Over the past couple of days I’ve been casting about for a book to read and then realized that today, December 28, would have been Manuel Puig’s seventy-third birthday. So I’ve decided to pick up Kiss of the Spider Woman (El Beso la Mujer Arana).
Manuel Puig, who died in 1990 at the age of 57, is one of the few Argentine writers to achieve wide-spread international recognition, mostly for the 1985 film version of this novel. Nominated for four Academy Awards, William Hurt received an Oscar for Best Actor. After Puig’s death the novel/movie became a Broadway musical and won seven Tony awards.
Puig was a child of the pampas, born in 1932 in General Villegas which sits on the western edge of Buenos Aires province. It’s fitting that Puig’s fame came from a movie since cinema formed the most significant influence on his writings. His early aspirations were actually to be a filmmaker and he moved to Rome to study cinema.
His first novel Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (La Tracion de Rita Hayworth) is about the movies and people’s lives in rural Argentina. His second novel Boquitas pintadas, translated into English as Heartbreak Tango, also was about life in his hometown in the pampas.
In an interview Puig talks about writing:
I write novels because there is something I don’t understand in reality. What I do is locate that special problem in a character and then try to understand it. That’s the genesis of all my work. Because of my unconscious defenses, I am incapable of facing the problem directly. There are obstacles that impede me from doing so. Yet I can do it through a literary character. It’s easier! And since all of my problems are rather complicated, I need an entire novel to deal with them, not a short story or a movie. It’s like a personal therapy. There is no freedom in that election. It’s not that I choose to do it, but that I’m forced to. It has to be a novel because I need a lot of space. It’s an analytical activity, not a synthetic one.
Puig was fortunate in having very good English translators. Four of his less well-known novels are translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, who also has translated many works by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Personally, I think that Levine is one of the best Spanish-English literary translators around. She also was a friend of Puig and in 2001 published a biography of him, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman. I’ve not read this biography yet but it sounds like a superb study.
In a New York Times review by Mario Vargas Llosa of Levine’s biography, Vargas Llosa says about Puig, “He was a man of movies, or perhaps of visual images and fantasy, who found himself shipwrecked in literature almost by default.” It’s really a very good essay by Vargas Llosa and if you have any interest in literature then you should go read it. But I’m not yet read enough of Puig to know whether I agree or not with Vargas Llosa conclusion that “Puig’s work may be the best representative of what has been called light literature, which is emblematic of our time ”“ an undemanding, pleasing literature that has no other purpose than to entertain.” That seems a little harsh. Afterall, not everybody can be Borges or Faulkner or even Vargas Llosa.
After the publication of Puig’s third novel The Buenos Aires Affair in 1973 and the rise of the military dictatorship, Puig left Argentina for the remainder of his life. Puig’s literary style is mostly dialogue, reflective of the cinema. He wasn’t afraid to incorporate popular culture and mass media into his stories. Homosexuality also was an instrumental theme in his works.
I was surprised to learn that another book by Puig Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages actually was written by Puig in English first and then translated into Spanish as Maladicion Eterna a Quien Lea Estas Paginas. So, with that work, English-only readers have a chance to read Puig in the original and not a translation for once.
From Kiss of the Spider Woman (Thomas Colchie, trans.):
“‘we’ve realized the most difficult thing of all,’ what’s the most difficult thing of all to realize? ‘That I live deep inside your thoughts and so I’ll always remain with you, you’ll never be alone…this dream is short but this dream is happy.'”
Drawing by David Levine, New York Review of Books