32) to characterize mythic thought: “Le propre de la pensée mythique, comme du bricolage sur le plan pratique est d'élaborer des ensembles structurés … en utilisant des résidus et des débris d'événement.”

  13. See Bella Jozef, “O espaço reconquistado,” Vozes (Petrópolis, Brazil), 1974, pp. 119–20.

  14. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paris, Seuil, 1957.

Leonard A. Cheever (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Manuel Puig's Pubis Angelical: The Characters' Dreams or the Reader's Fantasy?” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 38, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 105-114.

[In the following essay, Cheever analyzes how the reader is to interpret the place of dreams in Puig's Pubis Angelical, concluding that “we may either force Puig's text to tell us that beautiful things do not exist, or we may allow it to show us that they do.”]

“Desde La traición de Rita Hayworth hasta Pubis angelical el factor de la contradicción—implicita of explícita—ha sido uno do los recursos más importantes para configurar la estructura profunda del texto. … Los alcances de tales contradicciones deben ser determinados por el lector, sin estar nunca explícitos en el discurso—como es requisito ineludible en Puig. … El objetivo último de dichas contradicciones no es, como pudiera suponerse, la ambigüedad del mundo representado, puesto que el estrato semántico del texto es paradigmático y no conjetural, pese a la polivalencia y a la inagotable variedad de registros que detectemos al nivel de la escritura.”

—Enrique Giordano, “De Maldición eterna a Sangre de amor correspondido: Las Figuraciones del Inconsciente,” 91.

Most major characters in Manuel Puig's novels dream frequently, and they are not always said to be “asleep” when they do so. Although Puig's characters often lead drab, pedestrian, boring or severely restricted lives, their sleeping and waking “dreams” generally are antithetical in nature to their conscious experiences. For example, the characters Molina and Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman temporarily “escape” literal imprisonment as Molina “tells” a number of Hollywood films to Valentin, and the novel ends when Valentin, after a savage beating by the authorities, “escapes” from both his pain and his imprisonment in the company of one of the lovely dream figures that Molina has conjured up for him. But Valentin's “escape,” which is directly parallel to similar escapes in each of Puig's six other novels, raises, for the thoughtful reader, a serious problem of textual interpretation: for the ubiquity of such “dream escapes” throughout Puig's fiction seems to support equally two contradictory and mutually exclusive propositions concerning the function and importance of dreams in people's lives. On the one hand, the dreams of Puig's characters may be seen as evasions or denials of the human condition and of literal truth, and thus as pathetic and ultimately pointless attempts to negate the reality of an indifferent, alien or hostile universe. But on the other hand, such dreams may be seen with equal validity as affirmations of the existence of an alternative universe, a subjective and psychological cosmos, which somehow compensates for—or perhaps even obliterates—the cold and inhospitable world of objective fact.

Now I do not believe that this essential contradiction (or ambiguity) which lies at the heart of Puig's fiction can be resolved, accounted for, or explained away as long as we focus upon the dreams of Puig's imaginary characters. Or rather, as I have indicated above, I believe that such a focus inevitably will lead us to either one or the other of two contradictory interpretations, with something like mere chance or personal bias determining which interpretation we choose. Or at best, we will need to posit, as Lucille Kerr does in her recent book Suspended Fiction: Reading the Novels of Manuel Puig, a kind of unreliable narrator who does not, cannot, or will not take a clear and unambiguous stand on important questions raised in or by the texts [see especially Professor Kerr's concluding chapter “In the Author's Place: Unfinished Business,” (236–253)]. Professor Kerr argues that such narrators “work against any idea of closure. … [they] keep things open and suspended … in Puig's novels” (252–53). Now I basically agree with Professor Kerr's approach and conclusions, as long as we focus upon the imaginary lives and dreams of Puig's fictional characters, but in the remarks that follow I would like to try an approach somewhat different from hers, and thus to see if I can reach different conclusions. For if we define closure as the providing of satisfactory answers to important questions raised within and by the text, questions such as that of the possible relationship between dreams and reality, then it seems to me that all of Puig's novels do reach closure, but I also feel that we cannot always see or appreciate that fact if we focus exclusively upon what the novels tell us about imaginary persons, rather than upon what they show us about ourselves. Therefore, my focus here will be upon how one of Puig's novels, Pubis Angelical, may be seen to achieve closure when it is viewed as a fantasy or waking dream on the part of the reader, rather than as a delineation of the imaginary dreams of imaginary people.

Pubis Angelical is the most outrageously anti-realistic of Puig's novels, and thus it is highly unlikely that even the most determined (or naive) of readers could “suspend his disbelief” as to the reality of its characters and events. As Norman Lavers has observed, “The reader who finishes Kiss of the Spider Woman and immediately begins reading … Pubis Angelical … may think he is listening to one of Molina's narratives” (45). In other words, in Pubis Angelical it is the reader who is called upon to play something like the role that the character Valentin plays within the text of the earlier work.

But of course in Spider Woman even the tough-minded, cynical, and realistic Valentin soon succumbs to the charm of Molina's fantasies, but he never forgets that they are fantasies until the novel's final scene when, in effect, he uses fantasy himself to escape from a horrible reality, thus confirming Molina's assertions concerning the value of fantasy as an escape mechanism. And the possibility of such an escape is also confirmed for the reader of the novel: Spider Woman, through its accounts of Molina's and Valentin's wasted lives, its atmosphere of totalitarian oppression, and its soulless and often contradictory “clinical” footnotes, presents familiar images of modern man as the victim of powerful, destructive forces. Yet the experience of reading the novel includes the experience of seeing a way out: although the reader may know all along that such a way out provides no real escape for the novel's imaginary characters, whose situation is, of course, equally imaginary, nevertheless he vicariously experiences the possibility of such an escape as he reads the text. Similarly, the world of Pubis Angelical, which in many ways is more grim and depressing than that of Spider Woman, also presents “escape mechanisms” which the reader experiences as he reads the novel, but in this case it is the reader who needs to “escape” rather than the imaginary characters [it is important to note here that Puig has said on several occasions that he wrote Pubis Angelical specifically as a “feminist” novel (Gautier, 226)]. Both novels thus may be seen as microcosms of the real world, with Pubis Angelical by far the more fantastic of the two, but both ask essentially the same questions about the macrocosm that they mirror: is there a way out? And the imaginative experience of reading both novels is that of receiving a positive answer to that question. But since Pubis Angelical deals with an escape from nothing less than human sexuality itself, rather than from an imaginary condition of imprisonment and a particular sexual role or orientation, as in Spider Woman, then it is not surprising that the former work is more egregiously and ostentatiously fantastic than is the latter. And although neither of the main characters in Spider Woman really escapes, the conclusion of Pubis Angelical is so constructed as to allow the reader a “way out” of the stifling fantasy world he necessarily experiences as he reads the text.

Pubis Angelical is composed of three distinct but thematically related narratives which are held together by the fact that the female protagonists in each are spiritual “sisters” who share common memories and experiences and who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to communicate with each other. Each has had disastrous relationships with men, and each feels imprisoned by her own sexuality. Part I, written in the style of a grade “B” Hollywood film of the 30s or 40s, begins in Europe in the 1930s; it centers around “the most beautiful woman in the world” (3), who is held as a virtual slave by her wealthy husband. When she escapes from him, she moves to Hollywood and becomes a famous actress, but she again becomes enslaved, this time to an unscrupulous Hollywood producer. She finally is murdered by an envious rival. From the story of this actress, we move to Part II, the story of Ana, a young Argentine expatriate, who suffers from cancer and is confined to a Mexican hospital during the mid-1970s. Like the actress of Part I, Ana has had a bad marriage and currently is being wooed, both sexually and politically, by a man named Pozzi, a fellow expatriate who wants to use her to satisfy his personal desires and goals. In addition to expanding the novel's focus upon sexuality, conversations between Ana and Pozzi establish Lacan's psychoanalytical theories and contemporary Argentine politics as important corollary themes. Part II, which is the most realistic of the three narratives, concludes when, after Ana rejects Pozzi and he returns to Argentina and is killed, Ana undergoes an apparently successful operation and appears to be on her way to emotional and physical health. But the ostensibly optimistic conclusion of Part II, already rendered questionable by the pessimistic ending of Part I, is undermined even further by the grimly pessimistic Part III, a fantastic tale as bleak and depressing as any to be found in modern antiutopian fiction (Yudice, 50).

The central character of Part III, W218, lives in a totalitarian future world in which sexual enslavement has become institutionalized: she works as a sort of public concubine who mechanically relieves, on government orders, the sexual tensions of anonymous men. Moreover, she carries with her a personal computer which supposedly helps her to solve any personal problems she might have, but which actually works to ensure her conformity and obedience. In short, W218's world is simply a nightmarish extension of the worlds of the actress of Part I and Ana of Part II and, ironically, W218 is plagued by dreams of those earlier characters and by tantalizing visions of what their worlds were like. At one point we are told that W218's thoughts run as follows:

Why was she visited in her dreams by that forsaken woman [the actress]? Without realizing it she had begun to think of her as her best friend, but at the same time it was painful to be unable to help her. … A woman from another age and other lands, now vanished. In fact, what most distressed W218 during the nightmares was not knowing where this woman had lived, because the landscape where she appeared had been wiped out forever with the great polar inundation of years gone by. … Elderly survivors used to report that previously the planet had been much more beautiful, and in whispers severely punished by the State they described sensuous flora and crimson dusks. A change in the planet's rotational axis had been enough for vivid colors to disappear from nature and for the lands lately emerged to know only winter. W218 saw in her dreams scenery that corresponded with those accounts by the elderly. Surely those same stories had given rise to her overflowing imagination … (135)

Ironically, it is W218's “overflowing imagination” which finally destroys her; like the actress and Ana, she also dreams of a “perfect man”, and when she thinks she has found him, he turns out to be a treacherous betrayer. She then tries to kill him, and consequently is disgraced and exiled to a disease-ridden penal colony called “Ices Everlasting” (218). Again ironically, however, it is in the penal colony that she finally achieves, at second hand, a vision of the escape from sexuality which was denied to the actress and to Ana. A fellow prisoner describes to her the mystical appearance on earth of a sexless, angelic creature who has the magical power to restore peace and bring harmony among mankind (231). And although hearing this story changes nothing in W218's material condition, it does bring her emotional contentment (233). And finally, a few pages after W218's story concludes peacefully, the story of Ana also concludes with Ana's hopes (dreams?) of peace and reconciliation with her mother and daughter (235–36). In short, Pubis Angelical concludes with hopes and dreams of contentment, peace, and reconciliation which hardly are supported by the details of the three stories which make up the bulk of the text. What, then, is the reader to make of all of this?

My answer to this question is to assert that the purpose of Puig's novel (or at least one of its potential functions) may be to provide for the reader a satisfying fantasy rather than to cause him to speculate seriously about the relationship between dreams and reality. From the opening scene, which reads like a director's notes for filming a romantic movie, to the concluding images of W218 and Ana finally encountering visions of peace and harmony, the experience of reading Pubis Angelical is (or at least can be) more like that of viewing a film than that of reading an ordinary or conventional novel. And although, as Puig himself has insisted, “a book can wait, its readers can stop to think; this does not apply to images in a film” (“Cinema and the Novel,” 289), nevertheless, Puig has skillfully arranged the text of this novel in such a way as to put readers in a position analogous to that of Valentin as Molina “tells” him the movies in Spider Woman. Obviously, any given reader can “slow down the text” (i.e., “stop to think”), but I am convinced that doing so in effect creates a text significantly different from the one we experience if we read the novel straight through as if we were viewing (or being “told”) a film. For example, Pamela Bacarisse, in her recent book The Necessary Dream, devotes 42 pages to an analysis of the structure, recurrent motifs, symbolism, psychological patterns, and allusions in Pubis Angelical; her text is roughly one-fifth as long as Puig's novel, and she admittedly brings to light important aspects of the work which simply are not available (or visible?) to the reader who reads the text more or less straight through as if he were viewing a film. In Professor Bacarisse's approach, the characters, actions, settings, and even the characters' dreams are to be analyzed and evaluated in the same way they would be if they were (or were purported to be) real-life phenomena. Therefore, her approach may very well provide a gain in our intellectual understanding of the potential (or implied) relationship between Puig's fictional world and the real world, but it also entails a necessary loss of our aesthetic appreciation of the novel as an outrageous but fascinating fantasy which takes us for a while completely out of the real world, much as Molina's narrated films provided for Valentin the only “liberation” he ever was going to receive. Marta Morello-Frosch underscores the importance of the parallels between reading Puig's text and viewing a film when she asserts that, “Puig … manipula estas referencias populares asumiendo una inteligibilidad previa y generalizada entre sus lectores. En su obra presume que todos vamos al cine a ver las mismas películas” (39).

We may conclude, then, that Pubis Angelical really does reach what Professor Kerr calls “closure” if we focus upon what the reader experiences as he reads the text straight through rather than upon what logical analysis may reveal about possible relationships between the imaginary characters, their dreams, and the real world. Obviously, the experiencing of an artfully contrived fantasy can be a real experience for a given reader, and thus it can provide imaginative visions of the resolutions of otherwise intractable or unsolvable problems. And it is important to emphasize the fact that the experiencing of such visions is part of the real life of the reader; as Wayne C. Booth has observed, “We all live a great proportion of our lives in a surrender to stories about our lives, and about other possible lives; we live more or less in stories, depending upon how strongly we resist surrendering to what is ‘only’ imagined” (14–15). Professor Booth further observes that the reader must decide for himself how he will read, how much he wants to “surrender,” and thus what kind of experience he will have:

If the border is fuzzy between life and narrative … the distinction between narratives that are true and those that are fictions is even fuzzier … [however] in practice, we simply read differently when we believe that a story claims to be true than we do when we take it as “made-up.” Whether or not we are critically innocent, we never read a story without making a decision, mistaken or justified, about the implied author's answer to a simple question: Is this “once-upon-a-time” or is it a claim about events in real time? (16)

As I have suggested throughout this paper, I believe that the reader who chooses to regard Puig's novel as “made-up”, and thus to experience the text in much the same way that movies are experienced, will receive a more satisfying and rewarding experience than will one who takes the outlandish and far-fetched tale seriously. Because any attempt to convince us that we might literally, in real time, find a way out of human sexuality is probably doomed in advance to failure, at least as long as readers are either men or women who themselves are caught up in sexuality. But in the world of “once-upon-a-time,” a world accessible only through the imagination, anything is possible—including the beautiful fantasy of seeing or becoming a mysterious creature with a pubis angelical who has the power to restore peace and bring harmony to mankind.

Finally, then, the resolution of the problem of textual interpretation which I identified at the beginning of this paper depends upon how we decide to read Puig's novel. If we stop and analyze systematically the possible relationships between Puig's fictional world and the real world (as Professor Bacarisse and others do), then we get an essentially negative experience, and we are obliged to conclude that the dreams of Puig's characters are merely what I identified at the beginning as evasions or denials of the human condition and of literal truth. In short, such dreams appear to be pathetic and ultimately pointless attempts to negate the reality of an indifferent, alien, and hostile universe (i.e., we see that there is no way out). If, however, we read the story straight through, as if we were viewing a film, then we experience a way out as we read the text; moreover, such a reading yields a positive rather than a negative experience in that it demonstrates the power of the human imagination somehow to compensate for, or even partially to obliterate, the otherwise implacable world of objective fact. And to anyone who might object to such an “escapist” reading of Puig's text, perhaps we should appeal to the implications of an important passage in that text itself; at one point Pozzi criticizes Ana as a hopeless romantic and a dreamer, and she responds as follows: “If one is no longer able to imagine something beautiful, what else is there? If in this world you can't imagine beautiful things you're lost, because they don't exist” (127). If we take the implications of Ana's response seriously, then our choice as readers is clear: we can use our intelligence to debunk the notion that fantastic dreams can come true, or we may let our imaginations create a beautiful and liberating fantasy which consequently becomes just as much a part of our real personal experience as is our sense of imprisonment within our own sexuality. Thus we may either force Puig's text to tell us that beautiful things do not exist, or we may allow it to show us that they do.

Works Cited

Bacarisse, Pamela. The Necessary Dream: A Study of the Novels of Manuel Puig. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1988.

Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Gautier, Marie-Lise Gazarian. “Manuel Puig.” Interviews with Latin American Writers. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989: 219–233.

Giordano, Enrique. “De maldición eterna a Sangre de amor correspondido: Las figuraciones del inconsciente.” Manuel Puig: Montaje y alteridad del sujeto. Roberto Echavarren y Enrique Giordano. Santiago: Monografias del Maiten, 1986: 91–101.

Kerr, Lucille. Suspended Fiction: Reading the Novels of Manuel Puig. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Lavers, Norman. Pop Culture into Art: The Novels of Manuel Puig. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988.

Morello-Frosch, Marta. “Usos y abusos de la cultura popular: Pubis angelical de Manuel Puig.” Literature and Popular Culture in the Hispanic World. ed. Rose S. Minc. Montclair State College: Ediciones Hispamérica, 1981: 31–42.

Puig, Manuel. “Cinema and the Novel. On Modern Latin American Fiction. ed. John King. New York: Hill and Wang, 1987: 283–290.

———. Kiss of the Spider Woman. trans. Thomas Colchie, New York: Vintage, 1980.

———. Pubis Angelical. trans. Elena Brunet. New York: Aventura, 1986.

Yudice, George. “El beso de la mujer araña y Pubis angelical: Entre el placer y el saber.” Literature and Popular Culture in the Hispanic World: 43–57.

John Butt (review date 3 July 1992)

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SOURCE: “No End to the Affair,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4657, July 3, 1992, p. 26.

[In the following review, Butt lauds Puig's Tropical Night Falling, asserting, “It has a gentle wit that recalls his finest pages, but it also displays a simplicity and lightness of touch which suggest that it could have inaugurated a rich third phase in his writing.”]

Unkind reviews almost scuppered Puig's career as a novelist. He had early successes with Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Heartbreak Tango, The Buenos Aires Affair and Kiss of the Spider Woman, all written before 1977. The signs were that he would carry the triumphs of the Latin-American “boom” to a second generation.

His second phase, including Pubis Angelical, Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages and Blood of Requited Love, ran from 1976 to 1982 and was marked by a sharp rise in formal complexity. These novels received mixed notices, the worst of them frankly discouraging and insensitive to his need to break new ground if his earlier techniques were not to become formulas. This cool reception silenced him for six years.

Fortunately his confidence revived in time for him to write this splendid last novel two years before his untimely death in mid-1990. It is predictably autumnal and retrospective in mood. Two eighty-year-old Argentine sisters, Nidia and Luci, now living as refugees in Brazil and separated by language and years from the world around them, try, through their anxious, gossipy conversations and letters, to come to terms with a number of issues central to Puig's writing: the breakdown of Argentine society, exile and loneliness, the perversity of family relationships, the relevance of past joys and griefs to the present. But the main theme of their conversations is the affair of their youngest neighbour with a cold-hearted womanizer. This disaster forces them to examine their own conclusions about the role of romance in their lives. Their reactions to the story disclose the complementary personalities of the two women, one ineffectually barricading herself behind a wall of cautious disillusion, the other still doggedly convinced that romance is the best antidote to the miseries of a woman's life.

The novel's findings about the redeemability of the average male are not encouraging. In his other books, Puig's younger women are regularly led by a mixture of bad emotional training and rosewater idealism into the traps set by predatory machos. But age and the extinction of desire apparently promise women little relief: Puig's two old ladies are still hooked on the fickleness of male affections, represented in this case by selfish and manipulative sons and nephews, and by a glamorous fraud who ensures that even octogenarians will remember men's capacity for inflicting hurt. In this respect, the resigned despair about the emotional addictions of so many Latin-American women is much the same as in Puig's earlier novels.

The novel's form also represents a return to a technique Puig had successfully tried before: the book consists only of the sisters' conversations, thrown into perspective by certain startling letters; in theory, the author's voice is never heard. The vividness of their witty exchanges shows that Puig lost none of his gift for creating the illusion of spontaneous talk faithfully transcribed, but the poetic flights and sharpness of detail show that the two characters' memories are in fact quite obviously prompted by an omniscient author standing just behind the scenes.

But Tropical Night Falling is no mere replay of Puig's earlier books; it is surely as good as his best. It has a gentle wit that recalls his finest pages, but it also displays a simplicity and lightness of touch which suggest that it could have inaugurated a rich third phase in his writing. The subdued, beautifully controlled valedictory mood and the sympathetic interest in the plight of the aged are new and original features, and the ending is a masterpiece of graceful bathos that is characteristic of Puig at his funniest. Tropical Night Falling shows that this unusual and attractive voice among modern novelists was strong to the last.

Kenneth E. Hall (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Von Sternberg, Lubitsch, and Lang in the Work of Manuel Puig,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1994, pp. 181-86.

[In the following essay, Hall traces the influence of filmmakers Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and Fritz Lang on Puig's work.]

As is well known, the work of Manuel Puig has been greatly influenced by the cinema. Critical literature has often noted the debt of Puig to the work of certain actresses as well as to Alfred Hitchcock and, less frequently, to Jacques Tourneur, a director for Val Lewton; but less work has been done on the nature of his indebtedness to Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and Fritz Lang.

Puig has said that “Even when writing I think of Lubitsch lightness, or von Sternberg fog curtain laces—lace curtains [sic]” (Katz, Symposium 11). The influence of von Sternberg is indeed striking. The decor of much of the narrative depicting the life of El Ama (The Mistress) in Pubis Angelical, with its mystery and baroque or rococo intricacy in visuals, is quite like the ambience of a film such as The Scarlet Empress (1934).

The von Sternberg atmosphere also contributes substantially to certain parts of The Buenos Aires Affair. One would naturally expect the resemblance of the section with a heading from Dishonored (1931) (173–89) to be extensive in visual terms to the film. Puig does appear to set up an equivalence to the visual texture of the movie by his allusions to the “Forest Murmurs” sequence, from Siegfried (183–89). The visuals are also notably reminiscent of the two-part Lang film Die Nibelungen (1924).

Dishonored contains repeated visual references to forest or nature motifs, a form of the locus amoenus trope (or, in the terms of Northrop Frye, “the green world”). The room of X-27, the spy played by Dietrich, has flowers embroidered on the drapes; the Colonel's study has a painting of a medieval knight on horseback; again, in a scene in which Warner Oland gets grapes for himself and X-27, an equestrian painting is shown; X-27 wears flowers in the bar; and the room where the Russian spy is interrogated contains mounted stag antlers.

The importance of von Sternberg to Puig does not just encompass the visual style of the director. At least as important to Puig is his treatment of Dietrich as a star figure, a process during which, as Herman G. Weinberg notes, writing of the Pygmalion-Galatea relationship between von Sternberg and Dietrich, the director “developed” her from an unknown into one of the great myths of Hollywood (see Josef 51, 79–89). Similarly, some of Puig's characters try to create or to imagine an ideal woman.

A very striking instance of such activity occurs in Pubis Angelical with the coercive treatment meted out to El Ama,1 a Hedy Lamarr-like actress whose life is strictly governed by her producer so that she may become a famous Hollywood star. The situation of El Ama reads like the negative commentaries sometimes leveled at von Sternberg for allegedly reducing his star to little more than a puppet.

Gladys, in The Buenos Aires Affair, fits the pattern of El Ama, at least during the earlier part of her life with her parents. In this regard, the choice of Mildred Pierce (1945) as a film epigraph to one of the chapters in The Buenos Aires Affair is illuminative.2 Puig expands on the degree of control exercised by Veda's parents in the film on their daughter. In the film, Mildred wants Veda to be graceful, to play piano, and to attend finishing school, a plan which Veda seems perfectly willing to follow; Veda's father believes that she should play and be athletic. In The Buenos Aires Affair, both parents try to mold Gladys.

Gladys, attempting to escape from the perverse domination of her mother Clara Evelia (Maldonado 136), eventually falls into a worse situation with Leo Druscovich; gradually, however, she finds her way to some sort of emotional freedom. Similarly, one of the characters in Kiss of the Spider Woman—in one of the films narrated in that novel—flees from domination. Unlike Gladys, she loses her happiness through her rebellion.

The unfortunate character is a beautiful chorine who flees from a great “magnate” with her lover. She is not only following her lover but is also trying to escape the kind of smothering cultivation by the magnate that is apparently feared by Amy Jolly (Dietrich) in Morocco (1930) at the hands of the wealthy and elegant La Bessiére (Adolphe Menjou), or by Gladys at the hands of Clara Evelia. The film narrated in the novel (Kiss 223–59) echoes Gilda (1946), in which the title character, living a “gilded cage” existence with a rich gambler, finally finds happiness with her former lover. In the Puig novel, the lover with whom the girl flees dies as a partial result of the ruinous vengeance of the magnate. Once again, the Pygmalion-Galatea, or Svengali-Trilby motif, is shown in a sinister light by Puig, who certainly borrows from and admires von Sternberg but who seems to question the mechanism of domination summed up by the director in terms such as:

A child or dog or a horse is made to act the same way as a great actor—as a matter of fact, with greater ease, as they do not resist so much. …

There is a fairly large assortment of players in films with a variety of looks and talent, but they are as powerless as is the mechanical dummy before he is in his master's lap and the levers activate the head and jaw. (von Sternberg 96–97)

The influence of von Sternberg on the work of Puig is both significant and readily apparent, but that of Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang may not be so quickly noticed. Puig has noted their influence in an interview with Nora Catelli: “I arrived in Italy in 1956 with a grant and a kind of idolatry towards the great figures like Lubitsch, Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang …” (“Narrativa” 22; translation mine). He has also discussed Lubitsch with Jorgelina Corbatta:

I believe that, if someone were to take the trouble, that person would find influences of Lubitsch in certain structures of mine, of von Sternberg in that desire for certain atmospheres. Hitchcock quite a bit. … (“Encuentros” 596; translation mine)

Lubitsch was especially known for “his sophisticated comedy style” (Katz, Film 739) in the classic Hollywood years. “The Lubitsch touch” is defined by Weinberg as a technique of “crystallization”:

In its broadest sense, this meant going from the general to the particular, suddenly condensing into one swift, deft moment the crystallization of a scene or even the entire theme. The close-up, of course, played an important part in this … by magnifying a detail whose virtue was its laconic wit. (The Lubitsch Touch 25)

A good example of this “compression,” from To Be or Not to Be (1942), is the skillful and economical use made by Lubitsch of the exits of a Polish aviator from the theater where the actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) is playing Hamlet. The aviator (Robert Stack) has been told by Tura's wife, Maria (Carole Lombard), to leave on the cue of “To be or not to be” to visit her backstage. His exit infuriates Tura, particularly when it is repeated in a subsequent performance. The final blow to Tura comes when, at the end of the movie, the aviator remains seated while another man leaves on the same cue. The gag condenses into one “visual comment” on Tura's vanity; he is at least as angry about the insult to his performance as about the damage to his masculine pride.

A technique analogous to this reduction or “crystallization” is to be found in the dialogue between Molina and Valentín, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, about the Lewton film Cat People (1942). The short, sharp comments by Valentín not only interrupt the narration by Molina but also cause one aspect of its contents to stand out in relief, deflating its seriousness by injecting a discordant, analytic note into the proceedings.3 For instance, when Molina tells his cellmate about the failed attempts at lovemaking by the man whom Irena (the cat woman) is seeing, Valentín comments dryly that “Back then, there was no sex in movies” (9). The technique is used repeatedly and lends a witty quality to the interchange between the two prisoners, as when Molina describes Irena:

Because it's a woman's face but it's also the face of a cat. The eyes slant up, and so peculiar, I don't know how to tell you, she has no whites to her eyes, her eyes are completely green in color, with black pupils at the center, and nothing else. And her skin very pale, as if she had a lot of powder on.

—But you told me she was pretty.

—Yes, she's beautiful. And from the strange outfit it's obvious she's European, her hair fixed in a sausage roll.

—What's a sausage roll? (10)

The situation between the cellmates is strikingly similar to the relationship between the two protagonists in the Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka (1939). Melvyn Douglas plays Leon, an amorous, rather cynical Frenchman who becomes interested in a woman who, unknown to him, is a Soviet commissar on opposing sides to him and his mistress—an exiled Russian Grand Duchess—in a lawsuit over her family jewels. The woman, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo), begins the film as a serious-minded, loyally Stalinist machine who can see no nuances in life besides ideological conflicts and party loyalty. Leon tries to interest her romantically but cannot even make her laugh until he has a humorous accident. After that, her facade dissolves and the two become lovers.

Ninotchka, going to the Eiffel Tower with Leon, is only interested in its architectural qualities. She is there as an observer of a “capitalist” city and reacts accordingly until her mask begins to break. Valentín also begins his relationship with Molina, as noted above, in an analytical, distant manner. Although Valentín, unlike Ninotchka, is not humorless at first, he does express disapproval of the class structures in, for example, Cat People (16–17).

The progress of both pairs of characters is punctuated by humor. Joan Worley notes that “Valentín, having repaid his debt to Molina's kindness, allows himself to laugh for the first time, perhaps because he has regained control” (101). In a similar fashion, a laugh by Ninotchka is a significant watershed in the affair between her and Leon; although, unlike the relationship between Molina and Valentín, the laughter by Garbo precedes any real closeness between her and the Frenchman. The manner in which Valentín and Ninotchka laugh even seems rather similar. Both explode almost uncontrollably. This analogy may well represent an instance of impact by the director on a “structure” in the work of Puig.4

While the work of Lubitsch was generally light, that of Fritz Lang had a more serious quality. As Ephraim Katz has said:

Fritz Lang brought to the screen a vision of a world largely populated by criminals, psychopaths, prostitutes, and maladjusted personalities, a deterministic world ruled by the inevitability of fate. It wasn't, however, his fascination with the psychopathology of violence, but the fascinating visual means he chose to express it that made him one of the creative giants in the history of both the German and American cinema. (687)

Because of the nature of his themes and his position in film history, that Lang would interest Puig is not surprising. Some possible influences of the director on his work are not difficult to discern.

The protagonist of M (1931), a child-murderer portrayed by Peter Lorre, is not unlike Leo Druscovich in The Buenos Aires Affair. Both are compulsively violent, acting in fits which they are unable to understand. The crimes of both are connected to sex, those of M to pedophilia, and that of Leo to homosexuality. Leo is shown as much more calculating than M, who says to his underworld “trial court” that he has no memory of his acts. He, unlike Leo, is a thoroughly pathetic figure. Still, the remarks of Lang about M could almost be applied to Leo:

I have tried to approach the murderer imaginatively to show him as a human being possessed of some demon that has driven him beyond the ordinary borderlines of human behaviour, and not the least part of whose tragedy is that by murder he never resolves his conflicts. (quoted in Eisner 111)

The Big Heat (1953), another Lang film, may also have influenced Puig in more than one respect. Its treatment of the police as corrupt and vaguely ridiculous because of their bureaucratic procedures is less exaggerated than the presentation of the authorities in Kiss of the Spider Woman as impersonal agents of terror. The atmosphere of the police station in The Big Heat, however, is rather drab and official and accords well with the general presentation of the authorities in the work of Puig, especially in The Buenos Aires Affair and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Along a different line, the cruel blinding and sexual assault on Gladys in The Buenos Aires Affair, with her resultant disfigurement, is matched by the disfiguring of Debbie (Gloria Grahame) by Vincent Stone (Lee Marvin) when he throws hot coffee in her face. The importance of the crippled woman who helps the detective identify one of his wife's killers also suggests a parallel with Puig's emphasis on unfortunate characters (Gladys, Molina, W218) who nevertheless, in Dostoevskian fashion, show perseverance or strength of character.5

Also notable is the rather obsessive attention given to objects by the narrator. As Leo Braudy has said:

Any vision of the transformed meaning of things is a vision of the true order of the universe, the fatalistic linkages of meaning that make the world whole. The closed-film director knows that meaning and his objects are subordinated to it. Like the guns in Lang's gangster films of the 1950s [such as The Big Heat] that are so often seen in closeup, such objects have taken on a sacramental meaning. … Every laddered venetian blind in the Lang-influenced American films of the 1940s and 1950s carries with it the same aura of fatality, of the omnipresent evil in the world that flows effortlessly into objects and needs only a suitable situation to emerge. (67–68)6

The description of the objects in the room where Gladys is held prisoner gives them a special, sinister importance (12–16). The fact that many are hidden lends them a threateningly potential quality. The objects described also lend themselves easily to violence—an idea further suggested by the unpleasant “stains” of sweat on a shirt in the room (14). This Robbe-Grillet-like inventory is quite in the Lang spirit. Like the prose of Puig or Robbe-Grillet, “Lang's camera seldom shows any prejudice …” (Joseph Himson, quoted in Eisner 111).

Yet another Lang film that may well have contributed to the work of Puig is Metropolis (1927), which showed a robotic, oppressive society. The latter section of Pubis Angelical bears quite a resemblance to this Lang film. This section deals with W218, an agent of the state in the future society of Urbis. She receives messages from a computer and is discouraged from indulging in real feeling for the men with whom she works as a state-paid prostitute. The general feeling gained from reading the sequence is very similar to the coldness produced by viewing the presentation by Lang of the society of Metropolis. The Lang film also features a beautiful heroine (Brigitte Helm) who is temporarily replaced by a robot replica.7

The use of motifs from the films of the directors whom I have discussed here fits well into the pattern of identification with female models and the fear of domination by men, which has been studied in the work of Puig by numerous critics (such as Campos and Corbatta) and noted by Puig himself.8 The seldom mentioned humor and lightness which leaven Puig's novels are highlighted by his debt to Lubitsch. Further close study of the novels with a view toward illuminating the parallels between them and the work of Lubitsch, von Sternberg, and especially of Fritz Lang should certainly prove rewarding.


  1. See, for example, Bernal, for a discussion of such “tyranny.”

  2. I have throughout used the English versions of the novels for the convenience of the reader. My remarks, however, are based on the Spanish versions. The film epigraphs were in some instances changed for the English version of The Buenos Aires Affair. In the Spanish original, Mildred Pierce was the epigraph for Chapter 3. In the English version, the film was changed to Humoresque (1946).

  3. For an interesting analysis of the discursive relationship between the prisoners, see Kerr 196–202.

  4. Kenneth Tynan speaks of “the fit of hoarse hysterics” in Ninotchka and of the importance of this laughter in the career of Garbo (572).

  5. Professor Joseph Tyler pointed out to me the analogy between the crippled woman and the work of Puig during my presentation of this article, in an earlier version, as a paper at a conference at Florida State University in January 1988. For a discussion of illness in the work of Puig, see Paul, “Cancer,” and also her dissertation, cited in the Works Cited below.

  6. Muñoz (25–26) notes the similarity of Chapter 5, set in the police station, to the atmosphere “of the North American film noir of the '40s” (translation mine) and cites the reference in the text to “closed blinds” (Puig, Buenos 66). He does not tie this specifically to Lang, but one might remember the police stations in M or in Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), two Lang films predating Hollywood film noir.

  7. Marcella Paul has discussed the “clockwork” imagery in the novel. See “Cancer” 34–35.

  8. See, for example, his interview with Ronald Clark (60–61). For further references on Puig, see my dissertation, cited below. Some sources which influenced my work on this article, omitted here for space considerations, can be found in the bibliography to the dissertation. This article was prepared with Nota Bene software, version 3.1. I wish to thank Michael Anderegg for his encouragement and advice during the preparation of the article.

Works Cited

Bernal, A. Alejandro. “Super-hombre versus super-mujer: tiranía y sexo en Pubis angelical, de Manuel Puig.” Revista iberoamericana 52 (1986): 991–97.

Boling, Becky. “El beso de la mujer araña: Or Whose Story Is This?” Gestos 3.5 (1988): 85–93.

Braudy, Leo. The World in a Frame: What We See in Films, 1976. Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1977.

Campos, René Alberto. El juego de espejos: la textura cinemática en La traición de Rita Hayworth de Manuel Puig. Diss. State U of New York at Stony Brook, 1982. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1982. 8215575.

Cheever, Leonard A. “Lacan, Argentine Politics, and Science Fiction in Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical.” South Central Review 5.1 (1988): 61–73.

———. “Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman: What the Movie Version Couldn't Show.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 13.2 (1987). 13–27.

Corbatta, Jorgelina Fidia. Mito personal y mitos colectivos en las novelas de Manuel Puig. Diss. U of Pittsburgh, 1983. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1983, 8411626.

Eisner, Lotte H. Fritz Lang. Ed. David Robinson. Trans. Gertrud Mander. 1976. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

García Ramos, Juan-Manuel. “El beso de la mujer araña, las fuentes mismas de la narración.” Revista de filologia de la Universidad de La Laguna (1981): 69–74.

———. “Pubis angelical, de Manuel Puig, o el discurso espejeante.” Textolcontexto en la literatura iberoamericana. Madrid: Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, 1981. 103–07.

Gomez, Ruben L. Para una lectura de El beso de la mujer araña, de Manuel Puig, Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1985. Ann Arbor: UMI. 1985 8527280

Green, James Ray, Jr. “El beso de la mujer araña: Sexual Repression and Textual Repression.” LA CHISPA 81. Selected Proceedings February 26–28, 1981. The Second Louisiana Conference on Hispanic Languages and Literatures. New Orleans: Tulane U, 1981. 133–39.

Hall, Kenneth E. The Function of Cinema in the Works of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig. Diss. U of Arizona, 1986. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1986. 8613818.

Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Film Guide. 2nd ed. 1979. New York: Scribner's, 1980.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. New York: Perigee-Putnam's, 1979.

Katz, Lisa E., ed. A Symposium of Latin American Writers, May 10, 1978: The Artist in an Alien Culture. The City College Papers 17. The Jacob C. Saposnekow Memorial Lectures. New York: City College of the City U of New York, 1979.

Kerr, Lucille. Suspended Fictions: Reading Novels by Manuel Puig. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Lewis, Bart L. “Pubis angelical: la mujer codificada.” Revista iberoamericana 49 (1983): 531–40.

Maldonado, Armando. Manuel Puig: The Aesthetics of Cinematic and Psychological Fiction. Diss. U of Oklahoma, 1977. Ann Arbor. UMI, 1977. 77–121, 385.

Muñoz, Elias Miguel. “The Buenos Aires Affair: traición de la sexualidad falocéntrica.” Chasqui 15.2–3 (1986): 23–37.

———. El discurso utópico de la sexualidad en Manuel Puig. Madrid: Pliegos, [1987].

Paul, Marcella L. “Cancer as Metaphor: The Function of Illness in Manuel Puig's Pubis Angelical.Chasqui 17.1 (1988): 31–41.

———. “Transformational Metaphors in the Narrative of Manuel Puig.” Diss. U of Wisconsin, 1984.

Puig, Manuel. El beso de la mujer araña. Nueva narrativa hispánica. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1983.

———. The Buenos Aires Affair. Nueva narrativa hispánica. México: Joaquin Mortiz, 1973.

———. The Buenos Aires Affair: A Detective Novel. Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Vintage-Random, 1980.

———. “Encuentros con Manuel Puig.” With Jorgelina Corbatta. Revista iberoamericana 49 (1983): 591–620.

———. “Entrevista con Manuel Puig: una narrativa de lo melifluo.” With Nora Catelli. Quimera April 1982: 22–25.

———. “An Interview with Manuel Puig.” With Ronald Christ. Partisan Review 44 (1973): 49–54.

———. Kiss of the Spider Woman. Trans. Thomas Colchie. New York: Vintage-Random, 1980.

———. Pubis angelical. Nueva narrativa hispánica. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1979.

———. Pubis Angelical. Trans. Elena Brunet. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.

Tynan, Kenneth. “Garbo.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Comp. and ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1974. 569–74.

von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Weinberg, Herman G. Josef von Sternberg: A Critical Study. New York: Dutton, 1967.

———. The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. 3d rev. and enl. ed. New York: Dutton, 1967.

Worley, Joan Yvonne. Film into Fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Manuel Puig. Diss. Ohio U, 1983. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985. 84053456.

Leonard A. Cheever (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Ices Everlasting and Passions Perverted: The Physical and Moral Climates of Puig's Anti-utopia,” in Climate and Literature: Reflections of Environment, edited by Janet Pérez and Wendell Aycock, Texas Tech University Press, 1995, pp. 99-106.

[In the following essay, Cheever asserts that “the bleak and frigid physical landscape” of Part III of Puig's Pubis Angelical “is an appropriate metaphor for the moral atmosphere of the ‘polar age’ of human sexuality.”]

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Manuel Puig's Pubis Angelical is a rich and complex work which examines the history, current status, and possible future direction of male/female relationships, with particular focus upon masculine domination and exploitation of women. Like the speaker in Yeats' “Sailing to Byzantium” wishes to do, the voices in Puig's novel speak forcefully and movingly “of what is past, or passing, or to come” in highly poetic language—especially in the novel's third part. Indeed, Part III of Pubis Angelical legitimately may be regarded as an extended metaphor in which Puig delineates a cold and inhospitable physical climate that mirrors and underscores the frigidly sterile and inhumanly perverted emotional climate of relationships between the sexes. Such a metaphor is both appropriate and effective. Clearly, Part III is designed to cause the reader to imagine a fantastic anti-utopian future which, despite its obvious unreality, nevertheless follows logically from a known past and a familiar present. Thus if Lakoff and Johnson are right in their assertion that metaphor is essential to all human thought (3–9), and consequently to our understanding of both past and present, then it seems only reasonable to assume that metaphors also are crucial in attempts to imagine any possible future. Therefore, I will examine both the nature and the implications of the extended metaphor Puig employs in Part III of his novel.

The novel's first and second parts set the stage for the metaphor employed in Part III. Part I, which begins in Europe in the 1930s, is a study of sexual enslavement, an enslavement so perverse, ubiquitous, and unyielding that one would have to turn to the fantasies of the Marquis de Sade or a work such as The Story of O to find any meaningful parallels. Not surprisingly, then, the moral atmosphere of Part I is not much different from that of a battlefield or an arena for gladiatorial combat. The central character, “the most beautiful woman in the world” (3), is held a virtual slave by her wealthy husband; she escapes from him through the aid of another man, who then betrays and exploits her, and she arrives finally in Hollywood where she becomes a famous actress. Ironically, however, her fame and “freedom” are meaningless because they are purchased at the price of still another kind of enslavement, this time at the hands of an unscrupulous producer. And thus she remains profoundly unhappy; she is constantly aware of her status as sex object, victim of exploitation, and literal or virtual slave to a seemingly endless succession of rapacious males. At one point she reads a phony “interview” put out by the movie studio's publicity department, and she reacts as follows:

The text seemed almost a mockery, it told of her independent spirit, of the sheer enjoyment she had from working and providing for her own needs, and last of her happiness in California. … She then asked herself if … readers wouldn't have preferred to know the truth, that she had been manipulated all her life by forces of evil … that she had always been placed in deluxe glass showcases for the delight of the passers-by, that she had been dressed and undressed by cold hands which respected her as much as they would a mannequin. (92–93)

This woman's tragic story ends soon afterward in Mexico, where she is murdered by a rival actress.

Part I is thus a non-realistic narrative; it tells, primarily through visual images, a far-fetched and exaggerated story but, as several critics have observed, it is loosely based upon the experiences of a real person, actress Hedy Lamarr (Kerr 255n), and thus we may assume that the story's moral atmosphere, if not its specific details, is intended to be realistic and essentially accurate. For although Puig employs here the language, imagery, and stage effects of “Grade B” Hollywood films of the 1930s, it is clear that the theme of sexual exploitation is to be taken seriously, and consequently that Part I serves as a kind of archetypal account of the nature of male/female relationships during the first half of this century. Conversely, Part II is set in the mid-1970s; the mode of presentation is dramatic rather than narrative, dialogue and stream of consciousness (diary entries) replace the visual imagery of Part I, and the story told here is scrupulously realistic. However, the theme of Part II is precisely the same as that of Part I—and so is the moral atmosphere.

Ana, the central character of Part II, is a young Argentine expatriate who suffers from cancer and is confined to a Mexican hospital. Unlike the actress of Part I, she seems to be a relatively “liberated” woman. She has divorced a sexist and manipulative husband, is estranged from her mother and daughter (and thus from stereotypical “female” roles), and is determined not to fall into the same kinds of “traps” that previously have enveloped her. But she also is a profoundly unhappy woman. Like the cancer which threatens her life, her memories of her past relationships with men gnaw at her ceaselessly, and her only two friends in Mexico, a woman named Beatriz and an ex-lover named Pozzi, try to exploit her by enlisting her in their narrow, monomaniacal “causes”: radical feminism in the former case, and leftist politics in the latter. Moreover, as Norman Lavers has observed, Ana still fantasizes that somewhere there is a “perfect” man who alone can make life worth living (46). In short, Ana is not “liberated” at all and, ironically, the only two alternatives to the traditional female roles presented to her (radical feminism or political fanaticism) are shown merely to be invitations to other kinds of exploitation. Therefore, since Puig has said on several occasions that he intended his book to be a “feminist” novel (“Interview” 226), it is not surprising that his work was misunderstood and/or rejected in terms of its original purpose; Puig has expressed his disappointment with the book's reception in the following terms:

There was a strong feminist group in Mexico when I was living there. It was a difficult time. I showed them Pubis Angelical and they said, “We are not going to endorse your book because your character is not a role model.” They wanted a strong woman to show them what to do. I think that was very stupid on their part. What the book tries to show is how difficult it is for a sincere woman to deal with the values of the past. Meanness and stupidity grow like weeds. (227)

Puig might have added that perhaps the Mexican feminists also were annoyed by the fact that Ana does not regard women as in any way ethically or morally superior to men; in a world at war, the book suggests, neither side, oppressor or oppressed, can lay any claim to moral superiority. In other words, an atmosphere of hostility and mutual incomprehension and contempt between men and women, an atmosphere that produces inevitably a moral climate in which any savagery against the “enemy” is permissible, hardly can be expected to engender virtue and harmony. And Ana is fully aware of that fact; in her final diary entry, after acknowledging that “I'm never going to understand [men], to me they are creatures from another planet” (195), she reflects:

But the world is theirs. Even the Pope is a man, the politicians, the scientists. And the world is like that. The world is created in their image and likeness. Everything so dehumanized, so ugly, so rough. … A world of wars, of hysterical attacks between nations, of the exploitation of the weak. …

I can't imagine a world governed by women. Because what we have in our heads are dresses, and curtains, and table cloths, and boots by Dior, and wallets by Gucci … and watches by Cartier. … What else do we women have in our heads? (197–98)

It is obvious from this passage that Ana has no illusions about any possible change for the better in terms of male/female relationships; even if women were to become dominant, she implies, there would be no reason to suppose that selfishness, exploitation, and mutual torment would instantly disappear. And clearly she cannot even imagine such a reversal. But of course there is nothing in her rumination which suggests that conditions cannot become even worse than they already are, and it is just such a grim possibility that provides the subject matter for Part III.

The novel's third part begins on page 127, when the story of the actress is complete and that of Ana is about half over (the narrative alternates among the three stories, with that of the actress confined to the first half of the novel, Part III to the second half, and the story of Ana appearing in installments throughout the entire text). By this point the reader understands that Ana is a kind of spiritual descendant of the actress, and the realistic story of Ana is likely to end as negatively as did the romanticized tale of her spiritual “sister.” It is clear that nothing essential has changed between the time of the actress and that of Ana. Therefore, by the time the reader reaches Part III, he knows that the emotional climate of antagonism between the sexes and the concomitant moral atmosphere of indifferent cruelty and even open hostility among human beings are major themes in the novel; and this knowledge prepares the reader for understanding the implications of the extended metaphor which dominates and informs the future world that Puig has envisioned.

Part III is set in the near future after a great cataclysm (“The Great Turn of the Page”) permanently has altered the earth's climate; as a consequence of this disaster [which occurred in “the year zero of the polar age,” (128)], the earth is cold and bleak because “a change in the planet's rotational axis had been enough for vivid colors to disappear from nature and for the lands lately emerged to know only winter” (235). In fact, we are asked to imagine that the climatic calamity had been so complete that “all vegetation had died during the thaws, and the polar age had not seen the growth of a single blade of grass” (176). Nor surprisingly, then, human society and human relationships also have degenerated radically; governments are rigidly authoritarian, human freedom no longer exists, and the kind of enslavement pictured in the novel's first part has been institutionalized, has been made universal and systematic, and thus has been rendered infinitely more appalling and oppressive than it was shown to be in Part I. And of course women have become sexual as well as social and political slaves; only two roles for women are mentioned within the “new world order” of the polar age: all attractive young females are forced to spend a year as public concubines, i.e., as sex partners for old men; then they serve a second year ministering to the sexual needs of “crippled youths and deformed youths respectively, all of whom were beneficiaries under the statute for sexual services” (133). And concerning unattractive females, we are told only that “the ugly ones save themselves and get sent to work in the fields” (132). Thus harlotry and drudgery are presented as the two poles of existence for females during the “polar” age, and physical attractiveness (very clearly a subjective judgment made by males) is shown to be the sole criterion in determining which option is available to a given person. In short, it is difficult to imagine a more sexist, chauvinistic, or perversely arbitrary society than that of Puig's “polar age.”

Obviously, then, Part III of Pubis Angelical serves as a kind of nightmare in which the conditions of the actress of Part I and Ana of Part II are stripped to their essentials and grotesquely exaggerated so as to reveal their true nature. And the physical climate which serves as the background for Part III thus becomes an extended metaphor which reflects and underscores those conditions. If we think of a metaphor in the traditional sense of “saying one thing and meaning another,” then clearly the physical climate of Part III provides a way of speaking figuratively about the essential nature of male/female relationships in the past and present, and thus about the quality of the moral atmosphere surrounding those relationships. It is almost as if Puig is saying in Part III: “If you want fully to understand how awful relationships between the sexes were and are, imagine a world in which they have become institutionalized and thus clearly visible—but in order to do that you will have to imagine that nature itself has been perverted so that it corresponds metaphorically to the perversion at the heart of such relationships.” In other words, the reader must imagine the world as being physically different from what it is if he or she is fully to perceive how it actually has been (Part I) and continues to be (Part II) in terms of male/female antagonism and mutual predation. Thus in Puig's metaphor the imaginary world of the future becomes the figurative touchstone which reveals a crucial fact about the real world of the past and present; Samuel R. Levin has adumbrated how such metaphors may function in a literary text in the following terms:

[G]iven an incompatibility between [an] utterance and conditions in the world, [in ordinary metaphor] the conditions are to be taken as fixed, and it is the utterance that must be construed. Now this is not a logically necessary position. We may, if we like, assume that, in the face of an incompatibility between what is asserted in an utterance and conditions as they obtain in the world, we regard the utterance as fixed and construe the world. Instead, that is, of construing the utterance so that it makes sense in the world, [in literary metaphors] we construe the world so as to make sense of the utterance. (131)

In the sense of Puig's text, the “utterance” in question is nothing more or less than the theme of Parts I and II, i.e., the proposition that human beings live in an environment of antagonism and mutual hostility due to human sexuality, and thus that sexuality itself is the ultimate cause of frustration, unhappiness, and tragic and wasted lives. But the narrative of Part I and the drama of Part II are set in the real world that we all are familiar with; the problem is not to “construe” that world itself, but rather to find human (subjective) meaning and significance within it. And any such meaning or significance remains figurative (metaphorical) in the sense that it reflects how we judge, evaluate, or interpret the real world; in other words, it gives insight into what we as humans make of the world rather than into what the world really is from any conceivable objective, non-human perspective. Max Black identifies the production of such insight as one of the most powerful functions of metaphor when he asserts, “Metaphors … can, and sometimes do, generate insight about ‘how things are’ in reality” (41). Black has in mind ordinary metaphors in which reality is taken as fixed, and thus the utterance (subjective, non-literal judgment or interpretation) requires construal, but clearly literary metaphors, such as the one Puig employs in Part III of Pubis Angelical, also can generate insight into ‘how things are’ in reality once we realize that it is the world that must be construed rather than the utterance which embodies its human meaning and significance.

We may conclude, therefore, that Part III constitutes a lyric meditation upon what the world becomes if we accept the proposition that human sexuality is such an essential (and negative) factor in our experience of reality that it literally has the power to convert reality into the non-literal term in a metaphor, a metaphor in which sexuality serves as the fixed or literal term. Such a conclusion may seem, on the face of it, wrong-headed and perverse; however, it is fully in keeping with certain concepts which modern science takes seriously in its ongoing attempts to understand and to explain reality. For example, O. B. Hardison, Jr., observes that

science [once] believed that it could present man with truth. This was a fantasy. Science still challenges religion and mythology and tradition … but it no longer promises to replace them with truth, only with necessary fictions. … [Because there] is a widespread sense that the world as it is known is a construct. If there is an absolute reality—a real reality—it is known only as a tantalizing, ever-receding goal. (48–49)

Elsewhere Hardison examines the idea of “reality as game” (47) and speaks of the concept “that nature is infinitely complicated and variable. It can never be ‘observed.’ It can only be approximated … [because] reality is partly our own creation, and what we see in it is partly the shape of our own motives” (60–61). In the light of Hardison's observations, the idea of the real world as the non-literal element in a metaphor (i.e., as that which must be construed) does not appear as odd as it otherwise might seem; moreover, the concepts Hardison mentions are not essentially different from the one implicit in Henry James' famous dictum, written in 1884, which asserts that “you will not write a good novel unless you possess the sense of reality; but … reality has myriad forms” (393). Very clearly, Part III of Pubis Angelical may be viewed as an exploration of one of the “myriad forms” of reality generated by the implacable fact of human sexuality.

Finally, then, we also may conclude that the bleak and frigid physical climate of the novel's third part is an appropriate metaphor for the moral atmosphere of the “polar age” of human sexuality. As Pamela Bacarisse has observed, the story of W218, the “public concubine” who serves as the heroine of Part III, is merely an extension and intensification of those of the actress and Ana—and the fact that W218 lives in a Mexico City of the future reiterates the connection between the three characters (140–43). However, W218's fate is even worse than that of her spiritual “ancestors.” After attempting to murder the man who has betrayed her, she is condemned for life to the far-off penal colony of “Ices Everlasting” where she will be required to perform her sexual “services” with disease-ridden inmates, and thus will face certain death as well as total degradation (218–19). Marta Morello-Frosch has argued that the very concept of a place such as “Ices Everlasting” ties together the themes of political repression and sexual hostility and exploitation in a markedly effective way:

En un mundo deshumanizado, homogeneizado y gratificante en sus más mínimos aspectos, incluso y principalmente en el campo sexual, se ha logrado reducir los antagonismos sociales de los protagonistas a cambio de una aceptación total de directivas superiores … [y al mismo tiempo] el romance de W218 parece indicar que la política de su país ha sido determinada por fenómenos naturales tales como la emergencia de la era glacial y la resultante desaparición de formas vegetales y sociales. La narración evoca formas reconocibles de opresión en países totalitarios modernos, incluso la presencia de la vigilancia constante, el destierro a Siberias ficticias, y hasta un pabellón de cáncer donde sirven los condenados por desacato. Pero el impulso que genera las acciones sigue siendo el erotismo mal dirigido del personaje. … (37–38)

Professor Morello-Frosch's obvious allusions to works such as Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward are perhaps instructive as to why readers may find Part III of Pubis Angelical disturbingly moving and effective, for even readers who have never been exiled to Siberia or suffered from cancer can be powerfully moved by Solzhenitsyn's works. And since that is the case, clearly literal exile to a place such as “Ices Everlasting” is not a prerequisite for understanding the kind of moral atmosphere the perversion of human sexuality may produce—or for imagining that such an atmosphere ultimately might alter the very climate of our world.

Works Cited

Bacarisse, Pamela. The Necessary Dream: A Study of the Novels of Manuel Puig. Tontowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1988.

Black, Max. “More about Metaphor.” Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Andrew Ortony. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1979. 19–43.

Hardison, O. B., Jr. Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century. New York: Viking, 1989.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Criticism: The Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan. New York: St. Martin's, 1986. 386–404.

Kerr, Lucille. Suspended Fictions: Reading the Novels of Manuel Puig. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lavers, Norman. Pop Culture Into Art: The Novels of Manuel Puig. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Levin, Samuel R. “Standard Approaches to Metaphor and a Proposal for Literary Metaphor.” Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Andrew Ortony. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 136–47.

Morello-Frosch, Marta. “Usos y abusos de la cultura popular: Pubis angelical de Manuel Puig.” Literature and Popular Culture in the Hispanic World. Ed. Rose S. Minc. Upper Montclair, NJ: Montclair State College, Ediciones Hispamérica, 1981, 31–42.

Puig, Manuel. “Interview.” Interviews with Latin American Writers. Ed. Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989, 219–33.

———. Pubis Angelical. Trans. Elena Brunet. New York: Aventura, 1986.

Bart L. Lewis (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Reader and Manuel Puig: The Invention of Sangre de amor correspondido,” in Crítica Hispánica, Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1995, pp. 286-92.

[In the following essay, Lewis studies the readers' role in Puig's Sangre de amor correspondido,and how their interaction with the text affects the novel's message.]

Manuel Puig's literary task in his 1982 novel Sangre de amor correspondido is to create for his reader a testimonial voice in interpreting the fictional life of Josemar, Brazilian soccer player, electrician, breaker of young hearts and demonic corrupter. Puig has readily and repeatedly expressed a deference to his audience, a desire to keep the reader involved, interested, and in touch with his ingenious methods of narrative construction. The present attention given to reader-reception theory by such critics as Hans Robert Jauss, Wolfgang Iser, Gerald Prince, and others may be diverted to this text by Puig with the result that we are able to understand aesthetically how the reader serves as a complementary mechanism in textual integrity. Because much subjective or reception criticism is theoretical or definitional, it is hoped that an analysis of the reader's role in Sangre de amor correspondido will enable us to understand the value of its application to specific texts and will reveal a literary program by one of Latin America's most innovative writers. The account of Josemar's life—his amorous relations with women and egotistical detachment from their consequences—calls for a final assessment that only a reader can provide. Thought and memory, surreptitious and contradictory, yet transformed into judgement by a reader with unimpeded access to their workings, become the material with which Puig constructs a narrative as vividly imitative of life as the “sangre” of the title would suggest, and as demonstrative of its structure as the effort to communicate that life would necessitate.

Like his fellow novelist Juan Rulfo, Manuel Puig has assembled a set of narrative voices, distinct from conventional narrators, who speak their truth at will, leaving only a reader to vindicate them. Rulfo's voices speak from beyond the grave, their present admonitions and revived memories pressing protagonist and reader to question. Puig's voices speak from beyond present experience, intruding their recollections into the narrator's attempt to piece together a single coherent narrative. In both cases there is a clear metamorphosis of text into a chorus of voices that deters the reader from reliance on a unified, unquestioned point of view. As with all of his novels, Puig insists on an anecdotal basis to the narrative—characters act, react, are tied to specific events and are subject to peripeteia—, but the fragmentary, inflected, and self-refuting manner of presentation takes the reader away from observation to participation. This tension achieved between the mimetic narrative and a polyvalent, open-ended text accords in fundamental and useful ways with reader reception theory. The experimental in Puig's case is based on a fusion of third-person perspective with subjective voices of contradiction, whereby quoted dialogue is submerged into narrative reporting, as if the text itself were reacting to statements of purported fact. An omniscience is thus realized, not by a single narrator, but by testimonial accounts and refutations. For example, Josemar's identifying catch phrase, “¿está claro?,” is called upon by the third-person narrator to engage the narratee, before we learn that Josemar regularly engages his interlocutors thusly. We come to identify this phrase with Josemar precisely because it is woven so consistently into the narrative fabric, as at the outset of the novel when Josemar's deflowering assignation with Maria da Gloria is described: “En el club había mucha gente, el pueblo no era muy grande, seis mil personas, seis mil habitantes. Pero se podía ir a un hotel, sin problemas, no ahí, en otro pueblo cerca, ¿está claro? llegaron y tomaron una cervecita y demás” (Puig 9).

The narrator's interaction with the characters of the novel is evident in other, more assertive ways as well. In applying the terms “narrator” and “characters,” however, we are forced into both a defense and a redefinition. The narrator establishes his role of reactor, qualifier, and mediator at the novel's beginning, in the first lines, an initial point at which we immediately sense that the narrator's traditional role as originator is subordinated to that of intermediary communicator, a new channel that reaches the one most removed from the source of the text's mimetic dynamism, the reader: “—¿Cuál fue la última vez que me viste? El la vio por última vez hace diez años, ocho años” (Puig 9). Further, the characters, speaking for themselves and through the narrator to the other characters, become to us informed witnesses whose testimony is confession and justification. At the same time that these characters are actors in a literary piece, identified as such and bound by the novelistic form and the demands of mimetic fiction, they are narratees in command of a “narrative grammar, the rules by which any story is elaborated” (Prince 10), playing “the most obvious role of the narratee, a role that he always plays in a certain sense, [which] is that of relay between the narrator and the reader(s), or rather between the author and the reader(s)” (Prince 20–21). With links of communication established in the form of narrator-to-character and character-to-character via the narrator, there is one final channel which completes the circuit: character-to-narrator-to-reader, the ultimate narratee, both virtual and real.

Thus in order to unsettle the text and make the real reader aware of his or her privileged narratee status, Puig uses the narrator, traditionally the reader's principal tie to events of the story, to refute or provoke characters' statements, actions, and thoughts, to address a character/narratee directly—an invisible interlocutor—, or to seize a character's words and transmute them: either for use by another character or for continuing the narrative flow. Representative of the narrator's contradiction of a character's statement is a reporting of Josemar's intentions with regard to María da Gloria: “no iba a volver, no se iba a quedar con ella, etcétera, y al mismo tiempo él le decía, ‘m'hijita, voy a volver, no te preocupes, nosotros dos nos vamos a casar’” (Puig 22). In setting up the tension between the world of the novel and the reader's view of that world, the narrator offers a subjective appraisal to which a character reacts: “Y ahora que ella está mal de la cabeza se le debe seguir creyendo.—No es cierto, me estoy curando y lo que quiero saber es la verdad y nada más” (Puig 80). And commonly a character's story, told otherwise in dialogue form with the narrator as respondent-commentator, becomes a second-person narration developed as a substitute text for the narrator's third-person reporting. Clearly the voices that inform, challenge, overcome, and replace the narrator's voice compete for the reader's attention, and it is this competition that undermines the narrator's authority and draws attention to these often unidentified voices. And they are, conspicuously, voices that will speak their testimony, remind Josemar of his philandering, and force the reader to bring together the clues of a seemingly authoritative narrator and the challenges of direct dialogue.

The voices that speak to the narrator and reader are not specified; they live only in orality, and their identities become clear only through narrative context or reader supposition, but unexpected shifts in tone and overt contradictions by the narrator complicate the matter of assigning fixed sources for the utterances. The reader, acting as a consumer of a temporal art and forced into closure as he or she reads the novel's final page, reaches conclusions in a way that reading conventions dictate. The reading of the novel then becomes part of a larger process of meaning determination: “the literary system … has a preference rule that tells us to collate the features in the whole of the text, the sum of all the different characters' intended communications with the intended communications of the narrative persona, with the implications of the genre, with the relevant circumstances of the author's biography, including the circumstance under which the text was published, and from this broader collation, to infer the author's intention” (“Reader, Language and Character” 48). Because Puig's Identity Theme, to use Norman Holland's term, is the nature of communication—media, reception, effect, deceit of intent—, Puig in his later works is particularly concerned with the necessary subordination of orality to transcription that the novelistic genre demands. In that the conventions of reading novels have prepared us to accept the shift from social communication to literary communication, “we recognize the speech acts of fictional characters as we recognize such behavior in our own lives” (“Reading, Language and Character” 47). Commenting on the transformation of daily communication into the literary, Wolfgang Iser also sees a natural compatibility between the two: [in social communication] the situations and conventions regulate the manner in which gaps are filled, but the gaps in turn arise out of the inexperienceability and, consequently, function as a basic inducement to communication. Similarly, it is the gaps, the fundamental asymmetry between text and reader, that give rise to communication in the reading process” (109).

The certainty of our inability to experience the lives of others in life is contrasted with the uncertainty of experience in Sangre de amor correspondido, a proper and artful confusion for literature to create. As the voices strive to set the record straight and provoke the narrator or other characters into revelation, the reader is made aware of Josemar's manipulative, amoral character. At one point the narrator takes up the words of the tortured, abandoned María da Gloria to describe Josemar's flight from responsibility: “él tiene que dejarse de preocupaciones, porque en este ómnibus está viajando cómodamente sentado” (Puig 87). Elsewhere, a voice that questions the place of María's deflowering, originally confirmed by the narrator as a hotel near the small town of their residence, appears to be the expression of Josemar's own recollections, or a disembodied María speaking from her insanity. As the second part of the novel begins, a foul, snarling, and accusing voice attacks Josemar: “—a la Gloria podías decirle cualquier cosa, pero a mí no. Yo te conozco bien” (Puig 122). In a rare display of humility, the protagonist defends himself, only to have his sexual exploits picked up again by a third interlocutor, whose words are filtered through the narrator: “de la que no le va a contar es de la maestra de Cocotá, la Valseí” (Puig 143). The additional voices of accusation then chastise Josemar for his sexual excesses: “… en la casa mía no vas a entrar” (Puig 153). Josemar in his statements leads the reader to believe that he and María did marry, but his is the only testimony to this effect. As the novel reaches a conclusion, the narrator engages in an exchange with María da Gloria, communicating to her the words Josemar's father had spoken: “… lo consideraba como hijo, y no decía nada, se quedaba mirándolo, que el hijo ahora era un hombre trabajador y honesto.—Yo lo sé muy bien. Por esto te sigo esperando” (Puig 174). The novel's epilogue is an almost verbatim duplication of the first chapter, describing the lovers' last encounter, Josemar's departure from the town, and his refusal to speak to María again because of her insanity. The narrator provides a final interpretive commentary of the protagonist's actions and motives, assuring the reader that “la verdad es que él no le dijo que la iba a abandonar esa noche” (Puig 206). The changes in tone of the voice's assertions, the varied allegations issuing from characters suffering from or forced to react to the protagonist's chicanery offer the reader proof of Josemar's mean-spirited character. And this is the ultimate charge to the reader: to decide if a man's soul, thought vacant by informed witnesses, holds a place for remorse.

The reader of Sangre de amor correspondido then comes to the work mindful of Puig's continual questioning of the act of literary communication, its suspect echoing of social communication. The insistence of reader-response critics on the presence of gaps and blanks in the text, filled by the reader as he or she accepts conventions, deciphers poetic codes and relates literary experience to human experience makes Puig's readers all the more aware of their own role in the conveyance of information. The reader's role is further defined by the open-endedness of Puig's text, creating in Umberto Eco's words “[the] tension, the ambiguity and the difficulty which are characteristic of the aesthetic message” (82). Eco's comparison of texts that aim at a single response from the reader with ones that elicit multiple responses outlines a difference between reader-observer and reader-participant: “those texts that obsessively aim at arousing a precise response on the part of more or less precise empirical readers … are in fact open to any possible ‘aberrant’ decoding. … [whereas] an open text outlines a ‘closed’ project of its Model Reader as a component of its structural strategy” (8–9). Puig's reader must first of all train his or her syntagmatic responses to follow a text that unfolds in dialogue, narrative, quotes within narrative, and implied dialogue, a restructuring of the novelist's channels of communication. Sensitized to the orderly fragmentation of narrative and speech act utterance, the reader consumes the text in accordance with Puig's “closed” project: reliable testimony as to Josemar's character and actions must be discerned through the contradictory opinions, personal denials and narrative righteousness that are the novel's only sources of revelation. Puig, the creator, has assured that the reader is aware of the ambiguity from the outset. But within the entire range of potential interpretation, Puig defeats expectations by parts, introducing new testimony just as the reader believes he or she has assembled sufficient information to understand Josemar's behavior. As Louise Rosenblatt has observed: “instead of ‘thoughts thinking themselves’ under the stimulus of visual signs, reading consists in a continual stream of choices on the reader's part” (21).

Puig's reader not only makes choices at every turn, but is obliged to be aware of his or her choice-making, precisely because each new voice that clamors to be heard presents evidence that quickly overturns preceding assumptions. Aware of their control of the text, if only because the voices within refute each other so insistently and because of their fleshlessness must yield to a whole arbiter, Puig's readers impose a coordinating viewpoint. Iser describes this hierarchy of text-reader interplay: “thus the segments of characters, narrator, plot, and fictitious reader perspectives are not only marshaled into a graduated sequence but are also transformed into reciprocal reflectors. The blank as an empty space between segments enables them to be joined together, thus constituting a field of vision for the wandering viewpoint. But with the establishment of this connectability the blank, as the unformulated framework of these interacting segments, now enables the reader to produce a determinate relationship between them” (113–114).

Two additional factors must be considered in this attempt to insert a study of reader response in Sangre de amor correspondido into the mainstream of reception criticism. One of its leading and most influential theoreticians, Hans Robert Jauss, approaches reader participation primarily in historical and taxonomic terms. In that one of his aims is to challenge previous models of aesthetic reception and earlier efforts to divorce literary theory from literary history, he strives for a generalized view of readers and the texts they consume. He states his case in a 1970 article: “if literary history is to be rejuvenated, the prejudices of historical objectivism must be removed and the traditional approach to literature must be replaced by an aesthetics of reception and impact” (9). He continues that “the new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, changed or just reproduced. Variation and correction determine the scope, alteration and reproduction of the borders and structures of the genre” (13). Furthermore, reader-response criticism, in redefining the reader in history as a co-constructor of genres, has tended to concentrate on theory and debate in order to clarify the project and establish a new critical sensibility. Because interpretation, analysis of individual works, was the business of New Criticism, reception theory, in refuting the close reading, chooses to emphasize the experience and nature of reading itself. Therefore applications of reader-response theory to individual texts have staked a lesser claim on the critic's attention. In speaking of structuralism, Jonathan Culler might well speak of reception theory: “in this sense structuralism effects an important reversal of perspective, granting precedence to the task of formulating a comprehensive theory of literary discourse and assigning a secondary place to the interpretation of individual texts” (106). It is evident, however, that certain texts demand an understanding of the unspeaking interlocutor, quite rightly when the orality of the text is occluded, suspect, and truncated.

Manuel Puig has often stated both his high regard for the reader he attempts to engage and entertain and his desire to move formal experimentation along the path of his successive works. His novels abstract verbal discourse from the public marketplace of linguistic interaction and from the private places of longing and regret, and convert them into speech acts, artified, arranged, and displayed. In Sangre de amor correspondido, Puig is true to his belief in an anecdotal basis for the novel: faithless Josemar, faithful María, and the partisan observers of their acts in between. As the novel closes, the reader is aware that the “árboles bien altos” (208) have sheltered the passionate players on Brazil's coast, the novel's setting. What the characters have thought as they glanced up at these trees is known only to the reader.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. “Literary Competence,” in Reader-Response Criticism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction Between Text and Reader,” in The Reader in the Text. Ed. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1980.

Jauss, Hans Robert. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” New Literary History. 2, 1970.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee,” in Reader-Response Criticism. Ed. Jane Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Puig, Manuel. Sangre de amor correspondido. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982.

“Reader, Language and Character,” in Theories of Reading, Looking, and Listening. Ed. Harry Garvin. London: Associated University Presses, 1981.

Rosenblatt, Louise. “On the Aesthetic as the Basic Model of the Reading Process,” in Theories of Reading, Looking, and Listening. Ed. Harry R. Garvin. London: Associated University Presses, 1981.

Ciaran Cosgrove (essay date January 1995)

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SOURCE: “Discursive Anarchy or Creative Pluralism? The Cases of Cortázar and Puig,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 71-82.

[In the following essay, Cosgrove analyzes two Argentine novels, Puig's El beso de la mujer arañaand Julio Cortázar's Rayuela,in terms of their opposition to the notion that “novels should be enabling vehicles for presenting fictional worlds of coherence and stability.”]

Critics, theorists, and novelists, as diverse as George Steiner, Michel Foucault, and John Barth have made compelling cases that the narrative voice of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is somehow primordially emblematic of the age in which we live.1 Poet, short-story writer, and essayist, Borges as practitioner scrupulously eschewed the novel. The minimalist demands of his art could not, he felt, be accommodated in the grand unlimited terrains of the novelistic form. But the philosophical concerns of Borges's ‘fictions’ have osmotically made their way into some of the finest contemporary novels of Argentina, where they have found hospitable ground for internecine encounters of a fictional kind.

The art of disputation, or to put it another way, the interlocking grappling of two narrative presences often constitutes the site of a Borgesian narrative. Borges's ‘fictions’ also refuse the reader an easy passage into comfortable worlds of the imagination. I focus here on two major novels of contemporary Argentina, each markedly different from the other, but both part of the Borgesian legacy, two of whose dominant traits I have just instanced. I also argue that these novels in some measure stand against any propensity the reader may have to believe that novels should be enabling vehicles for presenting fictional worlds of coherence and stability. These novels may be said to be, in Roland Barthes's terminology, ‘texts of bliss’, rather than ‘texts of pleasure’:

Pleasure is linked to a consistence of the self, of the subject, which is assured in values of comfort, relaxation, ease—and for me, that is the entire realm of reading the classics, for example. On the contrary, bliss is the system of reading, or utterance, through which the subject, instead of establishing itself, is lost [ … ]. If one wanted to establish a provisional classification of texts according to these two words, it would be clear that the great majority of texts we know and love consist roughly of texts of pleasure, while texts of bliss are extremely rare [ … ]. These are texts that may displease you, provoke you, but which, at least temporarily, change and transmute you, effecting that expenditure of the self in loss. The text of bliss should be on the side of a certain illegibility. It should unsettle us, not only on the level of our imagination, but on the level of language itself.2

The two novels I examine here refuse easy assimilation. They make a virtue of equivocation and ambiguity, both of which concepts are given a negative valuation in our culture. They are two texts that refuse closure, but provide structures of interrogation with which we as readers can and must engage.

Rayuela (1963), by the Argentine novelist and short-story writer, Julio Cortázar, is one of the most celebrated, yet, in the English-speaking world, extraordinarily unknown, novels of the last thirty-five years. It is in many respects a shocking tour de force. It is constructed in three sections entitled successively ‘Del lado de allá’ (Chapters 1 to 36), ‘Del lado de acá’ (Chapters 37 to 56), and ‘De otros lados (Capítulos prescindibles)’ (Chapters 57 to 155). We are invited to read the novel ‘in a normal fashion’ ending with Chapter 56 and foregoing ‘sin remordimientos’ the expendable sequiturs that pass for chapters in the final section. Alternatively, we may begin our reading of the novel at Chapter 73 and, adhering to the sequence set out in the “Tablero de dirección’, construct an alternative reading. The ‘patronizing’ guidelines laid down to help us in the execution of our reading, along with the structural dispositions of the novel (symmetrical equilibria established between places, Paris and Buenos Aires, and characters, La Maga and Talita, Oliveira and Traveler, and so on) manifest a dualistic entrapment that the protagonist, Oliveira, seems hell-bent on escaping from.

In terms of the ‘rayuela’ metaphor, the apex of the figure is represented as the unattainable ‘cielo’. Many of the texts's episodes, such as what I shall call the ‘tablones’ episode, enact a failed ritualistic passing from one side to the other, emblematic of the small odysseys of quest indulged in by Oliveira, in his striving for ‘el kibbutz del desco’ that is ‘allá lejos pero en el mismo plano, como el Cielo estaba en el mismo plano que la Tierra en la acera roñosa de los juegos’.3Rayuela is nothing if not the failure of metaphysics, of presence to establish the conditions for all-engulfing self-absorption. Oliveira is always left standing as a non-assimilable integer. Rayuela is irremediably subversive of its own claims to ultimate harmony, blind to its own insights, to use Paul de Man's phrase.4 The newspaper cuttings, aphorisms, and philosophical fragments that constitute the ‘capítulos prescindibles’ are testimony to the ever-unfinished tapestry that is Rayuela. The more energetically idealist pursuits are postulated in this novel, the more provisional and contingent the structures of those pursuits appear.

Two of the most significant episodes in the novel, the ‘tablones’ episode in Chapter 4 and the Oliveira-Traveler encounter in Chapter 56, both of which will be examined shortly, are significant precisely because neither names the end towards which the procedures of play in each tend. They signify by withholding meaning. A structure is mounted, a series of actions through limited collaboration of the participants is engaged in, and a collapse of the structure in each case occurs. An allegorical reading of sorts is tempting, but an allegory of what? Like Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Rayuela is constructed on a principle of aesthetic vacuity. A necessary absence of knowledge constitutes the text's being or non-being. We may be forgiven for believing that the text gently nudges us in a transcendent direction beyond what may be argued for or against, into the unspoken reaches of Eastern silence. Certainly many of the maxims and philosophical tit-bits of the expendable chapters are conducive to this kind of a reading: ‘Sólo en sueños, en la poesía, en el juego nos asomamos a veces a lo que fuimos antes de ser esto que vaya a saber si somos’ (p. 636). This appears not unlike the aspirations of a Buddhist stance: “His (the Buddha's) philosophy was not a world view but a significant silence, in which the fracture implied by conceptual knowledge was allowed to heal and reality appeared again in its mysterious “suchness”.’5 However, the sense of ambiguity and ‘otherness’ need not be susceptible as a matter of course to a metaphysical reading, however that may be constructed. A secular reading of indeterminacy may very well show that the combative need to resist positivism is urgently pressing, and that the discourse of art needs to foster a strong differential and highly metaphorical character if it is to avoid assimilation by a complacent status quo. Rayuela, in its refusal to accept representational models of art form, seeks refuge in a more ciphered, less assimilable space. The American critic Lionel Trilling has written that ‘serious art stands overtly or by implication in an adversary relation to the dominant culture’.6 Cortázar's Rayuela marks itself off as a highly interrogative text whose very form challenges the normative models of novelistic construction. The character-author Morelli, whose musings constitute much of the ‘expendable’ text in the third part of the novel, disavows any role for the writer that would claim autonomy, authority, or even knowledge for the writer as he or she writes. The ‘rhythm’ and ‘swing’ of textual production are the generators of further text:

¿Por qué escribo esto? No tengo ideas claras, ni siquiera tengo ideas. Hay jirones, impulsos, bloques, y todo busca una forma, entonces entra en juego el ritmo y yo escribo dentro de ese ritmo [ … ]. Hay primero una situación confusa, que sólo puede definirse en la palabra; de esa penumbra parto, y si lo que quiero decir (si lo que quiere decirse) tiene suficiente fuerza, inmediatamente se inicia el swing [ … ]. Ese balanceo, ese swing en el que se va informando la materia confusa, es para mí la única certidumbre de su necesidad, porque apenas cesa comprendo que no tengo ya nada que decir. (p. 564)

The generation by rhythm of significant form puts the writing subject into a kind of parenthesis, places him/her in an interstitial limbo between presence and absence. The ‘I’ is not the source of textual happening, yet the ‘I’ writes what is written. It is inaccurate yet necessary to say that the ‘I’ writes.7

Chapter 74 deals with Morelli's ‘inconformista’. Clearly Oliveira would fit Morelli's description of his ‘nonconformist’. However, this term is shown to be inherently problematical. Like the paradoxical status of the writer-subject discussed earlier, the ‘nonconformist’ and, indeed, Oliveira throughout the novel, and, particularly, in the climactic Chapter 56, are constituted as textual instances of aporia. They are caught somehow between rebelliousness and adherence to convention:

En un plano de hechos cotidianos, la actitud de mi inconformista se traduce por su rechazo de todo lo que huele a idea recibida [ … ]. El mismo tiene medio cuerpo metido en el molde y lo sabe, pero ese saber es activo y no la resignación del que marcó el paso. Con su mano libre se abofotea la cara la mayor parte del día, y en los momentos libres abofotea la de los demás que se lo retribuyen por triplicado. (p. 548)

Significance is produced therefore on that precarious limit-site between categories. This novel everywhere illustrates that meaning connotes differentially. The most substantial textual episodes which I shall discuss shortly signify by dint of the push they enact towards the margins, towards the precarious limits where a more productive knowledge may be born. As Morelli says elsewhere: ‘Al margen de un acaccer trivial presentimos una carga más grave que no siempre alcanzamos a desentrañar’ (p. 561). Morelli is the intratextual devil's advocate disallowing a facile consumption of the novel's narrative.

Chapter 28 ostensibly narrates the events surrounding the death of a baby called Rocamadour in a Paris flat, late at night. The narrative details are these: Rocamadour's mother, La Maga, will administer medicine to her child at a certain moment in the early hours of the morning. Oliveira has discovered much earlier that Rocamadour is dead and conveys this information surreptitiously to the others who are in the apartment. No one forewarns La Maga of the impending disaster. The traumatic discovery of the corpse ensues and the chapter ends in the immediate aftermath of La Maga's fainting-fit. In the build-up to the discovery by La Maga, there is much flirtation with arcane topics of conversation, including barely concealed allusions to death, dying, and the meaning of existence. The only external interruptions to the drama in the apartment are the repeated bangings on the ceiling by an old man, the tenant upstairs, and the two brief incursions by him into the cocooned space of La Maga's apartment.

But as this chapter enacts a prolonged and calculated concealment of knowledge, we would do well to examine the various masking procedures at work and see how they contribute to the general misrecognition that is perpetuated through most of the chapter. The success of the chapter has much to do with the prolonged deferment of knowledge. The writing itself, carrying as it does sequences of conversational interchange, floats a balloon of suspended meaning and refuses to prick it except when it can do no other. As a writing which conceals as much as it reveals, it must necessarily develop figurally. It does this here by way of employment of such devices as ellipsis, aposiopesis, and general metaphorical displacement.

There are two fundamental sets of polarities against which, or within which, the movement of the writing in this chapter flows. They are noise/silence and light/darkness. The former is expressed by the repeated incursions by the old man's walking-stick banging on the ceiling, the several references to the possibility that the music from the record player will waken Rocamadour, and the philosophical discussion on acoustics initiated by Gregorovius. The light/darkness duality is even more pervasive: lighting matches and lamps, fumbling in the dark, Oliveira's association of the turning-on of lights with the disclosure of knowledge (‘Para qué encender la luz y gritar si sé que no sirve para nada?’ (p. 296)), the use of a lamp as a symbolic instance of perceptual duplicity (‘Esa lámpara es un estímulo sensorial, nada más. Ahora da otro paso atrás. Lo que llamás tu vista y ese estímulo sensorial se vuelven una relación inexplicable, porque para explicarlo habría que dar de nuevo un paso adelante y se iría todo al diablo’ (p. 311), and the example of light in a Rembrandt painting which Oliveira employs as a way into a discussion of the absurd. But, perhaps, most important, the kinship between the snuffing out of light and life as established by Oliveira and his awareness of the inherent theatricality of the action in which they are all caught are bound up with light and its absence: ‘Pero todo es al revés, en lugar de apagar las luces las encendemos, el escenario está de este lado, no hay remedio’ (p. 317). It is important to recognize that the action of this chapter cannot be disentangled from its metaphorical embeddedness.

One of the most striking figures in this chapter is that of aposiopesis. Indeed, the truncated nature of this device is allied to a series of radical disjunctions: conversations switch violently from topic to unlike topic (as, for example, when Babs's account of Guy's attempted suicide is interspersed with concerned reflection on the condition of her umbrella); Oliveira's discovery of the dead Rocamadour, which unleashes a discursive heterogeneity in which the interior monologue of Oliveira is cut across by the conversation between Gregorovius and La Maga, which in turn is arched over by a third-person narration. The speech enclosed by inverted commas is utterly fragmented or indeterminate, as when La Maga asks ‘¿El tokay es un pájaro?’ and Gregorovius responds, ‘Bueno, en cierto modo’. If the interrogative value of questions is predicated on the assumption that answers are at least available, if not presently known, then in this passage the possibilities of verbal exchange are clearly displaced onto quite a different site altogether. The passage is worth quoting at some length:

‘Y el tokay, usted sabe …’ De rodillas al lado de la cama, Horacio miró mejor. ‘Imagínese desde Montevideo’, decía la Maga. ‘Uno cree que la humanidad es una sola cosa, pero cuando se vive del lado del Cerro … ¿El tokay es un pájaro?’ ‘Bueno, en cierto modo’. La reacción natural, en esos casos. A ver: Primero … (¿Qué quiere decir en cierto modo? ¿Es un pájaro o no es un pájaro?’) Pero no había más que pasar un dedo por los labios, la falta de respuesta. (p. 295)

The discursive hesitations at work in this passage are not merely semantically inscribed. The very use of inverted commas, parenthesis, and suspension points destablizes any notion of textual order. Why are two questions placed between brackets? In sharp contrast then to the permanence and absoluteness of death lies the fickle waywardness of unfinished sentences.

Oliveira refuses the conventional response to death. Hysterics and pity do not suffice. In the space of one hour before La Maga has to administer the medicine, a time of untrammelled freedom may be bought and ‘tranquilly’ experienced. Like the liminal times in the planks episode and climactic encounter with Traveler in Chapter 56, Oliveira's creation of zones of experience as they present themselves textually are constituted as dramatic preludes. They are, however, preludes without telos, whose telos is infinitely deferred. These textual moments in Rayuela provide some of the best examples in fiction of a critique of pure presence of origins and ends.

The anguish of impasse is also, crucially, here given form. This chapter, by way of Oliveira's disquisitions, throws into crisis a stable, anthropocentric view of the universe sprung from rational assumptions: ‘La razón segrega a través del lenguaje una arquitectura satisfactoria, como la preciosa, rítmica composición de los cuadros renacentistas, y nos planta en el centro’ (p. 312). However, the obverse side of reason, best embodied here in the concept of the absurd as developed by Oliveira, is seen to be equally problematical. And that ‘absurd’ need not be located in some extra-terrestrial zone, but in the very ordinariness of existence:

El verdadero absurdo, el de un mundo ordenado y en calma, con una pieza donde diversos tipos toman café a las dos de la mañana, sin que realmente nada de eso tenga el menor sentido como no sea el hedónico [ … ]. Los milagros nunca me han parecido absurdos; lo absurdo es lo que los precede y los sigue. (p. 313)

Oliveira's lack of integratedness into the constitutive fabric of Western dualisms is analogous in fictional terms to the philosophical critique of Jacques Derrida of our deeply ingrained baggage of cultural assumptions. Similar too is the sense of being trapped in a discursive web not of our making, but a web which is the necessary bequest of anteriority. At stake in Rayuela, however, is whether habituation sounds the death knell, irremediably, of imaginative and exceptional difference:

El absurdo es que salgas por la mañana a la puerta y encuentres la botella de leche en el umbral y te quedes tan tranquilo porque ayer te pasó lo mismo y mañana te volverá a pasar. Es ese estancamiento, ese así sea, esa sospechosa carencia de excepciones. Yo no sé, che, habría que intentar otro camino. (pp. 314–15)

Oliveira's other road is that of activity that is not bound by intentionality. In Chapter 41 he activates an elaborate set of circumstances which will have the ostensible aim of transference of a packet of tea and some nails from one building to another. To effect this, two planks of wood are strapped together and a bridge is made high up between the two buildings. Talita, the lover of Oliveira's alter ego Traveler, will personally effect the transfer by crossing from building to building. This hazardous enterprise, needless to say, does not succeed and the consequences of failure are submitted to considerable analysis by Oliveira. This analysis reveals that much more was at stake than at first seemed the case.

The chapter opens with Oliveira purposelessly straightening bent nails in the afternoon heat, heat which Oliveira constructs as cold. When asked by Traveler why he needs the nails, he answers, ‘Tengo la impresión de que en cuanto tenga clavos bien derechos voy a saber para que los necesito’ (p. 392). This episode anticipates the principal episode of the planks, in so far as it exemplifies methodical activity that is apparently devoid of purpose. Like the word games that ensue, called ‘juegos en el cementerio’, activity is constituted by Oliveira as an essentially non-utilitarian set of motions that may conceivably spark an unforeseen consequence of some imaginative possibility. However, the repeated failure of Oliveira's projects whose desideratum appears to be some ineffable self-realization or enlightenment is an index of the unavailability of pure presence even in the ‘universe’ of fiction. In this particular episode, the platitudinous irruption of Gekrepten and her chit-chat about her visit to the dentist, as well as Talita's understandable pusillanimity high up on the planks, combine to wreck Oliveira's grand design. Ordinary reality gets in the way of extraordinary possibility. Rayuela refuses the undifferentiated synthesis. It denies what Derrida calls the ‘onto-theological’, the sublime fusion: ‘Full presence summed up in the logos, the humbling of writing beneath a speech dreaming its plenitude, such are the gestures required by an onto-theological determining the archaeological and eschatological meaning of being as presence, as parousia, as life without difference.’8 Yet it is clear that Oliveira seeks to undermine a strictly rational perspective. He berates Traveler continually for his safe adherence to convention, his refusal to take risks: ‘Llegás al borde de las cosas y uno piensa que por fin vas a entender, pero es inútil, ché, empezás a darles la vuelta, a leerles las etiquetas. Te quedás en el prospecto, pibe’ (p. 404). Indeed, going beyond the boundaries of convention and common sense would seem to be the sine qua non of all authentic action in Rayuela.9

According to Oliveira, worthwhile experience can be had only as a result of the expenditure of great effort and submission of self to risk. The male drink that would have ensued on the successful completion of Talita's efforts would have had an irreducibly specific value. It would have been ‘el auténtico que yo quería, a la hora justa, en el momento más frío’ (p. 412). That the structure mounted was ‘torpedoed’ is a sign of the fragile reefs on which projects of idealism founder. Oliveira's idealism is tried out in the specially circumscribed spaces which are well suited to deadly play activity. It is hardly surprising that he and his friends find employment in a circus and then in a madhouse. Talita's ‘high-plank’ acts smacks of the big top and its exploits. Oliveira's playfulness is stern, and the stakes are high. Consider what Johan Huizinga has to say about ‘play-grounds’: ‘The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice etc. are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.’10 What Huizinga describes as the ‘limited perfection’ that play brings into an ‘imperfect world’ finds its negative illustration in Oliveira's failed projects. Rayuela would wish to be a ‘limited perfection’, but can only offer itself as a crenellated fabric, riven with arbitrary interpolations (expendable chapters) and unfinished exploits whose significance is suspended indefinitely. The importance of the game in Rayuela is appositely referred to by one critic:

The game absolves one from the restrictions of the empirically real and, on transporting one to a different space and time, and restoring a community apart within a separate domain, it makes possible an extraordinary contact with reality. It implies a derangement inclined towards ritualization by its proximity to the mythical, the liturgical and the esoteric.11

Oliveira's most ambitious and elaborately designed project is to entrap Traveler in a web-like structure that involves the use of strings, basins, and ballbearings, and the aid of one of the inmates of the asylum in which this climactic episode takes place. Inmate number 18, who is attributed repeatedly with ‘ojos verdes de una hermosura maligna’ which ‘roll’ in delightful synchrony with Oliveira's machinations provides the ‘mad’ contextualization of this mini-drama on which the ‘non-expendable’ part of the novel ends. Oliveira has a penchant for structures that ‘are as full of air as possible’. The trap he sets for Traveler offers itself as a metaphor for the text that Rayuela is, a structure in which to get entangled, but one in which the holes, the gaps, the unspoken (because unspeakable) silences insist as much as what encompasses them.

Spatial rather than temporal concepts signify the differential ground of contest. Traveler and his ilk inhabit what is called ‘el territorio’: that is, the space that begins on the other side of Oliveira's room. The ‘wakefulness’ of Oliveira's sensory store of physical and mental contortions opposes the ‘sleepy’ unconsciousness of the ‘territory’. More important, a synthesis of incompatible contraries is disallowed; a reconciling ‘presence’ is denied by the divided space. The epiphany experienced by Oliveira here is that the ‘kibbutz of desire’ is an eidolon, a hopeless dream. For now, the actuality is:

Sudor en la palma de las manos, encendimiento de un cigarrillo, tirón de las tripas, sed, gritos silenciosos que reventaban como masas negras en la garganta … Eso contra el territorio, la vigilia contra el sueño. Pero decir: la vigilia contra el sueño era ya reingresar en la dialéctica, era corroborar una vez más que no había la más remota esperanza de unidad. (pp. 491–92)

The tension between the constantly articulated desire for unity voiced by character and the textual refusal to realize it provides the literal ‘suspense’ of Rayuela, a ‘hung’ novel, always making as if to go somewhere and then being unable to. The imaginative possibilities of unpredictability of effects are given full reign in this novel. If it is true that Traveler, by entering the room, will activate a set of predictable motions, so too it is the case that consequences of a less certain kind may ensue: Oliveira's reluctance to close the window on the possibility of otherness is emblematic of this novel's bifurcated thrust. Traveler's ‘weather vane’ parody of Oliveira could be applied to the whole novel: ‘El verdadero doppelganger sos vos, porque estás como desencarnado, sos una voluntad en forma de veleta, ahí arriba. Quiero esto, quiero aquello, quiero el norte y el sur y todo al mismo tiempo’ (p. 500). What characterizes the conflict between the two spaces in Chapter 56 is that it is an irresolvable one. Oliveira recognizes his own embeddedness in the space of the territory, even though he would disavow it intellectually:

En el fondo Traveler era lo que él hubiera debido ser con un poco menos de maldita imaginación, era el hombre del territorio, el incurable error de la especie descaminada, pero cuánta hermosura en el error y en los cinco mil años de territorio falso y precario. (pp. 507–08)

It may be that in this final chapter Oliveira proclaims too much, becomes too much the dispassionate observer of his own textual conduct. The reason he proffers for the universal belief in the ‘millenary kingdom’ is as simplistic as it is philanthropic: that ‘no había más ese inmundo juego de sustituciones que nos ocupa cincuenta o sesenta años, y donde nos daríamos de verdad la mano en vez de repetir el gesto del miedo’ (p. 505).

What Rayuela finally denies is the possibility of an easy synthesis. Rayuela positively invites us to postpone our quest for answers. To claim as one critic does, for example, that Oliveira's search ends in madness is to be reductionistic in the extreme.12 We must broaden our literary horizons, as Steven Boldy makes clear when he writes:

Cortázar is indebted to a set of traits which have become almost a defining characteristic of a certain Latin-American literary tradition, the most important of which are a deeply embedded eclecticism, a very literal interpenetration of utopia and possibility, of fantasy and reality, which would simply be considered literary naiveté in a European.13

The assertion of any of Oliveira's stated desires for transcendence or self-completion receives its come-uppance in the very force that transcends Oliveira and his exploits, and that is the text's own capacity to supersede its own textual items, whether they be character, event or any other of the traditionally ‘extractable’ components. Rayuela is its own excess. It is a novel of parts that do not make up a seamless whole. It is a collage of disparate discourses, ranging from the philosophical to gossip journalism. It mounts and celebrates structures of quest and interrogation. It refuses to be complicit with the smug project of supplying answers to its own questions. Rayuela is the game, as it is indeed the novel, that does not end when we read its ending.

How different a novel Manuel Puig's El beso de la mujer araña (1976) appears to be, with its heavy reliance on the filmic clichés of Hollywood and the textual inclusion of all the conventions of melodrama (stormy passions, conflictive scenes, fond and unsuppressible imaginings). Not so. El beso is troublesomely plural. It is an irreducibly heterogeneous text that refuses to be digested the way a melodrama may be.

What narrative strategies await a reader? The extractable ‘story’ concerns the developing relationship in a prison cell between two men, Molina, a homosexual and convicted for corrupting minors, and Valentín, a political prisoner, heterosexual, and held under orders of the Federal Government. The way we construct our knowledge of these two characters is through our reading of their continuing dialogue which straddles the novel from the beginning until near the end. There is no omniscient narrator to corroborate, gainsay, or supplement our knowledge of the two protagonists' thoughts or actions, present or past. As a sub-category of the above, we have Molina's own narratives, the ‘telling’ of films to Valentín to pass the time. Molina also silently ‘rolls’ films for himself. This silent ‘rolling’ is typographically signalled by italics and is rendered problematical in the case of the third film by Molina's intercalated reflections on his own trial and the relationship with his mother.14 In Chapters 8, 11, 14, and 15 the dialogic encounter of Valentín/Molina and Molina's ‘telling’ of films are punctuated by the textual citation from prison documents detailing the prisoners’ respective situations and also by conversations mainly between the prison governor and Molina. Cutting across these discourses are the lengthy footnotes of a clinically detached nature on such subjects as the actiology of homosexuality and sexual repression.

The cycling and recycling of film images in which belief may be invested, the articulation of a metaphor (the spider woman) whose connotative values are never exhausted give currency to an otherness that is for ever negated by the minimal space of a prison cell. These alternative images are the imprisoned man's artful recourse, his only recourse. But they hold out promise for the restoration or establishment of an equity. As Schiller once wrote: ‘Humanity has lost its dignity; but Art has rescued it and preserved it in significant stone. Truth lives on in the illusion of Art, and it is from this copy, or after-image, that the original image will once again be restored.’15 Imagined alterity is art's domain. The discourse of Valentín and Molina is predicated upon impossible dreams and mythical pasts. It is the discourse of the for-ever-not-here, just as its inscription is in the non-place of a novel. Yet, as Marcuse, who figures in the footnotes, has written: ‘Without fantasy, all philosophical knowledge remains in the grip of the present or the past and severed from the future, which is the only link between philosophy and the real history of mankind.’16

As an exercise in reading, El beso is obtusely obstructive. As reading is by definition a successive operation, we are compelled to interrupt our reading of the dialogic unfolding (itself a succession of unfinished utterances, suspension points, colloquialisms), take a qualitative leap into the dry, academic discourse of the footnotes on homosexuality, confront on the way the bureaucratese of prison reports and de-personalized encounters between Molina and the prison director, ‘listen’ along with Valentín to the perambulating odysseys of Molina as he makes us live through melodrama after melodrama, and somehow come to terms with all of this as a single text.17

The emergence in this novel of the central metaphor of entrapment, that of the spider woman, coincides with the osmosis of reality and fantasy posited as reality in Valentín's ‘stream of consciousness’ monologue on which the novel ends. The ‘woman’ is not a woman trapped in a web, but ‘la telaraña le crece del cuerpo de ella misma’ (p. 285). She is a hybrid entity, straddling two forms of being, just as Valentín's final state is composed of the real-fantastic or fantastic-real and the film/non-film dimensions are welded together. The synthetic ‘diamond-like’ tear that hangs on her cheek is a non-decipherable emblem of ambiguity, an illusory image as substantial as the filmic image that is its only reality:

¿una lágrima que brilla como un diamante?’, sí, y yo le pregunto por qué es que llora y en un primer plano que ocupa toda la pantalla al final de la película ella me contesta que es eso lo que no se sabe, porque es un final enigmático, y yo le contesto que está bien así, que es lo mejor de la película porque significa que … (p. 285)

The suspension points signify the eternally unresolved metaphor on which the novel hangs, thereby marking this novel out as ambiguous, plurivalent, and what may be called interstitial. In Nathan Scott's illuminating reading of Heidegger there are judgements that are relevant for a reading of novels such as El beso: ‘The situation of man, at the end of the modern age, is, in Heidegger's reading of it, something open in the sense of its being located in a great intervenient space, in a great Between.’18 The poet Rilke's exhortation seems apposite here:

Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms [ … ]. Do not now seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.19

But it is in the ways in which the ‘story’ of incarceration, fantasy-making, and love are exceeded that El beso is an enabling text. The discursive heterogeneity is constantly troubling any smooth reading to which we may aspire. One of the most remarkable chapters of the novel is Chapter 15, which is a verbatim report drawn up by the authorities detailing Molina's movements after his release from prison and up to and including his death. Though written in the depersonalized, fossilized bureaucratese of reports of this kind, a reading of it is necessarily mediated by our acquired understanding of the two characters and their relationship as witnessed unfolding and changing. It therefore loses its character of anonymity and functions as a supplement to the ever incomplete knowledge we have of the subject Molina, about whom it is written. Similarly, an excess of significance extrudes from the footnotes. They name the unnameable in a quasi-scientific way. But we cannot detach them from the drama that is being played out on the page. That drama is, of course, the increasingly intimate encounter of Valentín and Molina, and by extension, of ourselves and the characters.

Clearly, there are obvious and less obvious ways of reading El beso. An analysis of the ‘story’ of the novel leads to a certain kind of reading: that the novel demonstrates the anguish, terror, and asphyxiation produced by a particular political environment; that revolutionary militancy is demystified in the personage of Valentín; that homosexuality is understood and humanized, and so on. However, that kind of reading tends to subjugate considerations of form. It begs the questions of what kind of novel this is, and how its effects are produced. It overlooks the manner in which the stratified discourses interact with each other. The juxtaposition of elliptic dialogue and periphrastic footnotes, for example, jolts the consciousness at every turn. We are forced to change readerly gear on almost every page. Indeed, the jostling for dominance of different discourses appears to get in the way of an easy extraction of a ‘story’. What we read is no longer simply there, available for inspection and consumption. We must struggle to construct a reading across the turbulent site of this novel. Classical poise and stasis give way to competing energies that are merely potential and await their actualization in the provisional completion accorded a text by a productive reading.

It is significant that the film story recounted by Molina that makes most impact in the novel (and, indeed, it is highlighted in Hector Babenco's film of Puig's novel) is the ‘Nazi’ story. Though the other film stories have a certain exotic otherness about them, the Nazi story is the one which has a studied artifice about it. The non-naturalistic stage on which Leni sings her songs for her German officer stands as an emblem of the kind of novel this is. Like an ocean of undulating plastic in a Fellini film, Leni's stage offers itself as anything but realism. Art, as in the work of Borges, is clearly artifice and proclaims itself as such: ‘Es una habanera, se va levantando el telón y entre las palmeras hechas de papel plateado, como el de los cigarrillos, ¿viste?, bueno, detrás de las palmeras se ve la luna llena bordada en lentejuelas que se refleja en el mar hecho de una tela sedosa, el reflejo de la luna también en lentejuelas’ (p. 79). Indeed, the writerly contrivances everywhere present in this novel prohibit any reductive attempt to consider it a mirrored slice of life. Susan Sontag's comment is to the point when applied to a novel such as El beso: ‘Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.’20

A view of the form/content dualism has been implicit in what has been said above. To extract the putative ‘story’ of the novel from its encasing is to obliterate that which makes a novel that particular structure of words and not another. Texts such as El beso or Rayuela enable the reader to focus once again on the quiddity, on what is there and not on what may be presumed to be behind or underneath what is there. The critic Geoffrey Hartman has written: ‘What active reading discloses is a structure of words within words, a structure so deeply mediated, ghostly, and echoic that we find it hard to locate the res in the verba. The res, or subject matter, seems to be already words.’21

Through serpentine procedures, El beso enacts a progress from interlocking movement of competing discourses. Molina's articulation of idealistic narratives complements the continuing dialogue between himself and Valentín. This in turn is in antiphonal relationship to the language of bureaucracy. The footnotes, awkward and lengthy, act as a kind of metalinguistic side-show, commenting on the main action taking place elsewhere.22 The whole novel could be seen as the struggle of language to break through its necessary limitations to a point where language itself would be cancelled. But what is left is the rough differential fabric of the text, the inadequate copy of a non-existent original. However, the text's inadequacy is always the reader's opportunity.

Both these novels manifest a narrativity that I would characterize as heterogeneous and wilfully plural. They refuse the straitjacket of an omniscient narration that would control our knowledge and dictate to us as readers patterns of receptivity. Dialogue which abounds in both novels serves often to mount structures of interrogation and reflection (note, for example, Molina's frequent interjections: ‘me imagino’, ‘¿me entendés?’) without holding out promise of a glib answer or resolution. The structures of hesitancy that typify these two novels suggest only that there is meaning in the way that art defers meaning in any ultimate fashion. We live in a culture that all too easily defines knowledge in terms of discovery of answers rather than in the construction of meaningful questions. Rayuela and El beso de la mujer araña in their different ways contest the actual. In each case the novelistic construction is obtrusive, calling attention to itself at every turn. These are novels where ‘the seams gape’, as Roland Barthes would say. But in a world where homogenized ease is held out as a desired goal, where clichéd discourses run rampant in the public domain of politics, mass media, and advertising, the difficulty and recalcitrance of novels such as these, their linguistic obstreperousness even, may finally be a sane and liberating haven.


  1. See George Steiner, ‘Tigers in the Mirror’, in Extraterritorial (London: Peregrine, 1975); Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (London: Tavistock, 1977); John Barth, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, in The Novel Today, ed. by Malcolm Bradbury (London: Fontana, 1977).

  2. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, trans. by Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill & Wang, 1985), pp. 206–07.

  3. Rayuela, ed. by Andrés Amorós, Letras Hispánicas, 200 (Madrid: Cátedra, 1989), p. 369. All further textual references to the novel are to this edition.

  4. See Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (London: Methuen, 1983).

  5. Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), p. 79.

  6. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 67.

  7. One critic, quoting W. B. Yeats's lines ‘O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?’, writes with not a little justification that ‘the meaning of Rayuela (the dance) is inseparable from the experience of its readers (the dancers)’ (Gordano Yovanovich, Julio Cortázar's Character Mosaic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), p. 228).

  8. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 71.

  9. The theme of transgression in Rayuela is excellently explored by Margery A. Safir in ‘An Erotics of Liberation: Notes on Transgressive Behaviour in Rayuela and Libro de Manuel’, in Books Abroad, 50 (1976). 558–70.

  10. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949), p. 10.

  11. Saul Yurkievich, ‘Eros Ludens: Games, Love and Humour in Hopscotch’, in The Final Island, ed. by J. Alazraki and I. Ivask (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), p. 100.

  12. See Robert Brody, Cortázar: ‘Rayuela’, Critical Guides to Spanish Texts, 16 (London: Grant & Cutler, 1976), p. 20.

  13. The Novels of Julio Cortázar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 193.

  14. Manuel Puig, El beso de la mujer araña (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1986), p. 110. All further textual references to the novel are to this edition. Though, for my present purposes, I do not wish to examine Molina's stock of melodramatic B movies, it is important to bear in mind, as Pamela Bacarisse has pointed out, that ‘the character of Molina once again underlines the fact that for Puig there was no vital difference between highbrow and lowbrow art’ (Pamela Bacarisse, Impossible Choices: The Implications of the Cultural References in the Novels of Manuel Puig (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1993), p. 9).

  15. Friedrich von Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. by Elizabeth Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 57.

  16. Herbert Marcuse, as quoted in Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (London: Heinemann, 1973), pp. 77–78.

  17. For a thoroughly comprehensive analysis of the multi-layered narrativity of this novel, see Lucille Kerr, Suspended Fictions (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

  18. Nathan A. Scott, Jr, Negative Capability (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 62.

  19. R. M. Rilke, as quoted in Scott, p. 57.

  20. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 30.

  21. Geoffrey H. Hartman, Saving the Text (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 129.

  22. It should be noted that, like his compatriot Borges, Puig incorporates quotations from sources both authentic and spurious into his text. The last quoted authority in the novel, the Danish sexologist Dr Anneli Taube, is fictional.

Michael Issacharoff and Lelia Madrid (essay date May 1996)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5055

SOURCE: “Between Myth and Reference: Puig and Ionesco,” in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 3, May, 1996, pp. 419-430.

[In the following essay, Issacharoff and Madrid discuss the use of myth, stereotypes, and repetition in Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Under a Mantle of Stars, as well as in Eugène Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve.]

What is myth? Why link it to reference? We have shown elsewhere that myth and reference are diametrically opposed to one another, given their different relationship with time.1 Myth eschews specific spatiotemporal coordinates. As Lévi-Strauss put it, “Tout se passe comme si la musique et la mythologie n'avaient besoin du temps que pour lui infliger un démenti. L'une et l'autre sont, en effet, des machines à supprimer le temps.”2 Vagueness of location and temporality3 necessarily undermines definite reference, whose role is to identify singular entities in time and space.

Myth blurs the coordinates of time and space; it cannot particularize. Identity is muted, if not virtually absent. Thus the great mythical figures—Don Juan, Prometheus, Electra, etc—remain relatively constant across time and cultures, to the point that they seem to be cut out of the same cloth.4 They are therefore not singular entities (referents), but classes, that is, abstractions. It is not surprising, then, that they tend not to evolve psychologically.

At issue in the mythical enterprise, consequently, is the status of identity. What happens, though, when identity per se is systematically undermined in a literary text? This is precisely what occurs, in various ways and in differing degrees, in the work of Puig, Borges, Ionesco and Beckett, to cite obvious instances. Contrary to theatrical convention, the often depersonalized cues in plays by Ionesco and Beckett (say the Smiths vs the Martins in La Cantatrice chauve or Vladimir vs Estragon in En attendant Godot) in no way identify the characters speaking the lines. Despite obvious differences between Borges and Puig, the status of individual characters in their work is precarious. Reversal of roles, merging of characters, repetition of segments of dialogue and similar strategies are often brought into play by these two writers. Borges's “The Immortal”, “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”, “The Shape of the Sword”, and likewise Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Under a Mantle of Stars immediately spring to mind. By undermining identity and thus the psychological concept of character, Borges and Puig privilege repetition and hence the mythical.

If reference is muted in myth, the conceptual must automatically become dominant. When time and space are de-emphasized, the conceptual (i.e. abstraction) is foregrounded. Now the dominant feature of the conceptual is, of course, similarity.5 Characteristic of myth is the recurrence, across time and place, of the same or similar concepts. Recurrence itself seems paradoxical. If myth belongs to the realm of the conceptual, one would expect it to favor the formation of new concepts. Yet instead, myth tends to recycle the same elements ad infinitum. Accretions are confined to what is congruent with the existing pattern. Since myth does not foreground difference, and since concept formation is contingent on the latter,6 it stands to reason that myth is unlikely to generate new concepts.

What are the cognitive implications of a medium characterized by redundancy? If myth precludes new concepts, it must elicit recognition, rather than cognition. Recognition is a function of memory that entails linking on the basis of similarity. Being repetitive, it is a passive process that cannot have any impact on our conceptual hierarchy. In short, what is involved is no more than matching the new to the already encoded. The afterlife of a myth is thus contingent far more on memory than on thought processes.

It is our contention that memory is not designed to produce concepts. The two main functions of memory are the recording and recalling of units of information, stored in the long term or short term.7 We posit that long-term memory can only store conceptualized information (i.e. the product of thought). Definite reference is the responsibility of short-term memory8 and thus cannot loom large in myth.

Now we find in Manuel Puig's novels a universe of popular myth based on a systematic recycling of stereotypes. The latter are particularly prominent in Kiss of the Spider Woman.9 The film segments that Molina recounts to Valentin all echo stock situations: the heroine is always beautiful, the denouement happy or promising; love transforms everything; the forces of evil are overcome. The stereotypical (a device common in other novels by Puig10) entraps the unsuspecting reader, a victim of a deep-seated, albeit banal desire. In an interview, Puig made the following observations about the Hollywood dream machine:

The producers wanted to appeal to people, they didn't want to raise their consciousness. They wanted to cater to their needs, to give them their dreams, so they tried to guess what the desires of the audience were [ … ] It is not that Hollywood created a dream. The dream existed and the producers reflected it. They created a product that people wanted.11

In fact, this was the Hollywood version of the behaviorist credo of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner—the vision of man as a passive being at the mercy of the environment. That an intellectual like Valentín, or anyone else for that matter, should be lured by an account of such films tells us a lot about the impact of repetition and the role of memory. The reader's identity is displaced—the text becomes his or her mirror. Kiss of the Spider Woman thus triggers a merging of extratextual and inscribed readers.12 The point is underscored by the admission of Valentín:

—Yeah … because I talk a lot but … but deep down inside, what I … what I really like is … is the other kind of woman. Inside I'm just the same as all the other reactionary bastards who helped to murder that poor guy … I'm just like them, exactly. (p. 144)13

with whom readers of the novel tend to identify.

If boundaries between individuals vanish thus, readers become abstractions (concepts). Stereotypes void the reader's individuality, which they colonize. Since stereotypes do not tolerate difference, they leave room not for thinking, but for recognition. The reader's (or audience's) conceptual hierarchy is thus left intact. From the vantage point of lan Fleming's novels, Umberto Eco has commented on the implications of stereotypes in the following way:

Fleming [ … ] est réactionnaire parce qu'il procède par schémas. La construction par schémas, la bipartition manichéenne est toujours dogmatique, intolérante. [ … ] Fleming est réactionnaire comme l'est à sa source la fable, toute fable. C'est l'esprit conservateur ancestral, dogmatique et statique, des fables et des mythes qui transmettent une sagesse élémentaire, construite et transmise par un simple jeu de lumière et d'ombre, et la transmettent par des images indiscutables ne permettant pas la critique.14

The stereotypical in Puig plunges the reader into the atemporality of the conceptual. The universe of myth eliminates all spatiotemporal anchors. To recover his individuality (difference), the reader of Kiss of the Spider Woman has to become aware of its parodic level.15 That being the case, cognition will displace mere recognition.

In Under a Mantle of Stars,16 identity is undermined by the author's deliberate avoidance of proper names. Since names mark boundaries between entities,17 they are exclusive. This is not the case in Puig's play. With only one exception,18 no character has a name. In all cases, the didascalia use common nouns: the Master of the House, the Mistress of the House, the Daughter, the Visitor, the Lady Visitor, the Doctor, the Nurse, the Maid. Furthermore, their physical attributes are vague, their ages indeterminate. In the dialogue, the characters confine themselves to personal pronouns.

Now there appears to be a consensus among philosophers of language that the use of personal pronouns is an instance of definite reference.19 For us, however, proper names and personal pronouns are not on the same referential footing. When proper names are used as referring expressions, they are devoid of meaning. Since pronouns are linguistic categories, they are the product of abstraction. As deictics, pronouns link speech acts to the here and now and can thus function as referring expressions. It might be wondered, though, how an abstract category can express reference. The answer lies in the muted “difference” (inherent in all abstractions) that is reactivated when a pronoun is used.20 It is only in this respect that a pronoun can be compared to a proper name. Unlike proper names, pronouns always express meaning.21 One can conclude, then, that the use of pronouns, just like the avoidance of proper names in Under a Mantle of Stars, is intended to valorize the conceptual to the detriment of the referential.

In drama, the name is supposed to identify the character who is to speak the lines. In the case of the Dramatis personae, this can be called the nominative function, and in the dialogue that follows, the attributive function.22 Yet Puig's practice turns out to be subversive insofar as he separates characters and roles. If the actor/character relationship is stable, it is by no means true of the actor/role relationship. When roles are consistently scrambled, their borders become blurred. For instance, the Visitor is mistaken for the boy friend, with a consequent confusion of roles:


Antonio! Your call this morning almost cost me my life. But now you're here, and it doesn't matter that you've brought her. What's important is holding you in my arms. (p. 24)

Similarly, the Doctor is taken for the boy friend:


If I weren't sure, I would have thrown myself into your arms the minute you walked in, thinking you were him—Antonio. You're just like him. … (p. 52)

whereas for the Mistress, the Visitor has become her ex-lover and thus the (biological) father of her daughter (pp. 19–24). The Maid and the daughter (pp. 59–60) are merged. Furthermore, the Master of the House changes roles by speaking to his daughter as if he were her lover (p. 48). After the death of the Visitor and Lady Visitor, the actors playing these parts reappear and take on other roles. We can therefore speak of simultaneous as well as consecutive merging of roles, the latter being implicit.

Mixing of roles can also be observed in the texture of the dialogue. Normally, of course, we can distinguish between characters on the basis of the type of dramatic discourse used. Puig's practice is precisely to scramble matters through the use of repetition, making it often impossible to identify a given character. The following lines, for instance, are repeated several times by different characters throughout the play:


He arrived at the dance that night with another woman. It was the first time I ever saw him, but I had the ( … ) feeling he was someone I'd found before—and lost. And that's what had always disturbed my life, like the moon churning the tides of the sea. ( … ) I took refuge in the library of that big old house, in the dark. ( … )

He asked me to describe what he was like, but without seeing him, in the dark. ( … ) He answered that he was lost ( … ). I shut my eyes and I saw a lake of clear blue liquid that I'd always wished for … ( … ) A brilliant blue ( … ) Or did I see some precious stone? An enormous aquamarine, with me swimming inside it. ( … ) (pp. 8–9)

We will hear the same lines spoken by the Mistress (pp. 21–2), the Visitor and the Daughter (pp. 25–7).

This stereotyped depersonalized—and hence mythical—discourse echoes radio broadcasts of serialized novels, the Mistress of the House's favorite obsession.23 Given its reiteration and its lack of spatiotemporal anchors, it belongs to the realm of the conceptual.

But the conceptual is to be observed not only in the characters' discourse, but also in the manner in which the writer names them with common nouns. Now common nouns are the vehicle of concepts, that is, of entities characterized above all by similarity. Concepts by definition lack precise borders;24 they are basically open entities. Given Puig's avoidance of proper names for characters, Under a Mantle of Stars eschews elements with limits. This style of naming also generates tension, given the conflict between the two distinct functions of the definite determiner (el and la in the original Spanish) in the case of el Dueño, el Visitante, etc. In Spanish, the definite article can have a conceptual or a concrete focus. For instance, el doctor can be taken as a referring expression or to mean the category (class).

On the other hand, in a text written for performance, a nominal like the Lady Visitor identifies the particular character who is to utter a given line. In other words, a common noun modified by a determiner serves as a referring expression. Yet in this apparently stable referential relationship, there is unexpected instability, given the discourse used and the merging roles played by the same members of the cast.

What are the consequences of theatrical practice in which characters, roles, discourse and even action are called into question? The author's purpose is obviously destructive, seeing that his universe is devoid of positive values to counterbalance the stereotypical, the artificial and the banal. We are dealing with patchwork theatre designed to ridicule the mediocrity of its own elements of popular culture. Like in Borges, the role of the author is subverted, since originality of any kind is proscribed. What are we left with in a world without either individuality or originality?

Above all, a nihilistic outlook, wrapped in a cliché: under a mantle of stars. The latter underscores the blindness that is typical of the non-characters and the audience of this pseudo drama. The dramatist's enterprise is to demolish everything in his anti-theatrical universe: characters, identity, plot, complicatio and denouement. All that remain are strips of social discourse, a verbal no man's land. It ferries pure abstraction, everyday banalities so hackneyed as to inhibit thought. Needless to say, Puig believes neither in social change nor in personal progress.

But what links are there between a universe of myth and a world of repetition? Myth, as we have seen, is a curious time machine—for telescoping time, that is. To eliminate time, namely difference, is to privilege similarity, the product of repetition. Now there is a theatrical world governed by repetition alone at every dramatic level, from the opening to the closing didascalia, not forgetting the mechanical repetition of sundry consonants and vowels. We are thinking, of course, of Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve.25

Intérieur bourgeois anglais, avec des fauteuils anglais. Soirée anglaise. M. Smith, Anglais, dans son fauteuil anglais et ses pantoufles anglaises, fume sa pipe anglaise et lit un journal anglais près d'un feu anglais. Il a des lunettes anglaises, une petite moustache grise, anglaise. A côté de lui, dans un autre fauteuil anglais, Mme Smith, Anglaise, raccommode des chaussettes anglaises. Un long moment de silence anglais. La pendule anglaise frappe dix-sept coups anglais. (p. 19)

Let us look more closely, though, into the way the dramatist uses his box … of chatter. The opening didascalia set the tone, by tirelessly repeating the same adjective anglais in contexts at times banal, at times incongruous. In sum, the adjective loses its semantic value and can thus no longer work as a linguistic category. Moreover, an adjective of this type whose function is to locate referentially (i.e. in geographical or national terms) is stripped of its particularizing role. Since the category is forced to include everything, it explodes: un feu anglais; dix-sept coups anglais; un silence anglais (p.20).

This unwonted use of the adjective is paralleled later, in Mary's “poem”, by the use of the expression prit feu, which is generalized in similar fashion (p. 50); by the phatic discourse of the opening scene interspersed with Smith's tongue-clicking (pp. 20–21); by the logically impossible use of the proper name Bobby Watson (pp. 22–24); by the chiming of the clock and other sound effects (pp. 22–23; 29–31; etc); by M. and Mme Martin's parodic reunion scene (pp. 26–30), etc.

Unlike the repetitive mode to be observed in Puig and Borges, repetition in La Cantatrice, though obsessive, is obviously not in any way mythical. Above all, it is destructive, for it tends to void anything it enters into contact with: sound, meaning, characters, anecdotes, proper names, coherence in dialogue, didascalia, time and space—in short, all that belongs to the referential and conceptual universe. The upshot is a situation in which the two poles of language—referential and conceptual—become incompatible. The conceptual is rendered inoperative by being forced to include everything, the referential is subverted through the systematic distortion of its spatiotemporal anchors.

Language oscillates between the referential and the conceptual—that is, between what is contingent on the temporal order and what is not. Discourse can juxtapose referring expressions (e.g. proper names, nominals with determiners, deictics) and general utterances, whose focus transcends the restricted circumstances of a speech event. The utterances in the Bobby Watson anecdote seem at first to be congruent with the norms of definite description, provided one confines oneself to a single sentence, or in some cases, a single clause at a time.26 Otherwise, when focus includes several clauses, or a fortiori the context of the entire anecdote, referential contradictions proliferate.

The anecdote when considered as a whole does not permit the coexistence of mutually exclusive definite descriptions. It is not hard to see why. These definite descriptions contain attributes semantically incompatible because they qualify the same referent. Obviously one cannot be simultaneously dead and alive, beautiful and ugly, male and female, single and married. Reference and the temporality that it entails preclude the coexistence of such attributes.27 On the other hand, some of them (living/dead, beautiful/ugly, etc.) can occur in the same individual consecutively, but not concurrently. Yet categories such as these can coexist in the same sentence when used conceptually: e.g. ‘The beautiful and the ugly are interwoven in the aesthetics of the grotesque’. In the conceptual realm, temporality is muted, thus allowing the juxtaposition of what would otherwise be mutually exclusive categories.

It is our contention that all semantic categories and sub-categories overlap. They are necessarily linked, given the nature of concept formation.28 In fact, this is precisely what happens in metaphor. The discovery of a common denominator enables us to juxtapose seemingly unrelated categories. The common denominator itself would be inconceivable, were it not for the overlap common to all conceptual categories and sub-categories.29

On the other hand, if categories overlap, they cannot be entirely congruent. The latter would constitute equality, not similarity. Furthermore, family resemblances—to use Wittgenstein's concept30—can be more or less marked, which means that difference is not precluded. This is why a category such as “anglais” in La Cantatrice loses its distinguishing function, since it is called upon to include everything, thereby becoming infinite. Ionesco pushes inclusiveness to the limit in Jacques ou la soumission with the word chat, which can express everything and exclude nothing.31


Pour y désigner les choses, un seul mot: chat. Les chats s'appellent chat, les aliments: chat, les insectes: chat, les chaises: chat, toi: chat, moi: chat, le toit: chat, le nombre un: chat, le nombre deux: chat, trois: chat, vingt: chat, trente: chat, tous les adverbes: chat, toutes les prépositions: chat. Il y devient facile de parler …

The result is a world without structure or hierarchy. The dramatist succeeds thereby in blocking both the referential and conceptual functions of language, and hence cognition itself. The universe that unfolds in the opening scene breaks down later in the play prior to its total collapse. The key to this process, as we have seen, is repetition. Akin to cancer of the concept, it spreads by attacking everything in range.

Why should this be so? Repetition is not necessarily destructive: after all it lies at the heart of creation32—in poetry, music, indeed in thought itself. Abstraction, i.e. concept formation is contingent on it. In Puig's work, repetition is the sine qua non of desires, expectations, dreams. Repetition creates them and confirms them. How then can repetition become so destructive?

When repetition upsets the status of similarity by turning it into equality, it destroys the principle fundamental to categories. This is the case of the adjective “anglais” at the beginning of La Cantatrice, and likewise of the ubiquitous expression prit feu in Mary's poem. It is also true of the word chat in Jacques ou la soumission. At the same time, the other structuring principle of categories—difference—is demolished. At issue are all the instances of the voiding of definite reference. Like the Bald Soprano, Bobby Watson cannot exist. After being named, they acquire contradictory attributes that undermine their existence in time and space.

But there are other types of repetition in La Cantatrice, some with a possibly hypnotic or hallucinatory effect. For instance, the constantly reiterated line in scene 4 (pp. 26–30): “Comme c'est curieux! quelle bizarre coïncidence!” prevents the audience from focusing on meaning so mechanically expressed. The latter is displaced by sound.

But how, one might ask, does robotized repetition differ from repetition in poetry? Refrains, for instance, are not normally destructive semantically. Consider, for example, Baudelaire's:

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

or Apollinaire's

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

where instead of mere repetition, we witness a semantic crescendo. A network of associations develops as the lines of the refrain are repeated. In both cases, the deictics expand their meaning. Baudelaire's becomes polysemic, just as Apollinaire's je acquires more and more semantic density.33 Conversely, the process in La Cantatrice is not semantically cumulative. It tends progressively to limit associations by disengaging semantic units from each other, with the consequent explosion of signifiers in the final scene and the death of language.

Literature cannot confine itself to the here and now. The referential anchors it uses are no more than sign-posts facilitating access to the text. Reading no less than writing entails a process of cognition, namely, concept formation and hierarchization. Most if not all referents in literary texts are likely to be echoed, repeated, recontextualized, to the point of being conceptualized and thereby severing their links with the hic et nunc.

But the here and now is never effaced: it remains latent and therefore able to resurface any time the writer uses a referring expression. And we cannot do without referential sign-posts; if they are lacking, a conceptual limbo is the unavoidable consequence. A literature fashioned out of stereotypes, as in the case of Puig, deceives us into thinking that space and time can be obliterated, to the exclusion of everything except ubiquitous similarity. Categories become frozen and the reader stereotyped. Doomed to live in an eternal present, deprived of reference, the individual dies.34

Myth offers the reassurance of the familiar. The experimental enterprise, on the other hand, makes no pretense of using stereotypes otherwise than for parodic or destructive purposes. If the stereotypical cannot survive beyond the sentence in Ionesco's play, reference is condemned to a similar fate. Like the clock whose mechanism is disrupted, time is under attack in this mode of experimental drama. Reiterating Mary's poem “Le feu”, La Cantatrice consumes its own medium even as it unfolds on stage. It is not just the language of drama that is set on fire, but the drama of language itself.


  1. See Michael Issacharoff, Lelia Madrid, De la pensée au langage (Paris: José Corti, 1995) pp. 103–122.

  2. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (Paris: Plon, 1964), p. 24. See also his comments on the timeless nature of myths in Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Plon, 1958), pp. 230–231; La Pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962), pp. 313–314.

  3. See, for instance, the analysis of mythical time in Mircea Eliade, Le Mythe de l'éternel retour: archétypes et répétition (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), pp. 15–16; 33–35; 48–51; 57–62; 103–105. Eliade's perspective does not take into account the issue of reference, but the contrast between myth and history; see, especially, pp. 59–62; 103–104.

  4. On the similarity of myths (and mythical figures) in different cultures, see, for example, standard works such as Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, 12 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1907–1915); Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit (1964); Du miel aux cendres (Paris: Plon, 1966).

  5. The view that similarity is the (dominant) structuring principle of concepts can be inferred from the later work of Wittgenstein, specifically from his notion of “family resemblances”, in Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan, 1953), para. 66–67, pp. 31–32. See also Eleanor Rosch and Carolyn B. Mervis, “Family Resemblances: Studies in the Internal Structure of Categories”, Cognitive Psychology, vol. 7, no. 4 (October 1975), pp. 573–605; Eleanor Rosch et al., “Basic Objects in Natural Categories”, Cognitive Psychology, 8 (1976), pp. 382–439; Eleanor Rosch, “Human Categorization”, in Neil Warren, ed., Studies in Cross-cultural Psychology, vol. 1 (London & New York: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 1–49; Barbara Tversky, “Components and Categorization”, in Colette Craig, ed., Noun Classes and Categorization (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1986), pp. 63–75; F. Cordier, “Inclusion de classes: existe-t-il un effet sémantique?”, L'Année psychologique, 83 (1983), pp. 491–503.

  6. The starting point of concept formation, as we show in De la pensée au langage, pp. 45–70, is difference. Our theory equates difference and reference, and posits that concept formation entails a move from difference (e.g. a proper name) to similarity (e.g. a common noun). The corpus we use comprises examples of the transformation of proper names into common nouns (e.g. Lord Sandwich > sandwich).

  7. See, for instance, E. Tulving and W. Donaldson, eds., Organization of Memory (New York: Academic Press, 1972); E. B. Zechmeister and S. E. Nyberg, Human Memory. An Introduction to Research and Theory (Monterey, Ca.: Brooks/Cole, 1982); L. Stern, The Structures and Strategies of Human Memory (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1985); Ira B. Black, Information in the Brain. A Molecular Perspective (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), especially pp. 18–19; 30; Geoffrey R. Loftus and Elizabeth F. Loftus, Human Memory. The Processing of Information (Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1976); Elizabeth Loftus, Memory (Reading, Mass.: Menlo Park, Ca; London: Addison-Wesley, 1980); Lyle E. Bourne, Jr., Roger L. Dominowski, Elizabeth F. Loftus and Alice F. Healy, Cognitive Processes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986), especially pp. 11–17; 22–23.

  8. See De la pensée au langage, pp. 79–90.

  9. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).

  10. See, for instance, The Buenos Aires Affair, Heartbreak Tango, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, etc.

  11. See Greg Price, Latin America. The Writer's Journey (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990), p.89.

  12. On this issue, see L. Madrid, “Manuel Puig: la utopía de la identidad”, in La fundación mitológica de América Latina (Madrid: Fundamentos, 1989), pp. 57–62; “Manuel Puig: la inscripción doble” in El sueño del origen. La tradición postromántica (Madrid: Fundamentos, 1991), pp. 113–118. Another discussion, from a somewhat different perspective, can be found in Alicia Borinsky, Ver/Ser visto (Barcelona: Bosch, 1978), especially pp. 59–66.

  13. See also Kiss of the Spider Woman, pp. 144–145; 280–281.

  14. Umberto Eco, “James Bond: une combinatoire narrative,” Communications 8 (1966), p. 92.

  15. On this issue, see Lucille Kerr, Suspended Fictions. Reading Novels by Manuel Puig (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

  16. Manuel Puig, Under a Mantle of Stars, trans. Ronald Christ (New York: Lumen Books, 1985).

  17. See M. Issacharoff and L. Madrid, “Nommer,” Littérature 97 (février 1995), 112–125.

  18. The only exception is the boy friend, Antonio. The fact that he never appears on stage prompts the reader to doubt his existence.

  19. See, in particular, John Searle, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 81; Oswald Ducrot, Dire et ne pas dire (Paris: Hermann, 1980), p. 221; John Lyons, Semantics, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 179–180; P. F. Strawson, Individuals. An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen, 1959), p. 16, pp. 180–213.

  20. We have argued elsewhere that all linguistic categories are predicated on two structuring principles—similarity (which is dominant) and difference (normally muted). This configuration is the outcome of the process of abstraction. See De la pensée au langage, esp. pp. 16–20, 45–76, 128–133.

  21. See De la pensée au langage, especially pp. 174–180.

  22. On this issue, see M. Issacharoff, “Voix, autorité, didascalies,” Poétique 96 (novembre 1993), 463–474.

  23. See Milagros Ezquerro, “Le fonctionnement sémiologique des personnages dans Bajo un manto de estrellas de Manuel Puig,” Cahiers du Monde Hispanique et Lusobrésilien, 40 (1983), especially p. 55.

  24. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 68–71, pp. 33–34. See also Eleanor Rosch, “Cognitive Reference Points”, Cognitive Psychology, 7, no. 4 (October 1975), pp. 532–547; “Human Categorization”, especially pp. 18–20; “Principles of Categorization”, in Eleanor Rosch and Barbara B. Lloyd, eds., Cognition and Categorization (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1978), pp. 35–37; George Lakoff, “Hedges: A Study in Meaning Criteria and the Logic of Fuzzy Concepts”, in Papers from the Eight Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society (Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 1972), pp. 183–228; William Labov, “The Boundaries of Words and their Meanings”, in Charles-James N. Bailey and Roger W. Shuy, eds., New Ways of Analyzing Variation in English (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1974), pp. 340–373.

  25. See Eugéne Ionesco, La Cantatrice chauve in Théâtre I, (Paris: Gallimard, 1954).

  26. For detailed discussion of the anecdote, see M. Issacharoff, “Bobby Watson and the Philosophy of Language,” French Studies XLVI, 3 (July 1992), pp. 272–279.

  27. See M. Issacharoff, L. Madrid, “Cognition, référence, lecture” in Poétique, 102 (avril 1995), pp. 247–258.

  28. By this we mean that the formation of a new concept triggers a ricochet effect entailing a redefinition of conceptual hierarchy. Since categories are open entities (see note 24 above), they are subject to reclassification at any time.

  29. De la pensée au langage, pp. 64–76, 171–192.

  30. See Philosophical Investigations, paras. 66–7, pp. 31–32.

  31. See Jacques ou la soumission in Théâtre 1, p. 126

  32. See, for instance, M. Issacharoff, “Répétition et création”, in Théâtre et création, ed. Emmanuel Jacquart (Paris: Champion, 1994), pp. 47–58.

  33. On a much broader scale, one is reminded, for example, of Borges's use of repetition in his poetry, essays and fiction. He sets out to create unexpected conceptual links through the use of apparently incongruous contexts. The classic example is the famous Pascal dictum (“C'est une sphère dont le centre est partout et la circonférence nulle part”), echoed both in “La biblioteca de Babel” (in Ficciones) and in “La esfera de Pascal” (in Otras inquisiciones). For further discussion and references, see “Cognition, référence, lecture.”

  34. See, from a different perspective, Milagros Ezquerro's suggestive comments on death and narration in Que raconter c'est apprendre à mourir. Essai d'analyse de El beso de la mujer araña (Toulouse: Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 1981), pp. 55–6.

Shari A. Zimmerman (essay date Fall 1997)

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SOURCE: “Pubis Angelical: Where Puig Meets Lacan,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 1, Fall, 1997, pp. 65-77.

[In the following essay, Zimmerman traces the role of Lacanian psychoanalysis in Puig's Pubis Angelical.]

Manuel Puig: [C]an people change their eroticism after a certain age? I believe it's almost impossible. Those sexual fantasies have crystallized during adolescence and imprison you forever.

—Ronald Christ, “A Last Interview with Manuel Puig,” 572

Any time we talk about body types, scenarios, or fantasies, we're talking about linguistically structured entities. They may take the form of images in one's mind, but they are at least in part ordered by the signifier, and thus at least potentially signifying and meaningful.

—Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 12

On 17 April 1989, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Manuel Puig (1932–1990) gave a public reading from his sixth novel, Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages. Following the reading, Puig took questions from the audience; they focused primarily on the still relatively recent film adaptation of his fourth novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman (which, in a few years' time, would be made into a Broadway musical). People wanted to know Puig's views of the film; indeed, audience members were wondering what the writer thought of the performances of Raul Julia and William Hurt. Having studied Puig for a couple of years, I already had a sense of the answers he would provide; after all, he had supplied them in a number of different interviews.

In truth, my own concerns were elsewhere: my questions (in this context, embarrassingly “academic” ones)—which I later would pose as Manuel Puig signed my program copy—focused not on the film version of Spider Woman but on the explicit references to Lacanian psychoanalysis appearing in the author's fifth novel, Pubis Angelical, the text that followed Spider Woman and preceded the work from which he had read that evening. As a teacher—scholar working at the intersections of literature and psychoanalysis, I had long wondered—indeed I had long wanted “to know” (as if I could)—whether the characters' exchanges about Lacan were “serious” (a question no doubt naive given the status of conscious intention in psychoanalysis). Perhaps tired by the reading he had just given, as well as the long line of people who, like myself, had waited for his autograph, Manuel Puig simply said “yes,” that “the exchanges were serious,” and that Lacan had made a “tremendous contribution to psychoanalysis.” Given the Argentine writer's long-standing preoccupation with the relationship between the cultural imaginary and the unconscious, a relationship that is evident in the very first novel Puig published, his remarks were not surprising.

Throughout his career, in fact, Puig focused consistently on the ways in which an individual subject—and an individual subject's desire—is structured “like a language,” constituted by and composed out of the authorized and authorizing categories of thought and speech of a given social order: its established rhetorical codes and social norms, its popular images and cultural stereotypes, its prevailing ideals and ideologies. In interview after interview, moreover, as I have elsewhere observed, Puig spoke regularly of the structures and systems of meaning that “authorize” our experience of the world, ourselves, and our desire, making it difficult to see differently or act otherwise—particularly in terms of gender. In an interview published in 1986, for example, he noted: “It's that society invents norms. At an age when no one really knows himself, it imposes a series of rules that make no sense. Cultural demands become a straitjacket that is imposed on a young person. … I believe the sex roles are learned” (Mujica 7; my emphasis). Elsewhere he remarked: “This is the awful thing: we are all so determined by our culture. Mainly because we learn to play roles. For me it starts with the very unnatural and hideous sexual roles” (Wheaton 142). And in comments that seem to sum up his lifelong views, Puig observed: “I identify with people who like me have suffered a lot because of a role that has been imposed upon them. … I identify with people who have struggled with a system that, in some way, has determined their destiny forever. By that I mean, I don't consider myself totally free.” (Roffé 15; my emphasis).

We may, I think, safely assume that this “system” is composed of the world of “Law,” of the imposing arbitrary rules, sanctions, prohibitions, and judgments that determine and control the movements of, say, Kafka's K. But for Puig (and for Puig's Kafka), this “world of Law” is also the world of the unconscious, some variety (in fact) of the Lacanian (and Freudian) unconscious, where the physical, the psychical, and the social meet. Consider, for example, Puig's digression on Kafka in an interview published in 1979, the publication date of Pubis Angelical, the novel that refers explicitly to Lacan. In terms to which he would return almost verbatim in “a last interview” with Ronald Christ, Puig asked: “What is [Kafka] interested in? Cobwebs, the world of the unconscious, the system that somehow manipulates us, the bars we're not aware of but that are there and don't let us act freely. … But it's extremely difficult to capture that invisible net of repression” (Christ [1979] 30; my emphasis). For Puig, who claims to have made the “[s]ensational discovery of Freud” in 1946 after viewing Hitchcock's Spellbound (Puig, “Growing up” 49), and whose novels refer regularly to psychoanalysis, the “system that somehow manipulates us” stands in direct apposition to the “world of the unconscious,” a “world” comprised not only of a subject's repressed individual history or Lacan's register of the Real, but also of a given social order—the Lacanian Symbolic—the “Other” that always has inscribed each subject's Imaginary, always has structured unconscious fantasies and gender-specific desires.

Thus, Pubis Angelical's references to Lacan do not, as one critic has claimed (in an attempt to account for mixed reviews of the novel), mark a “radical departure from Puig's earlier work” (Cheever 61); rather, they make explicit an analysis of the linguistically structured human subject implied by his earlier writings. In fact, in its consideration of the gaze, the unconscious, and the Other, Pubis Angelical points to an analysis of desire and subjectivity deployed even in Puig's first novel.

As Alicia Borinsky noted of the central character in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968): “The subconscious is not a space with its own language, it is absorbed by cliché. … The persona does not manifest itself as anterior to discourse” (102). The observation may be said to have a distinctly Lacanian cast, with application and implication for the voices and subjects that appear throughout Puig's work. The typical Puig subject, not unlike the Lacanian subject, “does not manifest itself as anterior to discourse.” To be sure, there is no subject (so to speak), and no unconscious, before the acquisition of language, before entry into a constellation of signifiers, a set of symbolic meaning that always has been there, always preceded the speaking being. And yet, it is precisely that which makes us subjects—that which allows us to speak—that also structures, gives voice to, and alienates our desire, erecting “the bars we're not aware of but which … don't let us act freely,” the “system that somehow manipulates us” (Christ [1991] 577)—perhaps most problematically from within.

Sustaining and perpetuating the horizon of meanings into which each subject is born, this “system” would include for Puig existing codes of love and passion, prevailing social patterns and models of romance, composite images of men and women that take their cues from popular, political, and religious ideologies, from intersecting and mutually reinforcing systems of signification, from what Lacan might call “the resonance in the communicating networks of discourse” (27).

There are, to be sure, considerable variations in the characters Puig presents; perhaps each of them provides an exposition of the individual's betrayal by those ideologies clustering around the matter of sexual difference. Be it his first novel or his later play Mystery of the Rose Bouquet, Puig's writing consistently investigates those voices that are inscribed by, articulate, and cannot escape normative patterns of desire—men who subscribe to the role of authoritarian male, women (or female-identified men like Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman) who see submission and instrumentality as the only way to achieve meaning and pleasure. Viewed not as unconscious sociocultural structures but as the dictates of Nature and of Truth, those ideologies are revealed to close off in advance alternate forms of conduct and practice as well as (and this more dangerously so) the imaginative possibilities of desire itself.

Whether one succeeds or fails to conform to the model does not matter; in Puig's writings, it is the very notion of a pattern—experienced (consciously and unconsciously) as fixed, immutable, or essential—that “straitjackets” (Mujica 7) the individual, “pigeonholes” (Roffé 15) his or her desire. That is not to say that Puig would have wished to do away with popular culture: as both his detractors and defenders have observed, Puig's texts celebrate—in almost polemical counterpoint to the style and language of high literary culture—the characters and concerns of dime-store novels, Hollywood movies (many of them B movies), popular clichés, the vernacular; nevertheless, Puig's texts also suggest that those chains of signification that organize meaning (and without which we could not live) also weave an “invisible net of repression” that limits the ability to act freely. Systems of signification that allow for social exchange can also tyrannize, perhaps most acutely, those who fail to see that these systems are artificial and arbitrary.

Puig's observations about the people of his childhood and the characters of his first novels underscore such a danger. Discussing the “misfits” (Roffé 14) on whom the characters of his first novel were apparently based, Puig noted: “In those days [the thirties and forties] not to fit into the pattern was a great source of anguish. We thought that the pattern was the only one, the pattern of Nature: girls had to be desirable objects and men had to be terribly strong without any hesitation” (Christ [1977] 52; my emphasis). And so at the end of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, for example, we learn that Berto's authoritarian behavior (as it is reported by others throughout the novel) masks a struggle to be “terribly strong” in the face of the terrible deal his brother has dealt him (see 217–22); and, like the undelivered letter Kafka writes to his own father, Berto's unsent letter (whose ending reads: “[t]his letter is going into the wastepaper basket. I wouldn't spend a cent on stamps for you” [222]) alternately attacks and defends its addressee, unable to assert the ideal of authority it longs to own. Clearly, the anguish of Berto's letter marks the struggle of a man who feels himself to be a misfit, a man who believes in, but fails to approximate, the prescribed masculine ideal, the image of manhood he has at some level internalized but that he has not been able to embody.

Even those who succeed at conforming—at approximating the ideal—may ultimately be said to fail. As Puig tells us, and as his novel bears out, the characters of Heartbreak Tango are based on those people of his childhood who believed in and successfully enacted the prevailing sexual models, people who “worked well within … the system of machismo, of oppression, that was the only system at that time” (Christ [1977] 52; my emphasis). According to Puig those people “had accepted the rules of the game and were triumphant” (Roffé 14)—but they were triumphant only temporarily. “Years later,” Puig once remarked, “these triumphant figures of twenty years ago … were by now all very, very disappointed with life. The system they had accepted hadn't been kind to them” (Christ [1977] 53; my emphasis). “Their ultimate failure,” Puig noted, “really touched me a lot and that is why I needed to write Heartbreak Tango”:

Years before I had admired these people, and I had feared them and rejected them at the same time—their strength, their use of authority was unpleasant to me. Meanwhile they had a certain shine, a self-assurance that was fascinating. The story was all about failure: the failure of people who had believed in all the lies of authority. And in the rhetoric of passion too. … As a matter of fact, they had betrayed their belief in passion by their conduct.

(Christ [1977] 54; my emphases)

Of significance here is not simply the question of initially failed or successful conformity to a model, a “system,” a “rhetoric of passion.” Also significant is the repression or control exerted by a given set of signifiers, an authorized system of social and linguistic structures believed somehow to be natural. One either conforms utterly and, like the ultimately tragic figures of Heartbreak Tango (or Gladys, for example, of The Buenos Aires Affair), one becomes alienated from one's self; one's passion; or, like the voices of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth—or Puig himself—one fails to conform, and, in that failure, in that experience of one's self as a “misfit,” one feels enormous anguish. For to believe oneself a “mis-fit” is to believe in the authority of the fit, the Truth of the gender category—and thus in one's own deviance. Apparently, it is just this “fit” that cost Puig himself—who “always rejected the role of authoritarian male”—“so much trouble,” precisely because he had all along considered such a role “Nature's decision” (Christ [1977] 61): “When I wrote Rita Hayworth (1967), I still believed in Clark Gable as a force of Nature. … Now I am convinced that Clark Gable is an historico-cultural product, not Nature's creature” (61; my emphasis).

Given, as Puig claims in that 1977 interview, that every novel develops for him a personal problem, “an obsession, a subject that haunts [him]” (52), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) and Pubis Angelical (1979) may very well mark the final undoing of the author's early belief in naturalized gender categories. That scripted sexual roles and the varieties of sexual desire are not the effects of natural forces but rather normative (as well as idiosyncratic) interpretations and definitions imposed on biological difference seems the very project of Puig's Spider Woman, a project that, in Pubis Angelical, takes an explicit and provocative turn toward Lacan. I say provocative because in its explicit theorizing of the problem of the unconscious, the problem (that is) of unconscious desire, Pubis Angelical suggests that the only way to modify or revise what Puig considered “imprisoning sexual fantasies” (see Christ [1991] 572) is to be aware that systems of meaning exist, that they—not Nature—constitute the subject's desire, and that the individual is always involved in his or her own subjection, always implicated in his or her own (conscious and unconscious) “betrayal.”

In Kiss of the Spider Woman, the unfolding relationship between the macho Valentin and the female-identified Molina would seem to revise—and in radical ways—the roles and rules of the traditional sex/gender system. Clearly, Molina's transsexualism denaturalizes the rigidly masculine script to which Valentin is so wedded. In the course of the novel, moreover, the heterosexually identified Valentin becomes more responsive to Molina, going so far as to become his lover. Freed (presumably) by the confines of the prison cell, Valentin becomes critical of those forces that had led him to mistreat and oppress his cellmate; in particular he becomes critical of the established forms of conduct that had made him uneasy with Molina's mothering, indeed, with Molina's stereotypically female desire. Toward the end of the novel, Valentin comes to believe that in their cell—or on their “desert island”—“there's no struggle, no fight to win” (202). But in his critique of the “outside world,” and the “enemy out there” (202), Valentin fails to recognize just how much power the discourse of the Other wields: for clearly, the two men are not, as Valentin envisions, on a “desert island … free to behave however [they] choose with respect to one another,” free to “make any damn thing out of [their relationship]” (202, my emphasis).

To be sure, the authorizing codes of desire and identity operating outside the prison are also operating within it, within the unconscious of two men who, despite all their talk, enact a rather traditional heterosexual relationship, complete with a “woman” who sacrifices herself for her male lover, and a man who, at the end of the novel, dreams of a nurturing spider woman, a role that Molina has enacted faithfully throughout the novel, a role that even a dreaming Valentin (despite his conscious claims otherwise [see 244]) seems to perceive as natural. It is all the more significant, then, that the outside world against which Valentin imagines he can position himself is, in Pubis Angelical, recognized by characters in the novel as being linked inextricably to the world within. Indeed, in Puig's fifth novel, “outside” and “inside” are woven seamlessly together by the ubiquitous operations of the gaze, the Other, and the unconscious, making the “enemy out there” rather more difficult to escape than an imprisoned Valentin would like to believe. In its theoretical reflections on Lacanian psychoanalysis, I would argue, Puig's Pubis Angelical picks up precisely where Spider Woman leaves off.

Pubis Angelical consists of three interwoven stories about three different women each of whom in one way or another is imprisoned by the culturally prescribed fantasy of a “superior man.” These three women include a famous Viennese actress from the 1930s who escapes both her repressive weapons manufacturer husband as well as the ultimately traitorous Theo, only to become enslaved by Hollywood; the 1970s Argentine expatriate Anita who (while recovering from cancer in a Mexican hospital) reflects not only on the gender codes she herself has always followed, the dogmatic feminism her friend Beatriz presents, or the Peronism that her ex-lover Pozzi would like her to endorse, but also on Lacanian insights about the gaze, the Other, and the unconscious that give rise to a wide-ranging critique of ideology (including the ideology of her own desire); and, finally, there is W218, a woman whose job in this futuristic, computerized, and apparently fascistic world is to provide sexual services for undesirable men, and who by chance meets and falls in love with the young LKJS, a man, not unlike Theo, who turns out to be a spy and a traitor, a man against whom W218 ably defends herself.

Each involved with some degree of political intrigue, and each searching for the “right” man, these women give voice to the culturally prescribed fantasies “out there” that constitute equally the “enemy” or desire operating within, the desire or “imprisoning” sexual fantasy that turns each of them into the “playthings of forces superior to [them]selves” (221). Such is the problem Puig staged repeatedly in his writing, the problem with which he tried to grapple in any number of his interviews: “can people change their eroticism after a certain age?” he asked. “I believe it's almost impossible. Those sexual fantasies have crystallized during adolescence and imprison you forever” (Christ [1991] 572; my emphasis).

“Almost impossible.” And yet, psychoanalysis, Anita's exchanges with Pozzi about Lacan and Anita's detailed diary entries reflecting on her life and her particular desire would seem to suggest otherwise. Anita comes to assert (at the very least) what the female-identified Molina (or the Viennese actress from the 1930s) cannot even begin to see: that the submissive female role is a model of desire that has been “put … in [her] head” (166); a set of received ideas, a cliché (in fact), that, intersecting with her personal history, has established itself as truth. Anita may not instantly rewrite the fantasies that imprison here, and she may not, following her friend Beatriz, suddenly become a “feminist,” but she comes to understand—and in ways that characters of previous novels do not—just how much power the discourse of the Other wields in the constituting of her own subjectivity. It is an understanding that seems, if not to issue out of, then at least to be linked to the Lacanian psychoanalysis that she has absorbed from her discussions with Pozzi, the analysis that Valentin (for example) does not (or is not made by Puig to) consider.

Recovering in a hospital bed in Mexico, Anita is visited by her neo-Peronist ex-lover Pozzi who has, in this world of fiction, taken seminars on Lacan. He tries to enlist Anita's aid for a political movement that she comes to believe is as blinded by the need for ideology as are her own fantasies of romance. In the midst of Pozzi's critique of the Argentine government, particularly the government's dismantling of “one of the most highly evolved, free psychiatric services in the world” (144), Anita tries to recall that “business with the mirror” (145) and the “matter of the baby living in anguish” (146), the details from the seminar Pozzi and Anita once shared. In this fictional mini-review of Lacan's exposition of the mirror stage and “the phantom of the disintegrated body” (146), Anita is reminded that the mirroring sight of others in which one sees oneself reflected “isn't always so objective.” Not only can others “shape you however they please,” as Pozzi more innocently observes; they can, Anita adds, “misshape you as they please.” That is what Anita, who often worries over the role she plays, “wanted to remember” (146).

Such is the misshaping, the meconnaisance, that Anita believes she has suffered because of the hands (or sight), and because of the desires of others—of the friends, lovers, and family members who have inscribed her with different scripts: daughter, wife, mother, lover. But of course, the gaze of the other may be altogether “independent of any individual look” (Silverman, Threshold 134); complicated by the Lacanian unconscious, moreover, the gaze is something we can never altogether escape. As Pozzi himself remarks within the pages of Puig's novel: the “unconscious is the other … [and] part of the Other, of the foreign, is really yours, although that part of you is actually foreign to you, because it's beyond your control. And at the same time, your entire view of the universe is filtered through the unconscious. And thus part of your self is foreign to you …” (147). Although inevitably simplifying matters, Pubis Angelical's references to Lacan foreground and effectively underscore the relationship between the “enemy out there” and the workings “in here.” The gaze of the Other also is always the gaze of the Unconscious, and so the misshaping Anita believes she has suffered at the hands of others is thus also her own—a misshaping structured by a cultural imaginary in which she consciously and unconsciously participates.

Appropriately enough (even if, a bit too easily, in this world of fiction), in the scene directly following this theoretical exchange with Pozzi, Anita energetically puts into question, as if for the first time, the assumptions, language, and operation of her own erotic desire, the meanings and clichés with which she has lived—at some level, has chosen to live—her entire life. Apparently intrigued by the problematic of the gaze and by the way in which one is always perceiving subject and perceived object, and (finally) by the way in which one's unconscious desire is always both familiar and foreign, Anita begins to examine not only her particular family history but also the effect of her position as spectator of popular images—the “mysterious languorous, stylized” (17) woman and the “noble sacrificed female” (167)—the dangerous clichés (Christ [1991] 578) that confer a kind of masochistic identity on the female or female-identified viewer. Unlike Molina, who embraces—to the end—a stereotype of womanhood, Anita comes to distinguish between the natural and the cultural, between an essential human nature and those internalized (often unconscious) fantasies that come from seeing those “actors, singers, musicians” live out “great moments” in the theater, “soap operas and love films” (165–66).

Significantly, I think, Anita's investigation of herself as spectator, a now defamiliarized position (“I'm embarrassed to be a spectator” [166]), coincides with an analysis of what Lacan might call the “other scene” (see Ragland-Sullivan 15), the alien discourse and radical Otherness of sexuality and pleasure. Here Anita likens the experience of “seeing what others do” when “the lights are out” to seeing herself not simply in “an orchestra seat,” but also “in bed making love … in the dark” (165). Commenting on the structure of a desire that seems now suddenly familiar and foreign, Anita says:

How beautiful it is to be a woman, how many agreeable options are presented to us, either to yield to one side or yield to the other. If we want to live as a couple with a man who will make us happy at night, not making us feel nothing. Such a lovely plan. Such justice. The brute who goes to sleep after having enjoyed himself as he wished, and the noble sacrificed female who goes to sleep with the satisfaction that she's been useful though she may have felt a virtuous nothing. (167; my emphases)

The critique of this script, this “lovely plan,” emerges from an examination of some of the individual terms and spectatorial structures that have determined the imaginative possibilities of Anita's very desire, desire she may here be said to begin to “subjectify.” To be sure, Anita's analysis leads her to consider the ways in which she is herself involved in the fantasies that imprison her, fantasies that have “straitjacketed” the conditions of her desire. Consider her questions about her “need” for romance and her need for the “right man”:

And I say that my life depends on finding a man, the right one. How crazy I am. How stupid. And the worst thing is that it's the truth. Without that fantasy I wouldn't care if I lived one minute more. Why am I so foolish? who has put that in my head? or is it in our nature to need romance? what romance, if nothing lasts? (166; emphases mine)

The passage is deceptive in its simplicity—for it is here we see Anita begin to implicate herself in her own desire, to realize her own “subjective involvement” in the fantasies “in [her] head,” and to gain some critical distance from the scenarios to which she has been so wedded: arguably, in fact, Anita as subject begins to “assume the place of the Other and of the Other's desire, no longer being subjugated thereby or fixated upon them” (Fink 70). Growing increasingly aware of the structures and language that had determined her eroticism, her need for romance, her need for the “right man,” Anita now comes to recognize her fantasies as those of an already constituted social order that has been defined by the discourse of the Other. Notably, she becomes estranged from her own word choices, her own metaphors, and thus comes to see even her use of language as the site of potential change: “‘looking for Prince Charming’,” she reflects, “already sound[s] a little better” than “waiting for Prince Charming” (165; my emphasis). Anita begins to “grasp the Other's Desire”—as one might say of a character intrigued by Lacanian psychoanalysis—and, in extracting herself from its “superimposed meanings,” she begins to find some “measure of freedom” (Ragland-Sullivan 300), albeit limitedly so, from the sexual fantasies that had “imprisoned” her.

Noteworthy, too, is Anita's critique of her “need” for romance—a need to build systems of meaning, a need for her own brand of ideology. According to Ragland-Sullivan, “Lacan attributed the very need for ideologies to the unconscious cornerstone of Desire. Whether a person defends a philosophy of capitalism or communism (or any other belief system), the totalizing drive toward building meaning systems is itself based on the structural lack in being” (272). Apolitical though Anita may be, she nevertheless comes to observe in her own terms the various manifestations of this “totalizing drive.” In fact, she comes to believe the romance she “needs” is not altogether different from the Peronism to which Pozzi is so wedded, going so far as to suggest that she and Pozzi are equally unable to evaluate the limits of their belief systems. Pozzi may argue that he is “incapable of turning a blind eye” (187), even while enlisting Anita's aid for the dangerous and deadly work to be done in the name of Peronism, but it is Anita who begins to see what Pozzi cannot: “What you are is a dupe,” she says, “a dreamer, who got mixed up in this whole mess because of I don't know what … because you're a romantic. Just as I got involved in that business of marrying a man whom I didn't really know. And you're also irresponsible, because you collaborate with people who resort to guns without knowing what they're doing. As irresponsible as me … so the two of us are the same, dreamers! Irresponsible people” (126). Reflecting elsewhere on Pozzi's Peronism, Anita notes: “Marxism appeals to me with the idea of equality, but later on in practice it seems to be trouble” (167). In a Lacanian scheme, the seamless ideologies embraced by Pozzi and Anita (or, for that matter, by the Marxist Valentin and the hopelessly romantic Molina in Spider Woman—not to mention the many other ideologues who grace the pages of Puig's work) are unified and unifying systems of meaning that, blind to their own limits, and “built on a structural lack in being,” seek to fend off “trouble,” chaos, lack.

In Pubis Angelical, the critique of ideology—and of the need for ideology—reflects in obvious ways on the Viennese actress from the 1930s whose films and life story help to sustain the horizon of meanings, indeed the clichés, into which Anita is born; but the critique (particularly the critique of the language Anita uses) resonates equally—and perhaps more subtly—with the tale of W218, the “sexual therapist” of the novel's future. Significantly, the work of W218 throws into sharp relief the established “rhetoric of passion” (see Christ [1977] 54) and the codified speeches of romance heard again and again in dime-store novels, in Puig's own Heartbreak Tango, in first- and second-rate Hollywood movies—and in life. That sexual desire, or the erotic, may be organized (for the individual subject) by a particular language or a given rhetorical structure is foregrounded by an essential part of W218's job: the articulation of certain words, phrases, and sentences that enact, evoke, and enable the satisfaction of desire. During one of her “therapeutic” encounters with men, for example. W218 is shown deciding which of the “established speeches” to use to help “her partner to achieve that much longed-for sexual satisfaction” (130–31). Some of these formulaic speeches “she considered absurd embellishments”; others “she did use with very good results—also suggested by regulation with the intent of establishing the mood of the mid-twentieth century” (131; my emphasis).

Clearly, the “work” of W218 may be said to comment on the desire of characters in Heartbreak Tango (or even Puig's Anita) who believe too well in, and are imprisoned by, a prescribed “rhetoric of passion,” fixated even on the “words of [love] songs” (see Christ [1977] 54). Thus, as Puig's texts broadly suggest, and as Lacanian psychoanalysis teaches, linguistic systems of meaning, established rhetorical codes, even specific phrasing can structure and organize the operation of sexuality itself. In fact, according to Bruce Fink: “[a]ny time we talk about body types, scenarios, or fantasies, we're talking about linguistically structured entities. They may take the form of images in one's mind, but they are at least in part ordered by the signifier, and thus at least potentially signifying and meaningful” (12).

Is it possible, then, in Puig's universe (or in psychoanalysis), to move beyond a vocabulary of imprisoning sexual fantasies, to escape those categories of thought that manage (as Puig observed in Spider Woman) “to suffocate our unconscious impulses and mask themselves in the consciousness as the only appropriate forms of conduct” (see 195–6n), to resist totalizing systems of meaning and discursive codes of erotic desire to which we, as subjects of lack, become so wedded? Clearly, those were central questions for Manuel Puig, a writer who began thinking about psychoanalysis in his teenage years and for whom “the very unnatural and hideous sexual roles” (Wheaton 142) were the source of so much anguish; clearly, those were the questions that Puig never entirely answered—although perhaps entertained most fully in Pubis Angelical.

As I've already indicated, the novel that turns to Lacan would seem to suggest that the smallest measure of freedom (which may be all that the subject of psychoanalysis can hope for) is contingent upon recognizing one's implication in one's desire, even one's implication in the language of one's desire. More fundamentally perhaps, the novel would seem to suggest the critical importance of seeing the body itself—and its attendant sexuality—as the effect not of Nature but of patterns of meaning imposed on biological difference, a matter foregrounded in the narrative that closes the futuristic tale of Pubis Angelical and that gives the novel its provocative title.

The story of W218 ends in prison (“Ices Everlasting”), where she has been sent for breaking the Law, for attempting to kill LKJS, her beloved “superior” man who, she comes to realize, has felt contempt for her “inferior” female body, and who has all along intended to kill her (just as Theo had intended to kill the Viennese actress and Pozzi had intended to use, even sacrifice, Anita for the cause of Peronism). While in prison, W218 learns the story of a woman (presumed mad) who once escaped in order to find her daughter. (This “mad-woman's” separation from and search for her daughter recalls the stories of Anita and the Viennese actress, both of whom are, in a sense, imprisoned and, in different ways, cut off from their daughters). We soon learn that this mad-woman is endowed with a “pubis … like that of the angels, without down and without sex, smooth” (231), an image that evidently has the power to stop conflict and battle. As the story goes (and we, along with W218, are its auditors), on entering her now war-torn country in search of her daughter, her nightdress blown aside by the wind to reveal sexless genitals, the madwoman's body is perceived by the fighting soldiers as a source of salvation and a “message of peace” (231).

More to the point, wherever this woman goes in search of her daughter the fighting ceases, fighting that apparently leaves in its wake “children of both sexes, all of them maimed by the war” (232). Arguably, the emphasis on maimed children who are also “gendered” children underscores the relationship central in Puig's writing between sexual difference and oppression. All the more significantly, then in Pubis Angelical, only the woman and her newly found daughter, who is also endowed with an angelic pubis, are able to escape the “maiming,” the “humiliation” by men (232) in which women themselves are in Puig's novels shown to participate, the humiliation that the very fantasy of the suffering heroine requires. Unlike W218, Anita, and the Viennese actress, the bodies of the madwoman and her daughter are neither enslaved nor repressed—“humiliated” neither by the “enemy out there” nor the “enemy” within. With no visible anatomical difference, it seems, the two women are not subject to the usual limits, meanings, and categories inscribed by the Symbolic; indeed, their bodies do not become appropriated—by themselves or by others—by the logic of conflict, opposition, or hierarchy. As Puig himself remarked about the ending of Pubis Angelical: “Once … you don't imagine [sex] as a problem. … Once you've eliminated sex as a means of superiority or inferiority, sex is of no meaning” (Wheaton 143)—and hence no cause for conflict.

Is Puig, then, fantasizing a nostalgic and impossible recovery of a preoedipal and prediscursive sexual identity, a kind of angelic subject that, in psychoanalytic terms, never existed? Is he fantasizing a world without gender? sexual specificity? sex? even signification? At some level, yes. But as Freud and Lacan indicate we can never transcend symbolic meaning, never move outside of a given constellation of signifiers, out of a system of signification that somehow structures the individual subject. We may reconfigure and reshuffle those meanings (as W218's speeches imply), but the human subject can never entirely escape the Symbolic. At the very least, then Puig's tale within a tale may be said simply to point to the fact that from the beginning signifying structures have existed, that they—not Nature—organize the experience of both gender and sexuality, and that meaning may be rigidly, sometimes violently, attached to sexual difference. At bottom, the drama (or the arresting of the drama) surrounding the fantasy of an angelic pubis may point to the fact that the bodily ego does indeed “read”—and that meaning is conferred by the images we see, the cultures we inhabit, the ideologies we follow. All of those provide narrative structures and symbolic tropes that live in (and that are variously assembled by) the subject's unconscious.

In Lacanian parlance, the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real intersect: the “enemy out there” always has been the “enemy in here”; and the body itself is “always overwritten/overridden by language” (Fink 12). Short of erasing sexual difference, then, Puig may be calling (at best) for an ongoing critical engagement with and a transformation of those systems of meaning that mediate sexuality; or, as Kaja Silverman might more precisely suggest, a “transformation of the discursive conditions under which women live their corporeality” (Acoustic Mirror 146). A transformation, Puig might add, both global and individual, of the “linguistically structured entities” (Fink 12), indeed the very sexual fantasies, through which women and men live their desire, “children of both sexes, all of them maimed by the war.”

In the end, then, Puig's gestures toward Lacan in Pubis Angelical lead us to the structure of unconscious desire that his texts try everywhere to investigate, the invisible net of repression they try everywhere to capture, the sexual fantasies and imprisoning eroticism with which his characters are shown everywhere to struggle. Indeed, they lead us to an examination of the unconscious that Puig's own remarks may be said to direct, an examination in which Puig himself may be said to have the last word. In “a last interview” with Ronald Christ, conducted perhaps near the time of his 1989 public reading at the 92nd Street Y, Puig turns us once again to his preoccupation with the problem of the unconscious. His comments—about Freud and Lacan—speak for themselves:

Before Freud you thought a person's psychology was entirely contained in his conscious, with a little margin for those obscure things that were hardly talked about: the instincts! So the authors who thought they knew a character's conscious—what was there to be shown—felt really in command of the situation. … Then Freud comes along and reveals the whole back room! To which we have no direct access. … Anyhow, that's what interests me: to try to capture the unconscious of these characters. … I find the new French school of psychoanalysis very interesting. Very hard to follow, but interesting. Lacan and his disciples. … I have the impression that there's definitely something there. (576–77)

Puig's reflections on his craft—on the process of writing itself—go hand-in-hand with his abiding interest in psychoanalysis, his abiding interest in the “whole back room,” in the “bars that are there and that don't let us act freely,” in the “system that somehow manipulates us” (Christ 1991). To the very end of his career he is reframing and posing the central question of his life: “Because certain things you can change consciously,” Puig once said, “while others seem to be crystallized by the time you reach adolescence and are more difficult by then to change …” (Roffé 15).

Lloyd Davies (essay date April 1998)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6620

SOURCE: “Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Angelic Truth in Manuel Puig's Pubis Angelical,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 93, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 400-10.

[In the following essay, Davies discusses the role of psychoanalytic theory and gender conflict in Puig's Pubis angelical. He concludes that “Though Puig trifles with the conventions and mocks the excesses of psychoanalytic and feminist discourses, he does not repudiate them. …”]

Puig's fifth novel, Pubis angelical, published in 1979, has not attracted the attention, let alone the critical acclaim, that greeted his earlier works, notably Boquitas pintadas (1969) and El beso de la mujer araña (1976). For some critics, Pubis angelical is an early indication of the author's literary decline, which was purportedly confirmed by such works as Sangre de amor correspondido (1984).1 The relative neglect of the work can be attributed in part to its complexity; the tripartite structure is difficult to get to grips with. The text's intricate relationship with the discourse of psychoanalysis is apt to resist traditional readings; there is humour but it is somewhat spare and muted, and the conclusion is mystifying, although for many commentators this is far from being a weakness.

Readings offered by some critics fail to account for the complex and problematic aspects of the text: its exploration of gender and language, its parody of master-discourses such as psychoanalysis, and its approximation to new ways of understanding free of rigorous binary division: issues that form the focus of my own analysis. For Bacarisse, the story of Ana is the ‘principal text’ to which the other two are subordinated: the Actress (known also as the ‘Ama’) and W218 emanate from Ana's subconscious, whether from thought, dream, or delirium is considered unimportant, and the meaning is located by Bacarisse in Puig's espousal of bisexuality. Lavers identifies Puig's major preoccupation as the exploitation of women.2

Other critics have focused on the Freudian and Lacanian ideas with which the text engages on several levels. Cheever's reading emphasizes the text's ‘undecidability’ but claims that it offers more discussion of the Argentine political situation than of Lacanian theory.3 Kerr, with typical insight and lucidity, points to metaphysics and Puig's desire to transcend such binary oppositions as conscious/unconscious, controlled/uncontrolled. The boundaries between the three stories are unstable and Ana is a shifting subject, resolute and confused by turns.4 Tittler notes that cancer can be interpreted as a metaphor of the Other and stresses the partial nature of Ana's access to her own identity, which she constructs as much as discovers.5 Merrim sees Pubis angelical as the ‘ultimate psychological novel’ with the unconscious both founded on ‘high’ Lacanian notions and conceived as a ‘low’ Grade-B movie.6 I argue here that psychoanalytic discourse provides the major focus of the novel. I shall examine Puig's multifaceted use of parody and point to his practice of a ‘female mode of writing’ that exemplifies Kristeva's concept of vréel, a kind of ‘she-truth’.7

Hutcheon describes parody's ‘target’ text as another work of art or, more generally, ‘another form of coded discourse’.8 Parody is readily recognizable in Pubis angelical in the repetition and exaggeration of such discourses, its title already indicating an affinity with those of sexuality and psychoanalysis. Lacan is mentioned explicitly, as is Melanie Klein.9 The character designated W218, who belongs to the futuristic science-fiction story, assumes the name of Dora during her work as a sex therapist, thereby recalling the subject of Freud's well-known case history.10 Ana, who is a cancer patient living in the real world, recalls both Anna O. (the hysteric treated by Freud's Viennese colleague Joseph Breuer) and Freud's daughter. The dialogues between Ana, her former lover, Pozzi, and her friend Beatriz suggest the ‘scene’ of analysis, with Ana as the patient lying in bed, and her visitors, in their different ways, probing her mental condition. Lacan's ideas, notably his concept of the unconscious as structured like language, are discussed by Pozzi and Ana. Puig himself might be compared with Lacan, since both are ‘plagiarists’ in the sense that they appropriate the work of other writers: Puig's distinctive style is predicated on the stealing of the styles and words of others while Lacan deliberately immersed himself in the inexhaustible discourse of others.11

Freudian psychoanalysis is largely male-orientated, a master-discourse aimed at power and domination through coherent story-telling.12 Pozzi masterfully penetrates Ana's ‘hidden’ problem: ‘Lo que estás es con rabia por algo, contra vos misma, y no sabés còmo desquitarte, como un chico.’13 But Ana subverts the normal order and propriety of the psychoanalytic situation, whereby the patient believes in the analyst's mastery and her own non-mastery, by denying Pozzi any superiority over her: ‘Así que somos los dos iguales, unos ilusos y unos irresponsables’ (p. 149) and even turns the tables on him by assuming the role of ‘analyst’ herself (although she sees his problem as deriving from his nationality rather than from any specifically psychological source): ‘Te gusta estar por encima. Te gusta tener raźon y que los otros no’ (p. 173). Puig is clearly interested in the question of national psychology, a point to which I shall return.

The purpose of psychoanalysis is to interpret the ‘unsaid’, the gaps in discourse that indicate repression. The gaps in the text, which intrude in the dialogues Ana maintains with Beatriz and Pozzi, suggest the silences of the analysand precisely where the analyst detects repressed feelings and ideas. But they seem to follow a predictable pattern rather than forming the locus of new insights: in the Pozzi-Ana dialogue (Chapter 9), Pozzi's comments are omitted when the subject is illness and death (ironically since he is the nominal ‘analyst’), and Ana's when it is Argentine politics or Lacan. What is perhaps repressed in the first case is Pozzi's knowledge of his own proximity to death; in the second, the gaps may indicate Ana's subconscious affinity with Lacanian thought in contrast with Pozzi's unLacanian fullness of speech and obsession with rigour. Interestingly, the only ‘complete’ dialogue (between Ana and Pozzi) is on the subject of Peronism (pp. 114–25) and paradoxically this peculiarly intractable subject offers no gaps. Beatriz's voice is suppressed in the first Ana-Beatriz dialogue (pp. 16–22) but in the last (pp. 268–70) Beatriz is the dominant interlocutor, suggesting perhaps that the ‘analysand’ (Ana) still guards her secrets.

Psychoanalysis is an archaeological process of plumbing hidden thoughts and depth, both literal and metaphorical, and in Pubis angelical is frequently described in terms that emphasize its limitless encroachments on everyday life. Ama's husband refers to the ‘último sótano del inconsciente’ (p. 42) of his wife while W218 reveals to her lover, LKJS, ‘subsuelos insospechados de la realidad nacional’ (p. 201). By the time it emerges that the patients at W218's hospital have forgotten that ‘estaban en el fondo de un sótano polar’ (p. 263), the reader has been conditioned by a novelistic world replete with psychoanalytic connotation. To ensure that even the least competent reader is aware of his purpose, Puig resorts to facile symbolism accompanied by an insistence of gender difference, a superficiality that contrasts, of course, with the depth normally associated with psychoanalysis: thus the description of the Winter Garden that forms part of Ama's prison: ‘Armazón de hierro, fuerza de macho. Cobertura de cristal, ¿sometimiento de hembra?’ (p. 64). The commonplaces of psychoanalysis emerge in Ama's dream (easily interpreted by her husband) on the opening page, and in the intensity of father-daughter and mother-son relationships (Fito ‘vive pendiente de la hija’ [p. 28]; the professor who worshipped his dead mother [p. 48]).

Freud's work exemplifies the principle that human problems are fundamentally sexual, that man's truth is a sexual secret to be found at the heart of the subject's most forgotten and private inner discourse.14 Ana tells Beatriz that she has a secret, ‘hay una cosa que no puedo decir’ (p. 50) which turns out to be sexual, a loss of pleasure from love-making with Fito and later with Pozzi (pp. 56–57).15 Later she maintains a coolness towards Pozzi, despite her desire for a new relationship: ‘Estaba bloqueada’ (p. 88). Even her illness has sexual roots, deriving from her repression of her real feelings for Fito: ‘Yo creo que ese tumor me vino de acumular rabia’ (p. 29). On the other hand, she resists the crude Freudianism of Pozzi, who looks to a sexual motive to explain human (especially female) behaviour by suggesting that romance lies behind Ana's exile: ‘No todo tiene que girar alrededor de un hombre’ (p. 148).

This stubborn emphasis on the sexual clearly points to a parodic treatment of psychoanalytic discourse, but again, lest there be any doubt, Puig makes his intentions overtly explicit through reference to the pat and formulaic applications of psychoanalysis: thus Ana's reference to ‘mi psicología de bosillo’ (p. 52) in relation to Pozzi, concluding that his shabby appearance points to priority being given to the more important aspects of his life. In Ama's story, her lover perceives her separation from her daughter as indicative of flawed motherhood, a kind of female lack, to be cured by his (male) Hollywood psychoanalyst. Irony is also evident in the extension of the psychoanalytic from the personal to the collective plane to embrace national characteristics: Ana, generalizing about Argentines, says ‘ocultan porque son reprimidos’ (p. 146). The insistent political discussion (for example, pp. 114–25) does not, in fact, rival the pervasiveness of the psychoanalytic, but it is significant none the less. Pozzi is the main user of this discourse that stakes the most blatant claim to power (as he puts it, ‘política es igual a fuerza’ [p. 120]). Despite the superior tone he adopts in his discussion with Ana, his own comments appear to be somewhat banal but, more significantly, he eventually dies, whereas the apolitical Ana survives.

Is this preoccupation with politics an extraneous element that diminishes the novel's impact?16 Besides undermining yet another master-discourse (political theory), Puig focuses on Peronism as a movement that resists explanation and even the politically sophisticated Pozzi cannot fully understand it (he refers to its ‘gran ensalada ideológica que no se terminaba de entender’ [p. 119]). The erstwhile guardian of rationality and logic now wishes to retreat from them, ‘No hagamos todo tan racional, tampoco’ (p. 123). Here the Freudian association of the male with order and reason and the female with excess and irrationality is partially reversed in these portrayals of Pozzi and of Peronism (representing ‘lo diabólico masculino’ for Corbatta [Corbatta, p. 83]). In view of such heavy Freudian inscription, where the political is subordinated to the psychoanalytical discourse (itself heavily parodied) it appears reasonable to see ‘Peronism’ as referring to something other than what it normally signifies, as pointing to the Other, the chaotic Unconscious, of the Argentine nation. This is a trite interpretation, perhaps, but one in keeping with the Freudian logic which in this text is so frequently associated with the commonplace and stereotyped rather than with original thought. The frequent references to the parapsychological parody the oversimplification of Freudian notions current in much psychological discourse: the Actress or Ama, looking in a mirror that promptly falls and smashes to smithereens, attributes the mishap to the intervention of the dead (p. 70). The juxtaposition of a central Freudian symbol, the mirror, and ‘primitive’ superstitious beliefs, demeans by association the practice of psychoanalysis, while in the putative future world of W218, psychoanalysis has regressed dramatically, since W218's personality assessment will be based on astrological studies ‘scientifically’ supported, however, by saliva and hair analysis (pp. 189–90). Puig may also be parodying Jung's acceptance of the discourse of the supernatural and his obsession with reconciling opposed orders: the text unites the ‘primitive’ (superstition, astrology) and the scientific (psychoanalysis and forensic investigation). The computer consulted by W218 may be suggesting a more sinister side of psychoanalysis in which a skeleton key provides ready-made interpretations for a multiplicity of cases. W218, who is specifically linked to Dora,17 may be compared with Cixous's Dora, who, as she appears in Portrait de Dora, refuses the idea of the interchangeability of all women (Gallop, p. 140); similarly W218 increasingly refuses the advice offered by the machine in response to her consultations (‘con rabia oprimió el botón correspondiente al borrado …’ [p. 189]).

Other more subtle ways in which the psychoanalytic discourse is introduced indicate its stranglehold on the text. Thus the British agent who denounces the Actress to her husband strives to ‘hilvanar fragmentos inconexos de información’ (p. 62), which points to the analyst's task (and to the activity of the reader of a postmodern text such as Puig's). Given this background, the episode of the Actress's jewel-box, the key of which is lost but that turns out to be unlocked (p. 69), may be interpreted as parodying the practice of psychoanalysis, using the latter's own symbolic discourse.

LKJS's act of betrayal is similarly couched in rigorously scientific terminology: while W218 is asleep, he takes ‘un estuche que contenía dos pequeñas planchas de vidrio de las utilizadas en análisis microscópico [ … ]. Muy suavemente introdujo el dedo índice de la mano derecha en el sexo de ella, en busca de secreción vaginal’ (p. 189). Puig's use of the cold and precise discourse of medical science for the narration of LKJS's violation of what at least began as a union of lovers seems to parallel deliberately Pozzi's violation of indeterminate Lacanian thought by his advocacy of ‘una terminología rigurosa’ (p. 171), while Pozzi's glaring lack of the Lacanian virtue of knowing how to listen and how to intervene, how to say the right thing at the right moment reinforces the irony.18 Pozzi tells Ana that he had informed his wife of their affair (p. 173) and, more seriously, discloses to Ana that her illness was thought to be terminal (pp. 222–23). Though rather at odds with Lacanian ideals, Pozzi's impassive ‘scientific’ superiority recalls Freud's own determination not to allow his ‘scientific’ methods to be contaminated by ‘inconsequential’ female discourse: he strove to maintain the masculine rigour of his analyses.19 Freudian obsession with figurative language, where everything has a symbolical rather than a literal meaning,20 seems to echo the W218 story deliberately, in the banning of prepolar artistic expression because it is not figurative (p. 201). The implication is that psychoanalysis is an apparatus of exclusivity and domination imposing its own meaning: Freud, unlike Lacan, believed in the healing capacity of coherent story-telling. Puig parodies not just the analyst but the reader seeking narrative closure and whose interpretative drive is equally voracious: Beatriz is hungry for Ana's ‘plot’ (‘No te interrumpas más que quiero saberlo todo’ [p. 50]). Several male ‘plots’ are thwarted: those of Ama's husband, who plans to suffocate his wife (p. 62); of Theo, who plans to arrange the disappearance of Ama (p. 79); of Pozzi, who wants Ana to lure Alejandro to Mexico so that he can be kidnapped; of LKJS, who plans to sacrifice W218 (pp. 238–39). Puig's ‘plot’21 leaves the reader dissatisfied as far as narrative closure is concerned: instead of unveiling an answer he leaves us with the unknown. The story of W218 resists appropriation, recalling Dora's, which resisted Freud's will to mastery and coherence: Dora ‘refuses to tell further, breaking off before the end’ (p. 27).22

Critics such as Bacarisse have noted the connections between the three stories of Pubis angelical, while according primacy to Ana from whose dreams or subconscious, the other characters, Ama and W218, supposedly derive. The reasons are clear: the reader can more readily identify with Ana, since she lives in the present and is immobilized in the real world of illness and retrospection. Both the other characters are removed from the ‘here and now’, Ama belonging to a nightmarish world of the past and W218 to an equally unreal and odious world set in the future. The obvious objection to imposing such narrative hierarchy is that the title of the novel is drawn not from Ana's story but from the unreal world of W218. Puig is calling into question the kind of binary oppositions that ground normal experiences: primary/secondary, rational/irrational, real/unreal, true/false. The links between the three stories clearly work to the same end, uniting and separating them in an undecidable play of sameness and difference.

The concept of repetition, as Brooks remarks, hovers ambiguously between the idea of reproduction and of change in a forward and backward movement (Reading for the Plot, p. 99). The stories of Ama and W218 repeat Ana's: all three women are clearly bound together in Ana's recollection of her role as Fito's wife: ‘el ama de llaves durante el día y la prostituta ahí contratada todas las noches’ (pp. 85–86). Puig opens the novel with Ama's story and the first chapter contains several references to geometrical shapes, for example, the window's showing ‘forma cilindroide’ (p. 4), and the Viennese artists' obsession for ‘rectas paralelas’ (p. 6). Opposed to these constricting masculine forms is female formlessness, suggested by flow and liquid: ‘Un líquido delicioso y refrescante, pero sin forma, la copa cuadrada estaba allí para prestársela, y mientras tanto lo aprisionaba’ (p. 15). This symbolic imagery is repeated in a starkly literal form at the end of the novel when W218's vaginal secretion is removed by LKJS and imprisoned in glass (pp. 189–90). As I have said, Ana felt that her husband used her as a sex object; Ama's husband not only possesses her but violates her body, despite his appreciation of her as an art object. Often Ana's actions or experiences are given a sharper or more literal focus in those of the other women. Ana is tranquilized for medical reasons; Ama is drugged to facilitate male sexual pleasure. Ana feels implicated in Pozzi's death, since she rejected his plan; Ama is directly involved in Theo's drowning, while W218 stabs LKJS. Difference within sameness is sometimes more emphatic: Theo says he will risk his life for Ama (p. 67), while Pozzi wants Ana to risk her life for his purposes. Ana's illness is involuntary; W218 consciously infects herself. Ana offers herself to the repulsive Alejandro; Ama touches the erect member of the obnoxious actor. These interconnections seem to serve three purposes: they decentre Ana's story, suggest both sameness and difference among the three women, and parody the conventional plot whose links would normally yield clear meaning.

Puig maintains an unrelenting and parodic emphasis on feminist and gender issues; sexual difference and sameness are highlighted in irresolute play. Difference is conspicuously emphasized in the reference to the Actress's bodyguard ‘del género masculino’ (p. 47). Ana's internalizing of essentialist notions of sexual difference (the woman occupying the position of impulsive and uncontrolled Other to the reasonable and equanimous male [for example, p. 93]) indicates how women can themselves fully share misogynist patriarchal attitudes. Both she and W218 search for the superior male despite sensing his alien qualities: Ana writes, ‘Yo nunca los voy a comprender, para mí son seres de otro planeta’ (p. 227). Puig gives a more sinister inflection to Lacan's stress on the impossibility of communication between the sexes in LKJS's obsessive fear that women with mind-reading capabilities would constitute ‘un peligro para este planeta de hombres, mi planeta. Por eso hay que eliminarla, o por lo menos tenerla bajo control, un control de hombres’ (p. 238). This emphatically comic idea of woman as man's natural enemy seems to be a parodic exaggeration of the fears expressed by feminist thinkers such as Kate Millett for whom the world is seen in terms of the ruling (male) sex seeking to maintain and extend its power over the subordinate (female) sex.23

A related aspect of Puig's treatment of the gender issue is his portrayal of the male as plenitude and the female as lack, another and by now commonplace Lacanian premise (‘Le sexe féminin a un caractère d'absence, de vide, de trou, qui fait qu'il se trouve être moins désirable que le sexe masculin dans ce qu'il a de provocant …’).24 Ana reflects on Pozzi:

Es buen mocísimo, es simpático, es inteligente, es sensible, siempre tiene tema de conversacióen, es sexy, tiene buen corazón ¿qué le falta entonces? Nada. Entonces no hay duda que es mi culpa, que yo no puedo sentir nada por nadie. Pero no ¡no es cierto tampoco! (p. 87)

Again conforming to a stereotype of the female as a contradictory and incomprehensible being, Ana is both ignorant and knowledgeable: ignorant of the ‘male’, and ‘scientific’ spheres of psychoanalysis and politics, but at home in the ‘female’, ‘creative’ ambience of opera (p. 168). (Conversely, Pozzi is ignorant of the latter, but authoritative on the former: ‘Yo vengo y te expongo todo el asunto’ [p. 40].) Ana's self-contradictory style points to the Freudian stereotype of woman as ‘dark continent’, as other than herself: she refers to her excessive desire for Fito, to the need to ‘sacarme de encima esa fiebre, bajarla hasta un grado razonable’ (p. 30). The Actress is similarly given to excess, which is curbed only by her husband: ‘El esposo detuvo el desborde histérico con una sabia caricia’ (p. 41). W218 reflects playfully on her own excessive behaviour (stabbing LKJS), the narrative resorting here to the stock-in-trade of feminist discourse: ‘¿Quién descifraría el enigma? vaya jeroglífico el de éste mi corazón de mujer’ (p. 251). Here Puig portrays woman as both socially conditioned (Ana rejects Beatriz's feminism and places her hopes in the emergence of a superior male) and subversive of social norms (Ana ‘fails’ as a mother; the break-up of her home is her responsibility, at least according to her own mother [p. 33]. She turns what appears to be her death-bed into a lovers' bed [pp. 177–78]). She is both open and shut (Pozzi tells her that the surgeons ‘abrieron y volvieron a cerrar’ [p. 221]); an exile, out of her proper place, she occupies borderlands, margins, in-between territory, the gap between life and death (she suffers from cancer, the disease seemingly beyond solution, marked by unregulated growth), between submission and rebellion, the reality of pain and the fantasy of escape (‘¿No se puede fantasear un poco, acaso?’ [p. 172]), stereotyped notions of gender and the creative possibilities of writing, undergoing ‘inscription’ by her surgeons and herself effecting ‘inscription’ via her writing, and between insight (‘Te gusta estar por encima’ [p. 173]) and blindness (her search for her ‘hombre superior’). She remains elusive, resistant to Pozzi's attempts to control her (‘Pero estamos hablando de algo serio. Y con vos no se puede’ [p. 172]), remaining beyond Pozzi's reach (‘él nunca me había terminado de convencer’ [p. 87]). Ana's multiple identity is made explicit in the text: ‘¿me estoy desdoblando?’ (p. 24). The related theme of the double emerges in the Actress's story: her husband employed a (wo)man Thea/Theo to impersonate her, apparently for security reasons.

Puig focuses on yet another site of gender conflict when he considers the ambiguities and implications of language. Language, like the notion of male superiority, may give the impression of naturalness, but is, of course, a conventional and arbitrary system, offering no more than an illusion of being transparent and referential. For Lacan, submission to ‘phallocentric’ language implies submission to phallic authority. Ana's laborious writing and her sense of confusion as she struggles to express her meaning relate to woman's exile from the symbolic order: ‘Estoy loca, escribir cosas sin sentido’ (p. 88); ‘Bueno, mejor empiezo de nuevo’ (pp. 93–94). It is significant that in Pubis angelical language is discussed by women, who focus on its shifting and volatile nature and its slippage of meaning and connotation (thus the discussion between Ana and Beatriz of ‘cenar’ and ‘comer’ [p. 52] and Ana's recourse to terms she would not normally use: ‘En la Argentina habría dicho otra cosa’ [p. 25]). There is an example in the W218 story of language's inherent capacity to deceive: LKJS mentions to W218 an oak tree that could be seen from his house. Searching for him, W218 realizes that he was referring not to a real tree but merely to a representation of one. It is surely not coincidental that Saussure's model for the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign is a tree.25 Another aspect of linguistic fluidity is evident in the use of proper names (Ana/Ama, Theo/Thea), where a variant letter represents difference of identity or gender. In the case of Theo/Thea, the unveiled Thea turns out to be the male Theo. Language is anchored by the symbolic phallus, which acts as its controlling centre; it is a male order in which female identity is constructed negatively as ‘other’. But there remains a play between the two, sexual difference becoming blurred; after leaving Ama, Theo reverts to being Thea, the implication being that sexuality is not natural but socially constructed, since this character's sexual identity then alternates between male and female:

Abruptamente Thea, olvidando que debía afinar la voz, lo interrumpió diciendo que tenía mucho que hacer … El travestido optó por hacerse presente unos instantes [ … ]. Los ancianos lo recibieron con jovialidad [ … ]. Thea devoró una tajada de torta y se excusó. (pp. 70–71)

Further distancing from rigorous masculine language can be found in Chapter 7: constructed like a ‘collage of boleros’,26 it presents a poetic unreal world of infectious music, exotic colour, flowing water, ethereal reflections and identities, a world in which words spring from the air rather than from human lips, in which man as well as woman is capable of tears, where her tenderness is without reason and his emotion is overflowing. The Actress's lover refers to her ‘larga y policroma carcajada’ (p. 133). Poetic metaphors of this sort help to loosen the normal constraints of phallocentric language: indeed, Kristeva argues that synaesthesia itself represents ‘a metaphor in a language that is being destabilized, a language that is not yet, that already no longer is’.27

Lacan regarded Freud's stress on the precariousness of human subjectivity as one of the most significant insights of psychoanalysis; bisexuality was seen as a sign of that precariousness, since it holds together in one subject two different directions, two different emphases. The blurring of difference is based on disguise in the case of Theo/Thea; elsewhere physical difference between the sexes is called into question: a guest of Ama's husband ‘era moreno, delgado, de facciones casi femeninas por lo delicadas, pero la voz ronca y la casi rudeza de los gestos terminaban definéndolo como viril’ (p. 44). Similarly, in the W218 story, the absence of clearly defined sexuality is portrayed positively: ‘una amable voz sin sexo anunció por altoparlantes la salida del vuelo’ (p. 232). Further inflection of sexual (in)difference is found in role inversion, the male being shown to share female ‘deficiencies’: W218, seeing LKJS on the plane, realizes that ‘algún requisito faltaba’ (p. 234). The gaze is the site of male power, associated with the unveiling of the female body: ‘If knowledge is looking, only men can look; and what they look at is women.’28 In Pubis angelical, however, it is the female gaze that exerts power: at the outset the Actress is drugged by her husband because he would not have dared to do to her what he did ‘si tus ojos me hubiesen estado observando’ (p. 11). At the conclusion of the text, W218's gaze allows her to read thoughts,29 and LKJS falls victim to her gaze (p. 235). Puig may be mocking Freud in taking, like Freud, the age of thirty as a landmark in a woman's life, since he inverts the negative associations a woman of this age represents for Freud. In Freud's view, while the male is for ever young, never finished, capable of transforming himself and improving, the woman is definitively immobilized at thirty, incapable of evolving and changing: ‘After a woman has reached a certain age, psychoanalysis can do nothing but avert its gaze.’30 Puig's female, by contrast, reaches at the age of thirty the zenith of her beauty (Theo remarks to the Actress: ‘creo que a los treinta años serás más bella que nunca’ [p. 68]) and also of her mind-reading power and, far from being immobilized, has the ability, through her gaze, to transfix the male in his evil intentions (pp. 81, 237–40).

Several critics have interpreted this novel as an endorsement of bisexuality31 and the instances of diminished sexual difference and the inversion of gender stereotypes would support this view. However, as Heath points out, though bisexuality may represent rejection of the fixed social order, it can return constantly as a confirmation of that order, ‘a strategy in which differences, varieties of existence and experience, are neutralized into the given systems of identity, the two halves—masculine and feminine—adding up to the same old one’.32 Heath urges refusal of the concepts of masculine/feminine. This leads to the enigmatic conclusion of the novel and the figure of the sexless angel. Does this episode conform to the generally parodic tone of the text evident, as I have shown, in the reiterated commonplaces of psychoanalytic discourse and in the tripartite structure where the repetitions and variations offer an analogy of the psychoanalytic process and its interpretative drive?

On one level it may be seen as further parody of the Freudian idea of woman in need of man to make up her lack. Freud was intolerant of bonds between women and suspicious of knowledge circulating among them. The figure of the angel presents a double lack, the lack of a lack, since its ‘pubis angelical’ has no possible need for the male. The angel may represent the otherness, the strangeness of woman, which is suggested by linguistic slippage in the French l'étrange (the uncanny) and l'être-ange (the angelic).33 While Ana represents (diseased) body and Pozzi (ordered) mind, the angel combines the manifestations of otherness, the divine, the feminine and death giving to the feminine what it ‘lacks’: spirituality.34 The angel may also represent bisexuality, but not in the sense of a straightforward combination of the masculine and the feminine but more a kind of neutralization of both, where traces of the male (the angelic and the divine) merge with the female, now ‘under erasure’.35 The fusion of other polarities is also suggested: human/inhuman, ephemeral/eternal (even the angel is prefigured in the text by the Actress [‘Tripulantes y pasajeros la veían pasar y la creían una aparición con su negligée vaporoso al viento’ (p. 79)]), real/unreal, original/copy, and sexed/unsexed.36 Puig's angel may also be associated with the female principle (Kristeva's ‘she-truth’ [Folle vérité, p. 11]) that lies beyond binary divisions and interrogates the sources of our knowledge:

The space ‘outside of’ the conscious subject has always connoted the feminine in the history of Western thought—and any movement into alterity is a movement into that female space; any attempt to give a place to that alterity within discourse involves a putting into discourse of ‘woman’. (Jardine, p. 114)

Puig's image, pointing to the unrepresentable, to what lies beyond our present conceptual apparatus, repudiates the male drive to represent and to know all. According to the story told by W218's fellow patient, the angel puts an end to carnage and war, which suggests yet another of its shifting identities: metaphor for the beyond of binary logic that makes language a battleground for signifying supremacy. From being a sex/art object, woman (as angel) becomes an object of language, a linguistic category. The angel image is ethereal and indeterminate, a kind of coming into being that may indicate the possibility of emergence from metaphysical sickness in the philosophical sphere. But it finally remains out of reach, in an uncontrollable excess of meaning that carries it (and the novel) beyond the scope of rigorous interpretation.

Puig effectively parodies the discourses of psychoanalysis and (to a lesser extent) of feminism in Pubis angelical. His playfulness emerges in the repetition of commonplace concepts which make up these master-narratives. The figure of the angel is itself a commonplace of postmodernism.37 But here lies another undecidable aspect of Puig's text: clichés do not preclude seriousness and serious purpose probably underlies their orchestration.38 Where play ends and seriousness begins is difficult to determine, but to attempt to do so would be to fall into the binary logic that Pubis angelical seeks to transcend.

Though Puig trifles with the conventions and mocks the excesses of psychoanalytic and feminist discourses, he does not repudiate them: as Hutcheon states: ‘Even in mocking parody reinforces; in formal terms it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself, thereby guaranteeing their continued existence’ (p. 75). In this sense Puig both upholds and transgresses the ‘Law’ of psychoanalysis that inscribes his work and flaunts its power over him even as he balks at its influence. He is still able to convince that no discourse can claim to have the last word and to make tentative gestures towards new and liberating modes of thought, which the reader is encouraged to exercise.39


  1. Pamela Bacarisse claims that only La traiciòn de Rita Hayworth (1968), Boquitas pintadas (1969), and El beso de la mujer araña (1976) have enjoyed real success (‘Superior Men and Inferior Reality: Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 66 [1989], 361–70). Although Pubis angelical became a best-seller in Spain, it could not find a publisher in the United States. It was particularly unpopular with feminists, who regarded it as being ‘self-pitying in its portrayal of a mad, wounded woman victim’ (Jaime Manrique, ‘Manuel Puig: The Writer as Diva’, Christopher Street, 203 [1993], 14–27 [p. 19]).

  2. Bacarisse, pp. 366–68; Norman Lavers, Pop Culture into Art: the Novels of Manuel Puig (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988), pp. 44–48.

  3. Leonard A. Cheever, ‘Lacan, Argentine Politics and Science Fiction in Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical’, South Central Review, 5 (1988), 61–74.

  4. Lucille Kerr, ‘The Dis-Appearance of a Popular Author: Stealing Around Style with Manuel Puig's Pubis angelical’, in her Reclaiming the Author: Figures and Fictions from Spanish America (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1992), pp. 89–110.

  5. Jonathan Tittler, Manuel Puig, Twayne World Authors Series, 836 (New York: Twayne, 1993), pp. 67–78.

  6. Stephanie Merrim, ‘For a New (Psychological) Novel in the Works of Manuel Puig’, Novel, 17 (1984), 141–57.

  7. Julia Kristeva, Folle vérité (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979), p. 11.

  8. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), p. 16.

  9. Puig clearly reflects Argentine academic interest in psychoanalysis. Stephen M. Hart indicates the importance of psychoanalysis in Latin America and particularly in Argentina, where the Instituto de Estudios Psicoanalíticos, devoted to Lacanian theory, was established at the University of Còrdoba in the 1970s (The Other Scene: Psychoanalytic Readings in Modern Spanish and Latin-American Literature [Boulder, CO: Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1992], pp. 4–6).

  10. Sigmund Freud, ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. by James Strachey, 24 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), VII, 3–122.

  11. Kerr, pp. 103, 105, and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Lacan: The Absolute Master (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 2.

  12. Steven Marcus, ‘Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History’, Partisan Review (41) 1974, 12–23, 89–108 (pp. 91–92).

  13. Manuel Puig, Pubis angelical (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1979), p. 149. All references are to this edition.

  14. See Jane Gallop, Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter's Seduction (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 137, and John Forrester, The Seductions of Psychoanalysis: Freud, Lacan and Derrida (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 298.

  15. Ana's late father also had a ‘secret’ (membership of a Masonic order) that Ana chooses to reinterpret in sexual terms: ‘Es que vos tendrías alguna querida por ahí, y le dabas excusas a mamá’ (p. 104).

  16. This is the view of Jorgelina Corbatta (Mito personal y mitos colectivos en las novelas de Manuel Puig [Madrid: Origenes, 1988], p. 86).

  17. Puig playfully uses the vexed area of female desire to link W218 to Dora: Freud locates the site of Dora's sexual excitation at the thorax, displaced thence from the genital area (Freud, Standard Edition, p. 30). For W218, full satisfaction is marked by a yawn (Pubis angelical, p. 127). In both characters the erotic focus moves from the lower body to the upper, suggesting the union of the sexual and the spiritual, a notion that Puig reinforces in the image of the ‘pubis angelical’.

  18. See Forrester, p. 148. Merrim's contention that Ana ‘trivializes’ Lacan (Merrim, p. 156) seems misplaced: it is rather the masculine approach based on such concepts as ‘rigour’ and ‘depth’ that (paradoxically) trivializes Lacan.

  19. For further discussion of this aspect of Freud see, for example, Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 231–42.

  20. For Freud, everything is a representation of something else; as Peter Brooks writes: ‘Language can “mean” something other than what it “says”, can suggest intentions of which the subject is not consciously aware’ (Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992], p. 55).

  21. Peter Brooks refers to Puig in connection with ‘the return to plot in a parodic way’ (Psychoanalysis and Storytelling [Oxford: Blackwell, 1994], p. 122).

  22. Steven Marcus comments that Dora got her own back on Freud ‘by refusing to allow him to bring her story to an end in the way he saw fit’ (‘Freud and Dora’, p. 105).

  23. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (London: Virago Press, 1977).

  24. ‘Qu'est-ce qu'une femme?’, in Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981), III: Les Psychoses, pp. 195–205 (p. 199).

  25. Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de Linguistique Générale (Paris: Payot, 1931), pp. 97–100.

  26. René A. Campos, ‘The Poetics of the Bolero in the Novels of Manuel Puig’, World Literature Today, 65 (1991), 637–42 (p. 640).

  27. Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 333.

  28. Labanyi, ‘Voyeurism and Narrative Pleasure in Manuel Puig's The Buenos Aires Affair’, Romance Studies, 19 (1991), 105–16 (p. 107).

  29. Telepathy is, of course, closely related to psychoanalysis. The power of reading thoughts depicted in Pubis angelical typically exaggerates a psychoanalytic practice designated ‘thought-transference’ by Freud (Forrester, p. 252).

  30. See Sarah Kofman, The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud's Writings, trans. by Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 223.

  31. See, for example, Bacarisse, p. 368.

  32. Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fix (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), p. 142.

  33. This point is made by Bryan S. Turner, ‘Introduction’, in Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, trans. by Patrick Camiller (London: Sage, 1994), pp. 1–36 (p. 33).

  34. Luce Irigaray states that angels ‘link what has been split by patriarchy—the flesh and the spirit, nature and gods, the carnal and the divine, and are a way of conceptualizing a possible overcoming of the deadly and immobilizing division of the sexes in which women have been allocated body, flesh, nature, earth, carnality while men have been allocated spirit and transcendence’ (The Irigaray Reader, ed. by Margaret Whitford [Oxford: Blackwell, 1991], p. 157). Lacan notes the complicity of the divine and amorous in ‘Une lettre d'âmour’ (Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1975], xx: Encore, 1972–1973, pp. 73–82).

  35. Alice Jardine refers to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the Body-without-Organs whereby they seek to denaturalize the body; this new body, like spatiality, also is ‘lisse, smooth and sleek’ (Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986], p. 213).

  36. Irigaray describes the angel as ‘the figurative version of a sexual being not yet incarnate’ (p. 173).

  37. See Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 188–206.

  38. Clichés, as many critics have remarked, provide a common ground and common habitation: see, for example, Carlos Fuentes, Nueva novela hispanoamericana (Mexico City: Joaquín Mortiz, 1972), p. 9. Christopher Prendergast claims that clichés become routine formulae ‘because they are in some way “right” for the situations and states of the world to which they refer’ (The Order of Mimesis: Balzac, Stendhal, Nerval, Flaubert [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], p. 208).

  39. I am very grateful to my colleagues Professor Valerie Minogue and Mr. J. B. Hall for their useful comments, which led to several clarifications and extensions to this article.

Additional coverage of Puig's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 32, and 63; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Hispanic Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1 and 2.

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Puig, Manuel (Vol. 10)


Puig, Manuel (Vol. 28)

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