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  • Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions
  • Richard Reitsma
Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions By Suzanne Jill Levine New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. xvi + 446 pp.

In this book Suzanne Jill Levine explores the Argentinean novelist Manuel Puig’s early life in terms of his fiction and the movies that influenced him. Her discussion offers, first, an entertaining excursion through American, French, German, and Italian film history. Reflecting Manuel’s own delight in gossip, it is full of tantalizing tidbits of information about screen legends. Levine also does a remarkable job of tracing the psychological importance of movies as an escape for Manuel from the bleak existence that awaited him as a cultured homosexual in the macho-infused backwater of the Pampas. She reconstructs the relationship between Manuel and his mother, Malé, in terms of his immersion in the world of film, which, as she so precisely points out, has plagued Puig’s literary reputation. Despite his desire to be a screenwriter, literature, he said, chose him.

Puig’s impact on Latin American literature, and his importance in exposing the influence that movies have had on prose narrative, has been slighted by other authors and critics, who find his work lacking in literariness. These critical voices include Mario Vargas Llosa, who himself imitated Puig’s melding of film with narrative in his novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Vargas Llosa’s assessment of Levine’s biography in the New York Times Book Review firmly places Puig in the category of “light literature,” whose function is merely to entertain. Vargas Llosa’s seeming defensiveness over what he perceives as Puig’s critique of politically committed, or ideologically inspired, literature misses Levine’s point that Puig’s narratives are powerfully engaged politically.

The debate over the political importance of literature, particularly in the volatile Latin American context of the 1960s and 1970s, occupies a large [End Page 169] portion of the biography. We are afforded glimpses into the politicking of the Latin American Boom and the viciousness with which literature was either promoted or censored for causes either left or right. This intimate look at the Boom from a publishing standpoint is fascinating as a who’s who of Latin American literature, providing an introduction to the pantheon of Boom writers and an entertaining romp through the personal and political landscape of Latin American literary success. Puig’s unwillingness to function as a political spokesman may, in fact, have been the result of his marginalized position as a homosexual, a figure open to censure by both the left and the right.

Levine does not pursue Puig’s political engagement in his later novels, which, it could be argued, are a form of testimonio literature in the style of Miguel Barnet’s fictionalized biographies (Biografía de un cimarrón, Canción de Rachel), books that arose out of the Cuban Revolution’s requirement that art reflect life, particularly that of the disenfranchised. Levine reads Puig’s approach to the stories told him by Mark (an acquaintance in New York) and El Chefao (the bricklayer at his new home in Rio de Janeiro) as a search for a new literary voice, an engagement with new contexts, both cultural and linguistic. The interviews with Mark resulted in Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages, the only novel Puig wrote in English, while the interviews with El Chefao, in Carioca Portuguese, resulted in Blood of Requited Love.

Although Levine’s work is a fine effort overall, the early chapters seem a tangled web. Readers may be initially confused by Levine’s conflation of biography and fiction, which is most apparent in the profusion of names, nicknames, and characters’ names used to refer to one individual. While this technique may speak to Puig’s practice of fiction as therapeutic autobiography in, for instance, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, readers will struggle to approach the formative personalities of his childhood in any meaningful way except as fiction. After chapter 3 the narrative threads of biography and literature become less tangled and more relevant, once the past has been exorcised in Heartbreak Tango, freeing Puig from his...