Manuel Puig 1932–
Puig is one of the leaders of the recent Latin American literary development known as the Boom. Like the work of his contemporaries José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Severo Sarduy, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez, Puig's fiction is stimulated by the political and social tensions in Latin America. These writers are linked by their experimentation with literary form, their concern with unconscious and irrational forces in human life, and their pioneering portrayal of the lower classes of Latin America. Puig has received special critical attention for his innovative narrative style. By interlocking his characters' dialogues and internal monologues with fragments of newspaper and magazine articles, conversations from soap operas, Hollywood movies, trivial novels, and lyrics from mundane popular songs, Puig suggests that individuals supplant spontaneous emotion and reaction with their hackneyed counterparts portrayed in popular art forms. His plots, which resemble those of serials and detective stories, rely heavily on sentimentality and cliché, but most critics agree that the demand on the reader to assimilate a montage of information and the irony created by the gaps between the characters' real and imagined lives give Puig's work the status of serious literature.
In his initial works, La traicion de Rita Hayworth (1968; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth) and Boquitas pintadas (1969; Heartbreak Tango), Puig depicts the poor inhabitants of the Argentinian pampas who fantasize about the glamorous lives of movie and dance idols rather than confronting their own emotionally weak relationships. The financially successful Leo and Gladys of his third and more complex work, The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), are ostensibly closer to a glorified media image, yet in imitating stereotypical male and female roles they are unable to achieve spiritual satisfaction, and the romantic ideal is revealed to be even more of an illusion than in his earlier novels. Somewhat similar are the imprisoned characters in El beso de la mujer arana (1976; The Kiss of the Spider Woman), who recount movie plots as a means of avoiding boredom and loneliness. However, since the sharing of the plots engenders communication and understanding between these ideologically opposed cellmates, popular art is here shown to be a positive, unifying force.
Because Puig's characters allow the world of attractive images to replace a dull reality, critics find implicit in all his works the theme of subjective truth. Maldicion eterna a quien lea estas paginas (1982; Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages) treats this issue directly. Told almost entirely through dialogue, the shifting factual information and confused time frames of the novel create a tense aura of uncertainty. Although the clarification of facts with the presentation at the novel's end of letters and documents is criticized as anticlimactic, Puig's continued experimentation with technique is praised.
Puig's treatment of such complex issues as politics, sexual power, homosexuality, and violence is seen by some critics as superficial, but is generally regarded as insightful and moving. These issues have aroused enough controversy in Argentina to cause Puig's books to be banned, and Puig has left his country to live in the United States.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
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…. 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, sadomasochistic 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…. 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...
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If [the] insistent use of unedited dialogue tends to make ["Kiss of the Spider Woman"] read a bit like a radio script …, it is Mr. Puig's fascination with old movies that largely provides its substance and ultimately defines its plot, its shape. What we hear are the voices of two suffering men, alone and often in the dark, but what we see are panther women and zombies, exquisite Nazi heroines and radical racing drivers, exotic settings (a lot of finely perceived detail, especially about fashion) and fabulous metamorphoses, all the iconographic imagery, magic and romance of the movies.
Not that there's anything very innovative about the way this is accomplished. The homosexual is simply an old movie buff who entertains his young, somewhat unimaginative cellmate—especially after lights-out, as a kind of lullaby, and later to get the student's mind off his agony when the police are weakening him with food poisoning—with the plots of fanciful and sentimental old films, seducing him, as it were, with story.
There are five of these films, plus a sixth remembered but (during a lovers' quarrel) not told, and they all touch on the novel's themes of repression and liberation, beauty and (or versus) goodness, strange or unusual women, somnambulism and heroism, love, fear, change and a desire for "Hollywood endings," prefiguring many elements of the novel's plot (the homosexual becomes a kind of tragic film heroine, for example, the student one of the living dead). (p. 15)
But other than these film synopses, there's not much here. A few ambiguous hints about the two men's lives outside of prison …, the footnote lecture on homosexuality and a few radical slogans …, and a laborious seduction in which the seducer is in effect seduced.
The translation by Thomas Colchie, while adequate, seems stiff and hasty, needing a relaxed revision. It fails to capture Mr. Puig's easy colloquial flow, and the voices of the two very different protagonists are not distinguished. (pp. 15, 31)
Robert Coover, "Old, New, Borrowed, Blue," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1979, pp. 15, 31.
Puig is a master of narrative craftsmanship, but [Kiss of the Spider Woman] is no mere concoction. Every subtlety of character and situation—and there are many, as the relationship between the two men develops and changes—is conveyed by dialogue, and conveyed fully. The economy of means mirrors the cell's constriction. There is no exposition at all; the police documents we are given in the middle of the book only confirm what we have inferred already. Yet except for Molina's stories we have heard only the brief, inarticulate exchanges of those who in other circumstances would not have become friends.
The dialogue must work hard. Puig has not only characters to develop, but a story to tell. It is not for nothing that Molina's films are about love and betrayal. The delicate changes that take place in both men as the days pass and they learn from each other lead to a climax; they are ratified by as violent an event as concludes any of Molina's stories. In a paradoxical rebuke to all us snobs of culture, the tawdry, sentimental art is seen to have nourished not only the life of the imagination, but real affection, and, at length, heroic self-sacrifice. The relationship which has made Valentin more of a woman has made Molina more of a man, and we recognize both changes as gain. (pp. 575-77)
Clara Claiborne Park, in a review of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 575-77.
[Recent Latin American fiction is] constantly in search of new stances, angles, tones, twists, and modes of narrative, but it asks these discoveries to lead it back to a shared world, not off into a region of pure play or dream.
The work of Manuel Puig is a good example, since in his four novels he evokes or simulates, among other things, soap operas, school essays, sentimental letters, police reports, the novels of Robbe-Grillet, newspaper items, film scripts, tapes of telephone conversations, the later chapters of Ulysses, an application form for an art competition, a psychiatrist's notes, a report on an autopsy, and the testimony a certain character would have given if he were asked—to...
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[Pubis Angelical] is a collage of the human, subhuman, and superhuman, through which characters pass without achieving full dimension. During the course of the book Puig manages to set before the reader all the dubious enrichments of the age: computers, robots, ESP, occult prophecies, assassinations, terrorism, espionage, drugs, prostitution, movie-making, munitions-making, and feminism versus the myth of male superiority. His people are a mixed lot, and most of them come to rather unpleasant ends.
Two interrelated stories could be said to represent exposition and resolution. One focuses on a mad scientist and his off spring, the other on an Argentine expatriate divorcée confined to a cancer...
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Readers aware of La traición de Rita Hayworth and El beso de la mujer araña will find similar sexual and political considerations in [Pubis angelical]. Mexico City is the setting; the female Argentine protagonist Ana, who is in a hospital there, suffers the psychological and political repercussions of having experienced most of her life in contemporary Argentina. The substance of the novel consists of her discussions with two other characters concerning this past, her diary and her private fantasies.
Puig has employed his now standard formal construction: sixteen chapters divided into two equal parts. The development of Ana's series of conversations is chronological, providing...
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Technically, ["Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"] is a tour de force. Except for a handful of letters at the end to sew up the plot, it consists entirely of dialogue between its only two speaking characters.
They are Juan Jose Ramirez, an old and ailing Latin-American political leader in exile in Manhattan, and Lawrence John, a cynical young New York graduate student (a sort of careerist grad student) who has been hired to push Ramirez on wheelchair outings in the city.
The speech is presented in what is, I guess, the international style:
—How are you?
—I am fine.
Occasionally one of them does not respond…....
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Manuel Puig is a Marxist and the United States is, after all, the major stronghold of world capitalism, its inhabitants stupefied and/or morally decayed, the rich by too much and the poor by too little; everyone is a victim in some sense. Still, Puig is also a Freudian. He knows—as the protagonist [of Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages], a 74-year-old Argentine expatriate named Juan José Ramirez, tells his interlocutor, 36-year-old Larry John—that "There's a particular danger involved in Marxism, for young people. Aside from the moral coherence and the voice it gives to so many feelings and sentiments. It's such a total critique of society, and the mission it sets itself so overshadows other...
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As in Puig's previous experiments, [in "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"] things are not as simple as they first seem. The only way Mr. Ramirez can recover a sense of his own life is to plumb Larry's past and his fantasies. What Mr. Ramirez is really seeking is some key to his own subconscious. At first the self-serving Larry is reluctant to indulge his often exasperating patient except when humoring him appears to be expedient. Gradually, though, Larry becomes caught up in Mr. Ramirez's psychological game, and the two of them begin exploring a mélange of fantasy, sex, guilt and dreams, all the therapeutic stuff of everyday post-Freudian reality.
These strange conversations between an old...
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Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages is, like Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, developed almost entirely as a splintered colloquy between two unlikely companions. It is also, like the earlier novel, a structural failure, and for much the same reason: the conclusion, disastrously, comments on and "explains" an otherwise richly ambivalent and mysterious text. It is as if Puig lost his nerve and decided, for whatever reason, to serve that famous "general audience," an audience that is already grandly served by what Blanchot has called "the nonliterary book," the book that has, "before it is read by anyone … been read by everyone." Puig's natural readership, the readers of literary books,...
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