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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.)
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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 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. (pp. 412-13)
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 everpresent 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 the 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…. 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. (pp. 413-14)
Ronald Christ, in a review of "The Buenos Aires Affair," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIV, No. 13, June 24, 1977, pp. 412-14.
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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.
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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.
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[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 say nothing of the "principal imaginary actions" of another character. All this may sound like a set of gags, or even like naturalism gone wild, yet the point is neither wit nor verisimilitude but formal variety, which is itself a fidelity to the shifting relations between experience and its representations.
Movies play a large part in all of Puig's novels…. (p. 43)
The movies, for Puig, are true not to the thin dreams of glamour we usually associate with them, but to the emptiness and solitude the dreams are supposed to disguise. [In The Buenos Aires Affair] Gladys acquires a certain amount of sexual experience in America—enough to allow her to masturbate in the footnotes while the flow of her thoughts is recorded on the rest of the page—but none of her men will stay with her, and Puig suggests that her upbringing and her favorite movies, listed above, have helped to make things difficult for her. She wants good financial prospects and romantic love and a satisfactory physical relation. Finally she breaks down in New York, and is taken home by her mother.
Gladys, like everyone else in her world, is lulled and charmed by movies, songs, poems, and political promises which hide their truths even as they tell them. The point, of course, is not only that such consolations are part of the problem, but that they are the only consolations going. The poor comforts of culture begin to resemble those of religion: we cannot live with them, and have a hard time without them.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a slightly more cheerful work concentrating on hidden truths rather than acts of hiding…. The occasional footnotes to the narrative carry on a rather elementary symposium on homosexuality…. But then they also offer a splendid pastiche of a press-book for a Nazi movie showing the conversion of a slinky French singer to love for the Führer and disgust for the degradations her cherished France is suffering at the hands of the villainous Jews. The result of this activity at the foot of the page, in conjunction with what goes on higher up, is not a simple equation between sexual and political repressions, but an intimation of the complicated lure of prejudice, whether political or sexual.
Puig is especially interested in the notion that many homosexuals of both sexes, until recently, imitated, in reverse, the defects of heterosexuality. Luis Molina, the homosexual in the novel, wants to be treated not only as a woman, but as grotesque old stereotype of a woman, submissive, anxious to please, lovable, flirtatious, kind, and the rest. Clearly, a politics of sexuality is involved here, freedoms are to be fought for. But how are they related to other freedoms? Puig poses the question by making Arregui a political prisoner; but he pursues it by having Molina turn out to be an informer, planted in Arregui's cell by the warden of the prison. Then Molina falls for Arregui, doesn't want to leave the prison even when he is paroled, and is shot while trying to get a message to Arregui's friends. He dies for the cause, in a fashion, but Arregui himself sees Molina's death differently: "he let himself be killed because that way he could die like some heroine in a movie."
It is a measure of what has happened to Arregui in the course of the novel that this thought is a compliment, not a dismissal. Throughout the book, illustrating every theme, giving structure to the whole narrative, Molina has been telling Arregui the plots of movies he remembers, expertly evoking actors and actresses, sets and lighting…. Arregui understands, as Molina doesn't, that these films deal in sexual terror, that they conjure up a universe ruled by the mutual fear of the sexes, but blurred by images of doting sacrifice and incursions of the supernatural.
But then Arregui has to learn to enjoy the movies as Molina does. He comes to see the rags of humanity hanging to these stilted tales, something his stern Marxism could not have taught him. Even Nazi junk, as Arregui correctly identifies the film about the French singer, corresponds to genuine desire as well as to the instructions of a vicious propaganda. When Arregui at last tries to invent a movie himself and makes Molina the star—"You're the spider woman, that traps men in her web"—he is revoking the implications of the first movie Molina recounted, the one about the panther woman. And from the kiss that Arregui and Molina then exchange, if from nowhere else, terror has been banished. This begins to sound like one of Molina's movies, but Puig manages to end his novel before sentimentality, coming round again, knocks over the precarious truth he has rescued from the eager arms of romance. (pp. 43-4)
Michael Wood, "The Claims of Mischief," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, Nos. 21 & 22, January 24, 1980, pp. 43-7.∗
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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 ward in Mexico City. The cancer patient, Ana, survives her operation and is humbled by her cure to the point where she wishes to resume her relationship with her mother and daughter, on a more loving basis….
Despite its unearthly flummery, blatant vulgarity, and a concluding burst of sentimentality, Publis Angelical is worthy of respect as an honest confrontation between the writer and his circumstances, but compared with Puig's truly innovative first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, it seems woefully derivative, Puig mirrors a lamentable period in history whose weaknesses he gives regrettable prominence. His final message takes form as an outcry against violence.
Elizabeth B. Marshall, "A World Where Man Is Prey," in Américas (reprinted by permission from Américas, a magazine published by the Organization of American States in English, Spanish, and Portuguese), Vol. 32, No. 5, May, 1980, p. 48.
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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 a general structural unity. Most chapters, however, contain brief narratives seemingly unrelated to her immediate circumstance; they take place in a variety of times and places: elegant and nostalgic Vienna, Mexico of the 1930s and 40s, a plastic futuristic twenty-first century. The novel opens with one of these fantasy sections; they appear regularly throughout it, and three chapters are entirely such narratives. They can be read as Ana's projections of worlds she has been unable to find in her past, or perhaps as ideal escapes from the harsh reality that surrounds her. The traditional sex roles played out in these sections exemplify ideals articulated by Ana in her dialogue and diary. The activization of the reader in the process of integrating these narratives is one of the novel's successful and attractive features.
As in El beso de la mujer graña, Puig deals with the sexuality of politics and the politics of sex, and the relations between the two. Ana's discussions with a political exile and her personal relationship with him are one evident exposition of this matter. Despite her ostensible desire to be apolitical, all aspects of her life are influenced, if not determined, by the political realities of her life in both Argentina and Mexico. Although more a continuation than an innovation in Puig's writing, Publis angelical is perhaps his best novel.
Raymond L. Williams, in a review of "Publis angelical," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, p. 70.
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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….
Occasionally they exchange silences….
It is maddening because they sound rather alike and unless they call each other by name from time to time you find yourself counting back to see whose voice is saying what.
A further difficulty is that Ramirez speculates constantly about Larry's life, inventing parents, a past, a wife, situations that may exist in whole, part or, probably, not at all. Ramirez also likes to be evasive and contradictory about his own life, speaking in panic of enemies who still pursue him. (He apparently escaped a bomb blast that killed his wife and family in their home country.)
Beyond his problems of paranoia, Ramirez appears to have lost his memory for the meaning of words and indeed of the realities they represent, although this is probably only a device to make Larry talk more. Ramirez in his unidentified pain and his querulous fears is nothing if not fluent….
It is true that Ramirez, who is in his 70s, seems the carrier of an international intellectual idealism, however spent or demoralized he is, and is both fascinated and horrified by the cynicism and opportunism he finds in Larry.
For the reader, it is remarkable (a grudging admission) how much information can be conveyed only through printed speech, without a stage direction or any descriptions of time, place, weather or interior states beyond what the men care to say to each other.
But the reader, struggling through 230 pages that are very slow going indeed, may well ask if form and substance are ideally matched: whether a technical exercise, however clever, was the best way to get at this study of conflicting cultures and the ambiguities in the relationship.
It is not that nothing happens, or that the relationship does not change; Ramirez has health failing fast, is ever more dependent on Larry, and Larry is more dependent on the old man, if only as a way around the present impasse in his own life.
Still, there is a kind of sterility in the cleverness, a sense of game-playing that denies or at least undermines the emotional weight Puig does seem to have felt in the relationship and particularly in the forlorn old man.
I found myself thinking of one and another of the Latin-American novelists (Gabriel Marquez most notably) in their fable-making richness but also of Georges Simenon in his non-Maigret psychological novels, hardly less spare in style than Puig but in the end going far deeper into character.
As an experiment, "Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages," even stingier with illuminating detail than a scenario, is interesting but not, I feel, interesting enough, and frustrating.
The title, I'm not even going to think about.
Charles Champlin, "Novel Voices, Nowhere Rooms," in Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1982, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1982, p. 3.
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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 concerns that young people who embrace Marxism often find within it their means to deny the necessity for any further exploration of their own psyche."
The conflict between Marx's theory of alienation and Freud's incessant probing of our psyche motivates and gives life to this brilliant tour de force….
The narrative is told entirely in dialogue between the two men. Not until the very end, the dénouement, is the story carried by a series of letters. Ramirez, an invalid with a fragile heart and high blood pressure, lives in a home for the aged and the sick. Several times a week he is wheeled about Greenwich Village by Larry John, born Giovanagelo, an impoverished, unemployed history professor. (p. 19)
The two men probe each other's past like duelists—parrying, lunging, seeking out the vulnerable center. (To make a point? To delve into a mystery that will make life a little easier once it is revealed?) Their battle is at times heart-rending, at other times frustrating. They catch each other in lies, in harsh truths; they are guileful, they are ferociously candid, they are soon enmeshed in fantasies, conspiring in their invention.
All this lays bare the struggles in their lives, in the lives of their families—husband and wife, mother and son, father and son, worker and employer. Fiction or truth? We don't know. It doesn't matter. Fiction exposes truth—and truth fabricates a curtain to hide behind. Ramirez and Larry are metaphorically father and son. Sometimes they are interchangeable. We have to backtrack on the unfolding dialogue to remind ourselves who is speaking. It is confusing—deliberately so. Again, it doesn't matter. Our inner and external lives are being scrutinized, suddenly spotlighted, just as suddenly enveloped in darkness.
Larry tells us about his sometimes violent father—whose brutality explodes spasmodically from a silent passivity—about his loving mother, and about his Oedipal desires, soon translated into various (not many) amorous adventures. Sex is withheld, given, thwarted, passionate. Ramirez, the aged amnesiac, now becomes a voyeur, constantly pushing at Larry to reveal more and more explicitly his sexual desires for his mother and his intimacies in his sundry affairs with young women.
From Ramirez we discover little. He was a political dissident in Argentina, led a general strike, was imprisoned, tortured, finally released and permitted to leave his country under the auspices of the human rights organization that subsidizes him. He had a wife and a son, both of whom were murdered by the Argentine authorities—or have they disappeared, or did they never exist? He has a rich brother, he says, who gave money for his own release from prison. He ignored his wife and child in the past because of his commitment to the fight for trade union independence—or is that also fantasy? The old man's fantasy or Larry's? (pp. 19-20)
By the time we reach the concluding exchange of letters, we realize that we have been through a series of psychoanalytic forays (I hesitate to use the word sessions) between the old man and the younger one—that each is responsible for his own trauma, his own neuroses, yet also that both are casualties of history.
Whether one accepts Freud's Oedipal theory or Marx's theory of alienation is of course up to the reader. Puig is an artist, though, and his portrait of two men grappling with their suffering is exceedingly moving and brilliantly done. Strangely, the more space I put between the book and myself, the more tragic I find it. It sticks to the mind. Like one cursed, I cannot find peace, cannot escape from its pain. (p. 20)
William Herrick, "Alienated within and without," in The New Leader (© 1982 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXV, No. 13, June 28, 1982, pp. 19-20.
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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 man who has suppressed his memory and a young man who obeys only the law of self-gratification are sometimes funny, but in general Puig has chosen to investigate the serious side of their relationship. In "Kiss of the Spider Woman," an aging homosexual and a political activist, cellmates in a Buenos Aires prison, carry on a dialogue in which the recounting of old movies creates a bond of invention between them. Similarly in "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages," mutual fantasies, and in several episodes mutual dreams, begin to create a tentative subconscious bridge between these unlikely psychic castaways. And when Larry starts decoding Mr. Ramirez's prison journal, which opens with the title phrase, so that we (and they) begin piecing together some of Mr. Ramirez's secrets as well, their relationship becomes even more bizarre. (p. 9)
"Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages" has the unusual effect of a morbid radio play that you only listen to with your mind's ear. Puig spins a fascinating web of words, capturing the reader's attention with his uncanny ability to develop plot and character solely through dialogue. Overhearing these pathetic but sometimes riveting conversations turns one into a kind of blind voyeur listening to the twin soliloquies of two characters bent on symbiotic disintegration.
Puig's characteristic virtuosity has not failed him in this English-language experiment, which devotees of psychological fiction will no doubt appreciate; but the novel has a pared-down and displaced quality. Its reliance on psychology and its occasionally ferocious dialogue are more reminiscent of the theater of the absurd than of Puig's passionately Latin early novels. It is surely one of the vagaries of history that a noted Argentine novelist should give us a book set in New York precisely when we would like to know more about affairs in his own country. That irony is, of course, no fault of Puig, who, like so many Latin American writers, must work in exile. Seen in that context, Larry and Mr. Ramirez are dispossessed souls whose very rootlessness reveals, perhaps inadvertently, the sad truth about life in Argentina. (p. 12)
Allen Josephs, "Negative Symbiosis," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 4, 1982, pp. 9, 12.
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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, could comfortably fit into Madison Square Garden, but in this book he seems to be reaching out to snare the same people who think of, say, John Gardner as pretty complex. It's too bad, because Puig has something, most obviously a wonderful sense that the essential elements of life, life's serious "things," are precisely the elements of soap opera, sit-coms, and B-movies. Both Kiss of the Spider Woman and this new novel almost set these two planes one atop the other, so that they look like one plane. But both novels fail, and the failure is one of form; or, to be clearer, the novels fail because Puig holds his content to be somehow more than just materials, to be a set of ideas.
This novel's two characters are by turns (and turns!) dull, narrow, crude, envious, misinformed, and politically boring and ingenuous—and at times, disingenuous. Larry, the younger man, an American, even speaks of revolutionary "struggle"—here in the land of flabby unions, pots, and looms: the author's ironic sense of dopiness here is brilliant.
We are almost immediately aware that Puig is aware of the fact that he is writing an ambiguous comedy in which the deepest feelings about sex, love, family, marriage, patriotism, loneliness, and on and on, are proved to be also the "deepest feelings" of those who turn these things into the corrupt products of the market and national politics, those products that keep us dozing in the face of their familiar, pleasant, and undisturbing selves. All the dialogue is vapid, its "themes" but a weird reflection of things long ago debased. Puig has set himself a tough problem: to criticize cultural enervation in the same language that has helped bring that enervation to pass. So we read on. (pp. 1-2)
[Larry and Mr. Ramirez] have convoluted talks in the most hopelessly bad dialogue this side of comic books, the pulp magazines of my youth, and B-movies, in which one or the other of them plays the roles of victim, hero, betrayer, etc. It is delicious. Larry's life is taken over selectively by Mr. Ramirez, and, in part, the converse is true. Whole swatches of dialogue are repeated verbatim in different contexts, serving to change the "meaning" of the words—words that are already almost completely drained of meaning, so that language becomes a shadow of a shadow. It is very interesting work.
Even more interesting is that one slowly comes to suspect that Larry may not exist at all, but is an invention of Mr. Ramirez's, someone onto whom he can project his own misery and sadness, through whose talk Ramirez's ruined life can become that of another man, a fantasy American to take the heat of Ramirez's bad conscience. On the other hand, Mr. Ramirez may be Larry's invention: we have no true evidence for anything, since the text, which can be, as in all fiction, verified only by itself, gives us none. Even the places in the book are carefully restricted to names, words—nothing is described.
But then: The last eight pages of the novel are made up of a series of letters that serve to "explain" it, to tell us that Larry is indeed real (and worse, that he is the lout we were not sure he was); that Ramirez is noble and good, though mentally ill (we were not sure of any of these things either); and that the book has a "subject" after all, something like "appearances are deceiving." The effect is catastrophic, and the textual strength, the risk of the novel, disintegrates. The complex deployment of what Barthes calls the "middle voice" (in this case one should perhaps say "voices"), through which Puig permitted himself no authorial intrusion, is subverted at the very end of the novel, damaging its wholeness irremediably. This is terribly depressing, at least to me, since it is clear that Puig is a writer of luminous talents. (p. 2)
Gilbert Sorrentino, "South American Fantasy, Obsession, and Soap Opera: 'Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), August 1, 1982, pp. 1-2.
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