Posts Tagged ‘Manuel Puig’

Kiss of the Spider Woman

October 17, 2021

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.

The Buenos Aires Affair

July 28, 2016

buenos aires affair

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.