The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig
Manuel Puig occupies a curious place in Latin American literature. Chronologically, he should be a member of the Boom generation, but he’s rarely included in the usual catalog of Boom writers (Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes). This is not because he was less prominent, though since the 1980s his reputation has faded a little. His novels—especially Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)—were internationally acclaimed and widely read. He was a genuinely popular writer while at the same time a radical innovator, with a subversive take on sexual and domestic affairs. Kiss of the Spider Woman was notorious for its frank depiction of a love affair between two prisoners; Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Heartbreak Tango (1969), his first two novels, are kitschy tributes to the Argentina of his youth; his third, The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), is a frothy, Freudian noir.
From the perspective of some critics, the trouble with Puig wasn’t that he wrote about homosexuals and housewives. It was that he didn’t write about them seriously. His protagonists weren’t so much persecuted heroes or twisted victims (though they were that, too) as they were creatures of sentiment—and, often, figures of fun. What disqualified Puig (implicitly) as a member of the Boom was his lack of gravitas, both in fiction and in life. In a New York Times review of Suzanne Jill Levine’s highly entertaining and essential biography, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions (2000), Vargas Llosa writes disapprovingly about what he sees as Puig’s lack of dedication to the world of books: “Of all the writers I have known, the one who seemed least interested in literature was Manuel Puig (1932–90). He never talked about authors or books, and when a literary topic came up in conversation he would look bored and change the subject.” As Francisco Goldman points out in his excellent introduction to Heartbreak Tango, one of three Puig novels recently reissued by Dalkey Archive, this was unfair and ungenerous. Of all the writers of the Boom, Vargas Llosa might have been expected to understand and appreciate Puig, because he too has occasionally embraced what might be called the literature of cursi.
Cursi is possibly my favorite word in Spanish, and one of the most difficult to translate. Depending on the context, it might mean sentimental or prissy or precious or affected. It is the polar opposite of macho, which is the more familiar strain (at least abroad) of Spanish and Latin American culture. And yet cursi has a substantial history in Spanish-language fiction and poetry. The nineteenth century was its heyday, with novels like the tragic idyll María by the Colombian writer Jorge Isaacs and verse by the arch-cursi Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. Not coincidentally, Puig refers to Isaacs and Bécquer in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and The Buenos Aires Affair, respectively, the other two novels republished by Dalkey Archive. The literature of cursi blossomed again in the twentieth century, with Puig’s novels and work by writers like Alfredo Bryce Echenique, the delicious Jaime Bayly (as yet untranslated; for those who read Spanish, Yo amo a mi mami is the one to start with) and—yes—Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, most felicitously, but also the more recent The Bad Girl).
As Levine’s biography demonstrates, Vargas Llosa’s claim that Puig was uninterested in literature is untrue. As a boy in General Villegas, a backwater town on the Argentine pampa, Puig read the European novelists of alienation then in vogue (Hesse, Huxley, Sartre, etc.); while writing his first novel, he immersed himself in Argentine literature (much of which he characterized as “pretentious crap”) and the Modernist Hispanic poets. His literary ambitions are plain in his elaborately structured novels; the books are not, as Vargas Llosa claimed, “light literature [with] no other purpose than to entertain.” And yet there is something to Vargas Llosa’s assertion that Puig didn’t care about literature. He never relished reading in the way that he relished the movies. As Levine describes his library in later life, “the only…books he collected were biographies of producers and actresses—and most of the shelf space in the apartment was devoted to his growing videoteca.”
Puig learned to love the movies at the theater in General Villegas, which he visited almost every evening with his mother. The movies he saw were the classics of the 1930s and ’40s, especially the melodramas; his favorite actresses were Luise Rainer, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Greer Garson. He didn’t like Rita Hayworth at first, finding her “beautiful, but not trustworthy,” according to Levine. But later he learned to appreciate her, and even to identify with her, torn as she was between Hollywood and her Hispanic roots. For the rest of his life, he would view everything through the filter of the celluloid screen. It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly his life was suffused with the lore of classic Hollywood. Acquaintances were assigned actress alter egos (Puig was Sally, after Sally Bowles from Cabaret, and later—naturally—Rita); arguments over performances could ruin old friendships (“he was allowed to berate his ladies, but no one else could,” Levine writes). His novels are drenched in references to films, and they make constant use of movie-script pacing, Hollywood stage-setting and cinematic imagery.
Until he was 30, Puig planned to make a career for himself in the movies as a director or screenwriter. He won a scholarship to study film in Rome, but he was discouraged by the crushing dominance of neorealist filmmaking. Still, he didn’t give up. For years he labored over screenplays, translating subtitles and taking odd jobs to make a living. Though his film career eventually fizzled, his sojourn in Rome was the beginning of a globe-trotting existence that would take him to London and then to New York, where he found a day job that suited him nicely: as an Air France desk clerk at Idlewild, where he could chat with starlets and rack up free flights. Air travel was as glamorous as the movies in those days, but the job would eventually provide the literary establishment with another excuse to sneer at Puig. Somehow, nothing could seem further from the center of the Boom than a small apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.
Sometime in 1962, one of the screenplays Puig was working on turned into a novel. The catalyst was a voice—that of Puig’s aunt, gossiping in the laundry room. The words just kept coming until they had filled nearly thirty pages. “By the second day it was clearly a novel…. I needed to explain my childhood and why I was in Rome, thirty years old, without a career, without money and discovering that the vocation of my life—movies—had been a mistake.” This was the genesis of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, which is the most autobiographical of Puig’s novels. It found its first champions in France, where the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy helped get it published; but it encountered more hurdles in Argentina, where it appeared to little fanfare in 1968. Heartbreak Tango, however, was a bestseller there, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth soon followed suit. The Buenos Aires Affair came out three years later, in 1973, but was censored on the eve of military dictatorship in Argentina.
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One day, while writing this review, I was distracted in a café by a conversation about a woman engaged to be married. “I don’t know much about him,” said one gossiper about the woman’s fiancé, “but what I do know is all bad.” “Maybe happiness isn’t her main priority,” replied the other. “She’d rather have nice things.” “She knows that she’s making a mistake, but she doesn’t care.” Before five minutes had gone by, a novel (even a Puig novel!) was taking shape.
For many people—and certainly for Puig as a boy in small-town Argentina—the first and most absorbing form of storytelling is gossip: tales (almost always told by women) about romances and breakups, scandals and humiliations. There is an endless fascination in parsing other people’s lives, comparing them to ours, rendering judgment and imagining how our own lives might be judged. In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Puig captures the human inclination to peer and weigh and compare, while taking advantage of that same inclination in his readers. The novel revolves around Toto Casals, the pampered son of a relatively prosperous family in a town like General Villegas, but it is told mostly in the voices of those around him: Toto’s nursemaid, Felisa; his mother, Mita; his cousin Teté; and his piano teacher, Herminia, among others. By narrating in the form of conversations, letters and monologues, Puig turns the reader into an eavesdropper, a recipient of confidences.
The novel shows an instinctive sympathy for those who are playing a part or searching for the proper trappings for the lives they hope to lead. Nearly all the characters shift back and forth between reality and a fantasy existence that unspools simultaneously, playing out on an inner screen. This fantasy existence may be just a notch above reality (Delia, a penny-pinching Casals family friend, visualizes cannelloni stuffed with “expensive really expensive meat”) or dizzyingly Hollywoodesque (9-year-old Toto fantasizes about life with a friend’s handsome uncle and Luise Rainer in a cabin in a snowy forest). Esther, one of Toto’s schoolmates, bitterly abandons dreams of jazz clubs and mink muffs for a more utilitarian Peronist vision of becoming a “little lady doctor.” Despite all the fantasies (or as a result of them), a recurring theme is resignation. Character after character comes to terms with a disappointing fate, as Puig was coming to terms with the failure of his movie career.
Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is perhaps Puig’s most lyrical novel, with its series of interior monologues. Because Puig’s writing (here and elsewhere) relies so heavily on voice, it presents serious difficulties for the translator. Puig recognized as much when he had to deal with the translation of Kiss of the Spider Woman into English: “The kitsch aspect of Molina’s voice doesn’t come out in direct translation, it has to be completely re-created…. There’s so much to rethink in English it gives me mental cramps.” For his first three novels, he worked closely with Levine, who does an exemplary job (it helps that she and Puig share a gleeful love of wordplay and innuendo). Still, there’s no denying that the literature of cursi, light and delicate as a soufflé and just as sensitive to jiggling, suffers more in translation than more ponderous fiction.