Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine) proclaims in its subtitle that it is a ‘detective novel’ but it is unlike any other detective novel you will read. It begins in typical fashion when the mother of Gladys Hebe D’Onoforio discovers she is missing:
“Without hesitation Clara opened the bedroom door, the bed was in disorder and Gladys had disappeared. But surely she must have left a message, a few lines saying she had gone out to look at the sea?”
Even the second chapter may seem appropriate to the genre, though its format – a one paragraph description of a room with a man and woman in it– is a little unusual. We can, however, infer that the woman is Gladys:
“The woman’s skin is very white, the gag in her mouth has been improvised by a man’s silk handkerchief, multi-coloured but sober, her hands fastened behind her with a morning tie.”
Even the fact that each chapter begins with a quotation from a movie of the 1930s or 40s (the Hollywood glamour of the period contrasting with the seediness of the situation described) may not seem too strange. In Chapter III, however, we retreat from the ‘crime’ completely with a summary of Gladys’ life. Once again, the style of narrative changes, as it will do throughout the novel, Puig adopting the emotionless tone of a psychiatric report – particularly with its focus on Gladys’ sex life (“Sexually there were three important episodes during her prolonged adolescence”). The chapter ends with a numbered list of sexual partners, before going on to provide further detail: we discover a woman who did not have her first sexual experience until late in life and has since struggled to develop relationships, a result of low confidence and problems with her ‘nerves’:
“…during that winter the situation got worse, the lack of sleep produced growing headaches and she had to increase the dosage of tranquilizers, though the quantity necessary to make her rest the whole night made her sleepy for the rest of the day…”
We become even more intimate with Gladys in the next chapter as we return to the night she went missing in a description of her attempts to masturbate (complete with foot-notes) which echoes the final chapter of Ulysses, her fantasies originating from the real-life encounters of the previous chapter.
Having established the character of the victim, Puig moves on to the suspect, Leo Druscovich. A similar summary of his life reveals that Gladys’ sexual dissatisfaction is nothing compared to Leo’s tortured sexual longings. Leo can only be aroused if he feels he is being resisted, as he discovers with a class-mate, Susana:
“The girl did not offer any resistance, Leo penetrated her without difficulty. Suddenly his erection subsided and despite all his attempts it was impossible to complete the act that afternoon.”
All the pieces are now in place for the relationship between Gladys and Leo (which we will discover in an interview with Gladys for a fashion magazine) and the ‘crime’ with which the novel opens, ‘pieces’ being the appropriate metaphor as the novel is presented as a jigsaw which the reader must put together. The Buenos Aries affair is a detective novel where the reader is the detective, and the clues are the various texts which make up each chapter, including a CV, a transcription of Leo’s speech to a psychiatrist, extracts from a newspaper, a list of Leo’s imaginary actions while suffering from insomnia… Puig is particularly adept at telephone conversations where we hear only one side of the dialogue, the gaps once again stressing the reader’s role in creating the narrative.
Part of the plot revolves around Gladys’ (mediocre) career as a sculptor, awarded a prestigious role by Leo (an art critic) as a result of their relationship. This may be a knowing satire of the Argentinian art world, but Puig seems more interested in his characters’ sexual inadequacies and in the playful range of styles he utilises to display them. Both reach a climax when, during a final confrontation, Puig chooses to illustrate each moment of the action with elaborate images from opera:
“Sensations experienced by Leo upon taking of his towel and looking at Gladys – Siegfried, overwhelmed by a blind impulse, tries to embrace her. But she slips out of his arms. She has been a goddess and no man has ever touched her. She does not know that the kiss has transformed her into a mere woman…”
The Buenos Aires Affair is a kaleidoscope of a novel – at each turn we encounter a new style, a different perspective. This can, at times, be jarring, but it can also leave the reader spellbound with wonder. Beneath the theatrical presentation lies a surprising psychological depth.