The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig
One of the first sections of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth takes the form of a one-sided telephone conversation, in which the reader must guess at what her interlocutor is saying. This is a typical Puig device, in which he uses his natural talent for ventriloquism to draw us in while artfully deploying a series of ellipses to keep us guessing. There’s something flirtatious about this technique, and it isn’t surprising to learn that he arrived at it through insecurity. As Levine explains in the biography, Puig was afraid that he would make mistakes or sound silly if he wrote in a standard third person, so he channeled his writing through the voices of the people he knew growing up, writing in “voice-over,” as he put it. Especially early in his career, he seems to have been uncomfortably conscious of playing the role of “author,” as if it were just another fantasy existence he was trying on for size.
Heartbreak Tango is also elaborately structured, this time in “episodes,” like a radio serial, though they may be styled as letters, police reports or conversations. All of this scaffolding supports a tale of unrequited love—or several of them, all centered on an unworthy love object: lazy, shallow Juan Carlos Etchepare, who is slowly wasting away from tuberculosis. Juan Carlos’s most sincere pursuer is Nené Fernández de Massa, a packer at the general store. She is interesting by virtue of her sheer ordinariness, which Puig conveys with poignance and delicacy. His moment-by-moment chronicle of her thoughts is perfectly banal, and yet it absorbs us in the same way that we are absorbed by our own thoughts.
What elevates Nené is the intensity of her longing for Juan Carlos, which persists for ten years after their unhappy parting. When she receives news of his death, she begins a correspondence with his mother, confiding in her all the disappointments of married life (because Nené, in the end, settles for a man she doesn’t love). Throughout his fiction, Puig is fascinated by the divide between those who pair off and embark on a life of domesticity and those who choose (or are fated) to remain alone. Nené is perhaps his most fully imagined exemplar of the domestic life, the path Puig never chose, though he did fret about ending up an “old maid.”
Nené aside, the other characters in Heartbreak Tango are somewhat cartoonish: consumptive layabout Juan Carlos; his broad-shouldered working-class friend Pancho; spiteful spinster Mabel; wide-assed, mulish maid Fanny. “Cartoonish” is a complicated label to apply to Puig, because his real-life persona was even more extravagant than his fictional creations. One of the lessons to be learned from reading Puig is that gushy sentiment can also be genuine sentiment, and that currents of real longing can be hidden behind showy displays of emotion. Then again, sometimes a performance is just that. Kitschy posturing gives way to real poignance in a late chapter, when Mabel comes to visit Nené in Buenos Aires. Both women were once in love with Juan Carlos; Nené is now married with two small children and Mabel is engaged. Nené lives in an ordinary middle-class apartment and her children are “a bit homely,” by Nené’s own admission. Mabel has settled for marriage to a man she doesn’t care about in order to escape spinsterhood. Puig ends the chapter with a crude joke, making a mockery of Nené’s adoration of Juan Carlos; but her love nonetheless burns pure in the novel, not spoiled by her marriage of convenience but rather enshrined and gradually replaced by a more ordinary love of family.
Love—and particularly love in the form of longing—is a dramatic mainstay of Puig’s fiction, but the gravitational force of his novels is companionship. Even when Mabel and Nené are trading barbs couched in the form of polite conversation (“With profound satisfaction Nené confirmed that they were talking from one humbug to another”), the reader settles happily into their comfortable back-and-forth. Conversation is the most convincing representation of affection in the novels. Their most memorable scenes are all scenes of conversation: the lengthy prison exchanges between Molina, a homosexual convicted on morals charges, and Valentín, a leftist revolutionary, in Kiss of the Spider Woman; the gently bitchy back-and-forth between two elderly sisters in Puig’s last novel, Tropical Night Falling; the conversation at the start of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth around Toto’s grandmother’s table.
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If Heartbreak Tango is a study of domestic life, The Buenos Aires Affair is an exploration of the fate of loners. Gladys Hebe D’Onofrio, a complex-ridden 35-year-old sculptor living with her mother, becomes involved with Leo Druscovich, an art critic afflicted by outbursts of sadistic rage. Each character’s story is presented in the form of a case study, punctuated by new iterations of Puig’s familiar devices: interviews, phone conversations, newspaper excerpts. Vargas Llosa judges this to be the best of Puig’s novels, and it is especially polished and structurally complex. It is also Puig’s most intellectually ambitious novel, with its explorations of politics (Peronism) and psychology (Freudianism).
There’s a scene from the novel that gives a good sense of Puig’s particular brand of audacity. In it, Gladys masturbates while running through a fifteen-page series of fantasies—from visions of a bricklayer moonlighting as a nude model to images of a janitor hauling boxes—complete with running footnotes on her progress toward orgasm (“Gladys again introduces a finger into her sex organ”). Scenes of men masturbating have plenty of comic currency, but scenes of women masturbating are still rare, even nearly forty years after the publication of The Buenos Aires Affair. Here and elsewhere, Puig has a knack for demurely courting scandal. His success at this has to do with his blend of sentimentalism and clinical detachment, which gives a prickly edge even to tame scenes.
Leo’s story reads a bit like a Freudian primer: his inability to climax sexually except in situations where violence is threatened is explored at length. (Puig was very interested in psychoanalytic explanations of human behavior: a number of readers urged him to cut his lengthy scholarly footnotes to Kiss of the Spider Woman, but he was adamant about educating the public.) Gladys, too, is frustrated by a lack of sexual fulfillment. Puig details her less-than-satisfactory relations with six men in the United States (“Gladys had sexual intercourse with six men in the following order…”), where she goes on scholarship; her romantic failures lead to a breakdown and subsequent return to Argentina. It doesn’t help that she’s attacked and loses an eye in the United States (her eye patch gives her a camp allure). Naturally, sadistic Leo and masochistic Gladys embark on a doomed romance.
Puig’s pseudo-scientific yet sympathetic portrayal of characters with marked vulnerabilities and pathologies finds an echo in novels by younger writers (notably Roberto Bolaño, especially in Nazi Literature in the Americas, and David Foster Wallace, who was a confirmed admirer of Puig). Gladys and Leo are hardly likable characters, and their unpleasant quirks and failures are satisfyingly unromanticized. This doesn’t mean that they’re exactly realistic. Gladys may be a thoroughly modern creation, as evidenced by her search for meaning in a series of emphatically untranscendent sexual encounters, but she also inhabits a Hollywood fantasy world, especially in the scenes set at the Argentine beach house from which Leo abducts her. Puig’s rolling pan through spaces and rooms described like static stage sets give the novel a weird, unsettling air.
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As Puig got older, his life revolved more and more around movies. In her biography, Levine amusingly chronicles his eager early adoption of the VCR. From his apartment in Brazil, where he moved in 1980, he set up a worldwide network of friends (his esclavitas, or little slaves) willing to record televised movies for him. Often, he accepted speaking gigs only because they coincided with video conventions. His videoteca, while extensive, was far from archival quality: he liked to fill every cassette completely, frequently recording two movies and part of a third on one tape. These assiduously collected films were viewed at his apartment, where he presided over a “cine club” for family and friends.
At some point in my reading of Puig, I began to wonder what these movies looked like to him. Clearly he saw the artifice and appreciated it as such, but his beloved Hollywood productions were also more real to him than life itself. They weren’t realistic, but at the same time they contained moments (Hedy Lamarr adjusting her hat, for example) that encapsulated a reality more intense than anything one could possibly experience in daily life. Movies weren’t a model for living. They were too perfect for that. The only way for a human to approach their heightened reality was to talk about them, and the purest form of talking about them was simply to retell them. It’s no accident that Kiss of the Spider Woman, which is almost entirely a series of retellings of movies (real and invented) is also—paradoxically—Puig’s most realistic novel.
Those Hollywood movies were fundamentally cursi, of course. Actresses flounced and glared and tossed their hair. Actors smoldered and cursed and bantered. Puig borrowed from their ranks to assemble a giddy MGM lineup of Boom writers for his friend the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Cortázar was Hedy Lamarr (“Beautiful but icy and remote”); Fuentes was Ava Gardner (“Glamour surrounds her but can she act?”); García Márquez was Liz Taylor (“Beautiful face but such short legs”); Vargas Llosa was Esther Williams (“Oh so disciplined (and boring)”). He included himself, as Julie Christie: “A great actress, but since she has found the right man for her (Warren Beatty) she doesn’t act anymore. Her luck in love matters is the envy of all the other MGM stars.”
This fluff has bite, and the same can be said about Puig’s novels. The cursi literature of Latin America (with Manuel as one of its matriarchs) will strike readers who’ve only read the more familiar contemporary Latin American classics as bracingly new but also familiar—even homey. Its strangeness lies in the details of life as lived by others who greatly resemble ourselves but whose assumptions (personal and cultural) are ever so slightly different. It is as startling as a conversation overheard that at once confirms and adjusts our perception of ourselves.