Manuel Puig (pweeg), one of Latin America’s major writers and one of the most widely read, has been called the chronicler of middle-class Argentina. Born in the provincial town of General Villegas, where he spent his childhood and received his elementary education, Puig was the son of Baldomero Puig, who worked in commerce, and Elena Delledonne. He began learning English at the age of ten to enhance his enjoyment of the American films that he and his mother saw every afternoon. Within a year, Puig was at the top of his class and had added to his interest in American films new interests in literature, philosophy, psychology, and Italian films. His ambition as a teenager was to become a film director.
In 1957, after having studied philosophy, languages, and literature in Argentina, he traveled to Rome with a scholarship to study at the Experimental Film Center; however, he was dissatisfied with the school and moved on to Paris, and then to London, where he earned a living by giving Spanish and Italian lessons as well as by washing dishes at the theater restaurant. During this time, Puig began writing film scripts; he continued to do so in 1959, when he moved to Stockholm. A year later, upon his return to Argentina, he obtained a position as assistant director in the Argentine film industry. After a short stay in his native country, he moved to New York City to expose himself to Broadway musicals, and he worked as a ticket agent for Air France. In 1965 he completed his first novel, which he had begun in 1962 but which was not to be published in Buenos Aires until 1968, partly because of problems with censorship.
With the publication of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Puig was immediately heralded as one of Latin America’s most gifted writers. Most critics still consider this first novel to be his masterpiece. In addition to its penetrating examination of the narrow world of alienated human beings (particularly the petit bourgeois and blue-collar Argentine people) who find refuge in the large-scale consumption of films and soap operas, the work was considered to be an attack on conventional or naïve realism as well as on the cultural foundations of the experimental novel. His second novel, Heartbreak Tango, became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1969. Written in the format of popular literature, each chapter was intended to be read as an episode in a serialized story. Yet the novel is a parody of the feuilleton (serialized novel) as, for example, written by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). Avoiding the sentimentalism characteristic of the feuilleton, Puig reveals the lives of the story’s protagonists through intimate letters, meditations, dialogues, religious confessions, prayers, and objective descriptions.
Puig’s third novel, The Buenos Aires Affair, illustrates in its subtitle, A Detective Novel, that the author was again using a popular literary form. Aside from the detective elements, the novel is primarily a psychoanalytic study of its two main characters and a parody of their way of life. As in his two previous novels, Puig’s major triumph is on the linguistic level. The book was not a popular success. The Argentine military dictatorship refused to recognize itself in the mirror of Puig’s novel. In Kiss of the Spider Woman, Puig develops subjects which he had touched upon in his earlier novels: politics and sexuality. The drama, polarized between two male protagonists–one a homosexual and the other a political prisoner–focuses on the relationship between the two men in their shared jail cell. Although footnotes pretend to document events, the story appears to be narrated by the two protagonists themselves. Readers are left to their own interpretations of the characters and events portrayed.
Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, originally written in English, is a novel that takes Puig’s narrative discourse to even further lengths. The story of two lonely men, one an old Argentine gentleman, the other his American nurse, and their search for friendship and love is rendered entirely through dialogue. As the narrative progresses, however, the dialogues do not appear to move forward in any apparent order; consequently, readers may begin to question whether they are really confronted with two speakers or with only one who is engaged in dialogue with an imaginary other. In Blood of Requited Love, Puig introduces his readers to a new fictional locale: a small rural town in Brazil. A lost or forgotten past (specifically, the lustful youth of the protagonist), gradually emerges into a desolate present. The novel ends with both a celebration of adolescent sexuality and an elegy in acknowledgment of its demise.
Beneath the disguise of popular literature, in his fiction Puig built an elaborate kind of narrative structure in which each element functions in perfect harmony with the totality of which it is a part. While Puig’s countrymen relegated him to the category of “second-class sentimentalist,” American critics, for the most part, received Puig’s works favorably. They assert that Puig is a writer keenly conscious of how both the novel as a literary form and the kinds of people who serve as its subjects have been caught up in the clichés of popular literature. While some critics say that Puig’s stylistic methods are, at times, too inventive and even superfluous, others say that Puig’s extraordinary inventiveness demonstrates new ways of rendering familiar material, thereby making accessible a reality that might have remained inaccessible through other narrative angles.