Kiss of the Spider Woman

Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (translated by Thomas Colchie in 1979) remains his most famous work (it certainly seems to be the only one of his novels still in print in the UK). The novel is set almost entirely in a prison cell containing two very different inmates. One, Valentin, is a political prisoner; the other, Molina, is gay, charged with “corruption of minors”. The novel mainly consists of the dialogue between the two men – although there are moments when italics are used to show us Molina’s thoughts, and, later, Molina’s dialogue with the prison Warden and some police reports, there is no other narrative. This has the interesting effect of both emphasising their separation and togetherness; their difference and their need for each other.

It’s well known that Puig was influenced by cinema as much as literature, and the novel begins with Molina telling Valentin the story of the film Cat People to pass the time, at least in the evening – during the day, Valentin tells him:

“If I’m not busy reading and I’m still keeping quiet, it’s just because I’m thinking. So don’t take it personally.”

Valentin is presented as a serious person devoted to the cause of revolution; Molina as weaker and more trivial. Molina is, in Puig’s own words, an old-fashioned homosexual:

“I wanted to work with an unsophisticated type, a reactionary in a way – the type of homosexual who rejects all experimentation, all new trends. They’ve accepted the models of behaviour from the Forties – you know the subdued woman and the dashing male – and they have, of course, identified with the subdued though heroic woman.”

(as quoted in Suzanne Jill Levine’s Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman). This role he has adopted is not unrelated to his love of classic cinema. While he identifies with the heroine, his idea of the ideal man is also drawn from the screen:

“…to be marvellous-looking and strong, but without making any fuss about it, and also walking very tall.”

Valentin, meanwhile, has a girlfriend outside the prison, but he cannot afford to be romantic, as he sees it, describing her as “secondary” to the cause; “I’m secondary to her, too, because she also knows what’s most important.” Cat People is a film about repressed sexuality, and, if that wasn’t enough to suggest Puig’s focus, the novel contains numerous footnotes (a tactic he first used in his previous novel, The Buenos Aires Affair) on the subject of homosexuality, a potted history of discredited and often ridiculous theories. Instead, both Valentin and the reader discover Molina as an individual.

Molina falls ill with what appears to be food poisoning, and, just as he recovers, Valentin is similarly afflicted. Molina cares for him, bringing him tea and washing his sheets and his body. He shares the food his mother brings him until Valentin is well again. Except (and stop reading now if you don’ t want to know something the reader only discovers halfway through the novel) this is only what appears to be happening. Molina has, in fact, been placed in the cell to gain information from Valentin, having been offered the possibility of a pardon:

“…we’re expecting you to know how to manage things. Do you seem to be making any headway, or what?”

The groceries from his mother are actually bought by the Warden to explain why Molina has been out his cell; the illness a result of poisoned food, specifically designed to weaken Valentin and so strengthen his relationship with Molina. Yet we already sense that the plan Molina presents to the Warden is not the one he is carrying out in the cell. When Valentin is ill and he wants to tell his cellmate about his life outside, Molina stops him sharply:

“Don’t tell me about it please. That’s all just a lot of crazy business, and I don’t want to know anything about your political goings-on, all those secrets and who knows what else.”

The groceries he asks the Warden to buy are to allow Valentin to recover from his illness, avoiding the prison food. Where our initial impression is that Valentin is the heroic figure, in fact it is Molina who is acting heroically, and dangerously, though without recognition. Puig manages to write a novel that works both as a thriller and as a love story. He is able to include his cinematic influences – some of the film summaries are real films, others are not – in a way that enhances our understanding of the characters and allows them to understand each other better. In a sense, it is the language through which they initially communicate. Suzanne Jill Levine argues that Valentin and Molina represent two sides of Puig:

“Together they even inherit his real-life technique for dealing with insomnia by seeking refuge in movies.”

It is perhaps this that gives the novel it’s power, with it’s two central characters both in opposition and seeming to unite. Whatever the case, the novel deserves its status as one of the great novels of the Latin American Boom years.

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6 Responses to “Kiss of the Spider Woman”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    I read this years ago and don’t remember too much about only that I was really impressed at the time. Tempted to reread now!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I know more about the film than the book, but it definitely sounds like one I should explore! 😀

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I recall being very struck by the film adaptation of this book, which came out while I was at university. One of those seminal experiences that sticks in the mind. I really ought to read the book at some point – the idea of Valention and Molina being reflections of Puig’s character is very intriguing.

    • 1streading Says:

      As I said to Karen, I haven’t seen the film – and it didn’t feel like a book crying out for an adaptation. I’d be intrigued to see how they have done it.

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