The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig

The Cursi Affair: On Manuel Puig

The Latin Boom writers failed to appreciate the work of fellow novelist Manuel Puig, who wrote about housewives and homosexuals.


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.

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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