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.”