Manual Puig, Argentine Politics and Fiction, and the Psychology of Desire and Repression in His Selective Novels

Article excerpt

The late Argentine novelist Manuel Puig (1932-1990), best known for a pastiche or bricolage-style in his fictions which combine a dizzying array of multiple narrative voices, references to B-grade movies and other forms of popular culture, epistolary documentation, and often arcane and ancillary footnotes, has been too little treated as a political and psychological writer who comments upon the seemingly disparate realms of the public and personal in intriguing ways, especially in terms of his native country and in reference to the oligarchic Peron regime of the 1970s and its aftermath. In his later novels in particular, such as Kiss of the Spider Woman (1979), Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages (1982), and even the posthumously published last, Tropical Night Falling (1991), the issues of political exile (in fact, only Kiss takes place in Argentina and at a Buenos Aires prison for its principal setting) and psycho-sexual repression become increasingly intertwined for Puig's characters, to the point where what is objectively real and what is subjectively imagined or internalized by his fictional figures nearly coexist on the same narrative plane. Thus, Puig's fictions confront the reader with a decidedly non-authoritarian point-of-view, as if his very style of writing affronts the stiflingly oppressive societal milieu from which the author came and from which he, too, found himself self-exiled. So, while his novels are not blatantly "political" (at least thematically) by any means, it is through his ability to meld the individual consciousness with the Argentine collective unconscious of his characters that Puig succeeds in exposing and subtly critiquing the dominant ideologies of his time and place.

As Suzanne Jill Levine, his primary translator into English, claims in her recent biography of the novelist, "In spite of his protestations, Manuel [Puig] was genuinely, intuitively political in his writing--and most explicitly in Kiss of the Spider Woman [1978], though he was not a public spokesperson like other [Latin American] writers" (257) of the 60s and 70s, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who voiced vehemently their support of leftist movements and the rejection of authoritarian governmental regimes. Yet "his novels can also," and maybe more accurately, "be regarded as" concerned with "the political nature of our sexual lives, or the sexual dynamic of the body politic" (Levine 257)--that is, as manifestations of just how personal, sexual repression is analogous to the public, overtly political repression afflicting Argentina at the time, first from Peron and then, after his death in 1974, from the right-wing military coalition or Junta that replaced him in 1976 (Levine 241). In Kiss, then, Puig focuses on an unlikely paired couple enclosed on a claustrophobically-small stage, or, rather, cage: Molina, an homosexual window-dresser imprisoned ostensibly for the "corruption of a minor," shares the same cell with Valentin, a Marxist revolutionary who seems the epitome of the stereotypical machismo ideal for the Latin male. Through their psycho-dramatic dialogue which dominates much of the book, though, we as readers, and they as well as the principal players, come to discover that they are not so far apart, philosophically or otherwise, as they both evolve into models for first questioning and ultimately freeing themselves, at least psychologically or emotionally, from the authoritative systems that oppress their sexual and political lives, respectively. Ironically, too, we discover that Molina, with the promise of his early release, has been intentionally placed with Valentin at the Buenos Aires prison to "soften him up," so to speak, so that the prison warden and his henchmen from the secret police can gain information about Valentin's clandestine group and its movements. Unfortunately for these fascist authorities, this plan backfires, as Molina falls in love with Valentin who, both emotionally and physically, is his definition of a "real man" (60), and then nurtures him back to health after the guards have poisoned his food in an attempt to weaken him and ultimately to get him to confess to some of his guerrilla cadre's activities. …