The Claims of Mischief

The Buenos Aires Affair

by Manuel Puig, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
Dutton, 219 pp., $8.95

Kiss of the Spider Woman

by Manuel Puig, translated by Thomas Colchie
Knopf, 281 pp., $8.95

In Evil Hour

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper & Row, 183 pp., $8.95

The Cubs and Other Stories

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ
Harper & Row, 139 pp., $10.00

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Gregory Kolovakos and Ronald Christ
Harper & Row, 244 pp., $10.95

Manuel Puig
Manuel Puig; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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