Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie
AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
“I grew up in the pampa in a bad dream, or rather a bad western” – Manuel Puig, quoted by S. J. Levine (2001)
Puig’s (1932-90) writing is famously experimental, with a pre-occupation with gender roles and sexuality (he was himself gay), and a strong cinematic influence – he even trained as a cinematographer, and Kiss of the Spider Woman is clearly influenced by Hollywood B movies. The book, published in 1976, is set against the background of political instability and repression that characterised Argentina in the 1970s. Puig was subject to political harassment and death threats, and although he wrote the novel in exile, he was well-versed in the experience of political imprisonment and torture, having spent time interviewing people who had experienced exactly that.
For most of its length, the novel is constructed as a dialogue between two prisoners, Molina (who has been imprisoned on charges related to his homosexuality) and Valentin (a political revolutionary). Changes of speaker are represented by dashes (similar, in fact, to the Samantha Schweblin novel I read for the blog), and the narrative is multi-layered and studiedly dissonant, without a single, unifying voice. Amid the dialogue, come chunks of interior monologue, divulged in a stream of consciousness. There are copious, academic-seeming footnotes, often evaluating homosexuality from the perspective of famous intellectuals such as Freud and Marcuse, and extending over many pages. Finally, the latter part of the book takes the form of an undercover police report.
Although Molina and Valentin are initially quite antagonistic, there is an overt homoerotic element to their interactions, and an increasing attraction and connection. Their conversations are punctuated by a series of stories within a story, as Molina relates the plots of various movies for his cell mate’s entertainment. Thus, there is a powerful intertextual relationship between literature and film. The prison environment is described in the barest of terms, while the films are relayed in microscopic detail, with Molina revelling in his fantastical accounts of the female stars’ beautiful outfits and hair styles. Kiss of the Spider Woman was itself later adapted for both film and stage, and I’m determined to seek out the movie.
From the opening lines of the novel we are, disorientatingly, thrown right into one of Molina’s stories:
“-Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others. She looks fairly young, twenty-five, maybe a little more, petite face, a little catlike, small turned-up nose. The shape of her face, it’s … more roundish than oval, broad forehead, pronounced cheeks too but then they come down to a point, like with cats.”
Impressively and perhaps inspiringly, Puig was confident in several languages and he worked in tandem with his translators in producing the English, French, Italian and Portuguese versions of his books. The book’s unusual form works to weave together a critique of patriarchal societies while it entertains, and perhaps to suggest that gay people might play a revolutionary role in changing society for the better.