By Jessica Sequeira
Today, while putting off writing essays for my course (a course that is, in its way, an advanced form of putting off the next stage of life) I watched a series of Youtube interviews with the Argentine writer Manuel Puig, aired in 1976 by the Spanish television program ‘A Fondo.’ The host, Joaquín Soler Serran, wore an elegant suit and leaned back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other. Puig sat on the other side of the table; he seemed much less comfortable. The sweat on his face was visible; the camera zoomed in and out in a strange manner, before focusing in on his face, much too close.
As I watched, I remembered the first novel by Puig that I read, called El beso de la mujer araña, or in English The Kiss of the Spider Woman. I found it in an airport on the way to England, where I was going to study in an undergraduate exchange. The copy was very bad, a pocket edition, with one of those unsightly film promo photos on the cover; in this case it was a gigantic spider that I was embarrassed to walk around with in public. As for the plot itself, I don’t remember that it impressed me unduly. The structure was interesting, as was the alternation of voices, but on the whole it seemed rather strange. What’s more, I sensed a strong element of political allegory that I knew was going over my head for ignorance of the region’s political history. Finishing the book, I replaced it in my bag, and began with greater comfort a novel by Colm Tóibín.
Since then, I have come to appreciate the works of Puig much more. But I am convinced that a great part of my initial incomprehension lies precisely in the fact that I read the author in translation. Without the phrases in the original, the works simply lose their lustre. Whoever reads these pages and discovers Puig for the first time, in his glorious prose and depth of emotion, is supremely lucky, no matter what language he reads. But he should also know that so intimately is Puig linked to Argentina, and his work to the vernacular, that to separate plot from language would be like trying to separate yolk from egg, without breaking the shell.
* * *
My second attempt with Puig was at least in Spanish. I came across Las boquitas pintadas while writing an article for a newspaper in Buenos Aires on the ‘novelas rosas’, or romantic novels, of the capital at the beginning of the 20th century. In her study El imperio de los sentimientos, Beatriz Sarlo points to Puig’s novel as a worthy modern interpretation of the tradition. I admit, however, that it wasn’t just that which convinced me to invest my time and energy in that nutcracker of prose. For personal reasons, I wanted —needed— to understand how people of that city conceptualised love. And given my literary instincts, it made perfect sense that a book from the ’60s could answer my questions and resolve my romantic-cultural problems of the present.
I read the book in the library of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, at the University of Buenos Aires. The reading was a real strain. Puig traffics in the argot of his country, writing in the words used by those of a certain social stratum, from a particular period, in specific neighbourhoods of the city. I’m quite sure I wasn’t able to understand even half the slang or the idioms. For a while I kept an open dictionary alongside; later I forgot it and read with eyes skipping, my retention of events just sufficient to maintain the essential sense. I don’t know if I found in that book what I searched for, but for me the brutal and direct phrases held a strong attraction.
La traición de Rita Hayworth I read in free moments in England last year, when I returned for my master’s. Although my command of ‘castellano’ had improved by leaps, it took ages to finish all the same. At the start I read slowly, more interested in meeting people and getting to know my surroundings than in reading a novel that wasn’t even a course requisite. But suddenly the cold of the English winter sank in, with a snow unusual for the season. The house where I passed my time didn’t have the heating on, to save money; I didn’t even want to think about going out. And so I sat myself in a red armchair wearing long socks, scarf, and jacket, immersing myself in the bittersweet maté language of Puig.
It was then that I gave a blessing to the author for his style, a style I knew I would never be able to emulate. (It would be a thing of great artifice, a bit painful to read, like the attempts of New York writers to imitate the vernacular language of the South of the United States.) I recognised the rhythm of speech, which made me nostalgic for Buenos Aires. When I read the words aloud, I felt myself less forced in the structure of my grammar, the curse of all non-native speakers. Perhaps that’s why the interview with Puig was for me so moving. He too, had learned other languages, had tried to write in them. The truth is that it was a complete fracaso, not for lack of vocabulary, but for his inability to feel himself within any language but his own. His soul was tied inextricably to Argentina.
* * *
Puig was born in 1932 in General Villegas, a small town in the desolate region of the Pampa Seca, where water exists only for a few clumps of grass and life moves at the velocity of the clouds. He went frequently to the cinema with his mother, an Italian who could never accustom herself to a life on such scale. The two became fanatics of Hollywood. They went to see all the films, to the point that Puig began to grow confused: the world outside started to seem unreal, the world of cinema the real. The North American stars emitted a bewitching energy onscreen: in the black-and-white cinema of the age, skin and hair gave off a type of glow, which accompanied divinely the slight crackle of noise in the background.
For secondary school, Puig moved to Buenos Aires (his own town didn’t have anything higher than sixth form), but he hated the city. It wasn’t Hollywood, which, without having considered it very thoroughly, had been his expectation. Instead, it was a bastion of ‘pretensions and arrogance’. And so he moved again to Europe, where he began his career in Rome as a cinematographer, screenwriter, and assistant to famous directors like David Selznick and René Clair. Despite this apparent success, it wasn’t the grand moment of felicity he had hoped for. He had difficulty believing he was really face to face with those of the haut-monde, the names he’d seen so many times in rolling credits. He had difficulty writing in other languages, especially English, such that everything which emerged from his pen seemed a poor transcription of a film seen in childhood. He had constant issues with money, which seemed to slip through his fingers. And the work was irregular: just translations and sporadic screenplays.
In desperation, at thirty-something, he picked up his pen and put it to paper (paper with one side already used, for work) in order to write in his own language. This meant not only castellano, but his own castellano, the rich language of the barrio, the ‘lunfardo’ of the gangsters, the football chat of the ‘pibes’, the ‘quetortadivina’ gossip of the mothers, the love pains of the young girls. He gave to each one of the characters he had known a monologue in his or her own voice. As he explains in the interview, while unfortunately for his career in cinema, he didn’t possess a very good memory, he could retain voices without problem, especially their particular tone and way of speaking.
And at last things went well. No longer was he trying fruitlessly to describe the ‘pampas of Yorkshire’, as he puts it in the interview. The voices were instead convincing and genuine, those of people he had known. At that moment he realised that to continue in film would be an ‘error’. And so he relocated again, this time to New York, where he started work at Aerolíneas: a job with fixed hours, to earn him bread and the time he needed to write. Once more he found himself in a new environment, with all its confusions. But Puig, despite his nervousness and his attention-calling Catalán surname, put his head down and got to it. Four years later his first novel, La traición de Rita Hayworth, was published.
The story of his subsequent success, particularly following the launch of his book Las boquitas pintadas, is not one I am going to tell here. Notably, though, at no point could Puig achieve the confidence that all great writers can supposedly claim. He always felt a bit rustic, a kind of bumpkin in his language. And he felt that way especially in Spain, where even the street sweepers seemed to him to speak like Baroque playwrights.
His nervousness is evident during the interview. Four novels stand on the table, a solid job. He has every right to be very proud, to be sure of himself. But it’s completely the opposite. Puig can’t even answer the presenter’s first question, for nerves. Each time he tries to light a cigarette, he can’t do it, as if he’s just gone for a swim with his matches in pocket. The host helps him out each time, the last with a comment: ‘Use mine, they never fail.’ Puig smiles nervously, showing small, slightly sharp teeth. He speaks dragging out his words, speaking each phrase with extreme slowness. But each thought is also very complete, and very honest. Honest to the point of discomfort. His cigarette burns down, consuming itself, until nearly scorching his fingers. He realises just in time and extinguishes it, before passing on to the next.