The Buenos Aires Affair
Kiss of the Spider Woman
In Evil Hour
The Cubs and Other Stories
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service
“Every novel,” Mario Vargas Llosa wrote some years ago, “is a symbolic assassination of reality.” Many novelists have thought just the reverse, of course, and many readers feel that reality itself, or at least a plausible imitation of it, is the assassin of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. But the remark has its own excited, embattled force. Cornered by history and politics, trapped in a situation that seems both hopeless and inescapable, the writer asserts the magical properties of his art. The liberation of long-blocked fantasy was certainly a conspicuous element in the surge of new fiction in Latin America which is now called the Boom. One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in Spanish in 1967, is a landmark in this as in other respects, and Vargas Llosa’s remark appears in his patient and generous and lengthy study of García Márquez.1 Myth, which for T.S. Eliot was a way of “making the modern world possible for art,” was for many Latin American writers a means of refusing the world’s sad possibilities, a promise of endurance, a cheerful sign that even the worst constrictions of the spirit could be weathered.
Still, it is misleading to suggest that the novel is opposed to reality in any serious fashion. There is nothing imaginary about the powers of the imagination, and in any case much of the fantasy which appears in recent Latin American writing plainly mirrors a fantastic contemporary plight, a nightmare which conspires against all attempts at awakening. What is striking about so much of this fiction, including Vargas Llosa’s own, is its determination to include a profusion of different and at times conflicting realities, and its energetic pursuit of formal innovation to this end. It is true that some of the experimentation rattles a bit, seems to be mere tinkering with old forms, and no doubt reflects the traditional belief that self-respecting Latin Americans have to be able to hold their heads up in Paris. But the exploration of forms more often serves to make visible lost or otherwise unavailable pieces of life. This is a fiction constantly in search of new stances, angles, tones, twists, and modes of narrative, but it asks these discoveries to lead it back to a shared world, not off into a region of pure play or dream.
The work of Manuel Puig is a good example, since in his four novels2 he evokes or simulates, among other things, soap operas, school essays, sentimental letters, police reports, the novels of Robbe-Grillet, newspaper items, film scripts, tapes of telephone conversations, the later chapters of Ulysses, an application form for an art competition, a psychiatrist’s notes, a report on an autopsy, and the testimony a certain character would have given if he were asked—to say nothing of the “principal imaginary actions” of another character. All this may sound like a set of gags, or even like naturalism gone wild, yet the point is neither wit nor verisimilitude but formal variety, which is itself a fidelity to the shifting relations between experience and its representations.
Movies play a large part in all of Puig’s novels, and especially in the last two. Each chapter of The Buenos Aires Affair has a snatch of Hollywood dialogue as its epigraph—moments from the screen life of Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward, Veronica Lake, and others, in movies like Camille, Red Dust, Humoresque, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, and The Blue Dahlia. The mention of Veronica Lake is particularly appropriate, since Gladys, the heroine of the novel, a quiet, depressed Argentinian girl who has won an art scholarship to America and lost an eye in a mugging in Washington, has a practical use for the famous hair style.
The movies, for Puig, are true not to the thin dreams of glamour we usually associate with them, but to the emptiness and solitude the dreams are supposed to disguise. Gladys acquires a certain amount of sexual experience in America—enough to allow her to masturbate in the footnotes while the flow of her thoughts is recorded on the rest of the page—but none of her men will stay with her, and Puig suggests that her upbringing and her favorite movies, listed above, have helped to make things difficult for her. She wants good financial prospects and romantic love and a satisfactory physical relation. Finally she breaks down in New York, and is taken home by her mother.
Gladys, like everyone else in her world, is lulled and charmed by movies, songs, poems, and political promises which hide their truths even as they tell them. The point, of course, is not only that such consolations are part of the problem, but that they are the only consolations going. The poor comforts of culture begin to resemble those of religion: we cannot live with them, and have a hard time without them.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is a slightly more cheerful work, concentrating on hidden truths rather than acts of hiding. Two detainees in an Argentinian jail, one a homosexual given eight years for “corruption of minors,” the other a radical student, Valentin Arregui, share a cell, food, fears, illness, affection, and sex. The occasional footnotes to the narrative carry on a rather elementary symposium on homosexuality, with arguments taken from Freud, Fenichel, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, and others. But then they also offer a splendid pastiche of a press-book for a Nazi movie showing the conversion of a slinky French singer to love for the Führer and disgust for the degradations her cherished France is suffering at the hands of the villainous Jews. The result of this activity at the foot of the page, in conjunction with what goes on higher up, is not a simple equation between sexual and political repressions, but an intimation of the complicated lure of prejudice, whether political or sexual.
Puig is especially interested in the notion that many homosexuals of both sexes, until recently, imitated, in reverse, the defects of heterosexuality. Luis Molina, the homosexual in the novel, wants to be treated not only as a woman, but as a grotesque old stereotype of a woman, submissive, anxious to please, lovable, flirtatious, kind, and the rest. Clearly, a politics of sexuality is involved here, freedoms are to be fought for. But how are they related to other freedoms? Puig poses the question by making Arregui a political prisoner; but he pursues it by having Molina turn out to be an informer, planted in Arregui’s cell by the warden of the prison. Then Molina falls for Arregui, doesn’t want to leave the prison even when he is paroled, and is shot while trying to get a message to Arregui’s friends. He dies for the cause, in a fashion, but Arregui himself sees Molina’s death differently: “he let himself be killed because that way he could die like some heroine in a movie.”
It is a measure of what has happened to Arregui in the course of the novel that this thought is a compliment, not a dismissal. Throughout the book, illustrating every theme, giving structure to the whole narrative, Molina has been telling Arregui the plots of movies he remembers, expertly evoking actors and actresses, sets and lighting:
and everything is swallowed up in darkness, except his table, which has a glass top, with light coming from underneath the glass, so their faces catch the light from below, and their bodies cast a rather sinister shadow on the walls, gigantic-looking….
The movies are about a girl from the Carpathians who turns into a panther when she’s kissed, the French singer who learns to love the Nazis, zombies and witchcraft in the Caribbean, a Mexican star who sells herself to save the man she loves, a down-and-out reporter who writes romantic songs on the side. Arregui understands, as Molina doesn’t, that these films deal in sexual terror, that they conjure up a universe ruled by the mutual fear of the sexes, but blurred by images of doting sacrifice and incursions of the supernatural.
But then Arregui has to learn to enjoy the movies as Molina does. He comes to see the rags of humanity hanging to these stilted tales, something his stern Marxism could not have taught him. Even Nazi junk, as Arregui correctly identifies the film about the French singer, corresponds to genuine desire as well as to the instructions of a vicious propaganda. When Arregui at last tries to invent a movie himself and makes Molina the star—“You’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web”—he is revoking the implications of the first movie Molina recounted, the one about the panther woman. And from the kiss that Arregui and Molina then exchange, if from nowhere else, terror has been banished. This begins to sound like one of Molina’s movies, but Puig manages to end his novel before sentimentality, coming round again, knocks over the precarious truth he has rescued from the eager arms of romance.
Movies matter a lot to contemporary Latin American writers. They are more than a habit or a taste or a realm of fertile illusions. Even Borges, who has been contemporary for a long time, has written film criticism. Puig worked at Cinecittà in Rome, Vargas Llosa has co-directed a film based on one of his novels, Cabrera Infante has been a film critic and a screen writer, Carlos Fuentes dedicated his most recent book to the actors of The Maltese Falcon, “in order of their disappearance.” García Márquez wrote movies in Mexico, and sees that work as separating One Hundred Years of Solitude from his earlier fiction:
I always believed that the cinema, because of its tremendous visual power, was the perfect means of expression. All my books prior to One Hundred Years of Solitude are hampered by this conviction…. Working in film, though, I realized not only what could be done but also what couldn’t; it seemed to me that the dominion of images over other narrative elements was certainly an advantage but also a limitation, and all that was a dazzling discovery for me, because it was only then that I became aware that the possibilities of the novel are boundless.
Such frank and casual expertise about the movies is quite different from the adoption of Jerry Lewis by French intellectuals, or the oscillation between high seriousness and furtive enjoyment which characterizes English and American responses to film. It combines the fan’s pleasure with the technician’s interest, and it suggests an ideal apprenticeship in fantasy—or more precisely in the art of connecting fantasy to the world. Hollywood, and the French and German film industries, were dream factories for Latin America as they were for us—more so, in all sorts of ways. But the dreams at that distance looked stylized, slightly more abstract and therefore slightly less false. False enough to be lies, of course, there was no misunderstanding. But true enough to be attended to, a fund of fairy tales to be stored away for times of need.