“Pubis Angelica” by Manuel Puig

By Ray Sawhill

Manuel Puig, the Argentine author best known for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” writes novels that contrast the cramped lives people lead with the extravagant worlds they fantasize. A bitter romantic, he’s a fan of classic Hollywood schlock, and his theme is the attraction and impossibility of romance. He can’t get ideal love out of his head, and he can’t forget that it doesn’t really exist. When he recounts a character’s movie-fed memory or dream, his words seem to issue from an ecstatic trance. He takes off from kitsch into something almost visionary, and makes us understand the lure of Dream Factory illusions. When Puig is at his peak — in “Kiss,” “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” and “Heartbreak Tango,” and in sections of his newly translated “Pubis Angelical” (translated by Elena Brunet; Vintage) — his cracked, intense lyricism is in a class with that of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

“Pubis Angelical” is like a jangled parody of a Hollywood weepie. A young woman being treated for a tumor awaits her doctor’s verdict and contends with a lover who wants her to participate in a kidnapping scheme. Sedated against pain, she slips into comalike states. The narrative alternates between her lucid periods and two ongoing reveries — one starring Hedy Lamarr, the other a sex surrogate. Puig tells the “real” story in a bare-bones style and recounts the hallucinations — in which his heroine’s deepest feelings play themselves out on a grand scale — in breathless, purple prose. The lush, piled-on sentences seem to change shape and take on their own life, like dream images: he describes “columns which widened little by little as they rose, suddenly to be transformed into the folds of the golden fabric wrapped around hips that continued into torsos of smiling women of gold, which, with extravagant humor, held up a golden ceiling with their coiffures of infinite curls.”

The novel has more intellectual machinery than it can support, and the framing story is dramatically immobile. But some of the episodes that take place in the heroine’s head can affect you as directly as music. And Puig’s whipped-cream prose in these passages has an absurd, touching overripeness that may remind you of the insides of gaudy movie palaces. Puig can make the pull of the ideal so hard to resist that he gets you wondering if the clichés of old Hollywood might really be the language of pure feeling.

© 1986 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages” by Manuel Puig

Author Manuel Puig

By Ray Sawhill

Manuel Puig’s new novel, “Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages” (Random House), is mostly a series of conversations between an empty shell and a sealed-off vault. The shell is named Ramirez. Once a union organizer in Argentina, he’s been imprisoned and tortured and has suffered a breakdown that’s erased virtually all his memories. A human-rights group has brought him, a blank slate at 74, to a New York City home for the aged. Larry, the vault, is an educated 36-year-old mess who’s making do with a miserable apartment, magazines retrieved from garbage cans, and much embittered Marxist and Freudian grumbling. Wheeling Ramirez through Greenwich Village is his sole source of income this winter. We eavesdrop on their talks.

Puig is a gifted mimic, and his writing has distinctive, lilting rhythms, so “Eternal Curse” skips right along; the two men’s persistent bobbing and pecking can be very funny. Eager to feed on someone else’s emotions and recollections, Ramirez goes after Larry, doing some shrewd doddering and asking question after question. Larry scolds and mocks the old man and, even as he doles out tales from his past, keeps the door to his emotions firmly shut. As Larry’s stories pile up, and as he decodes a diary Ramirez kept in prison (the novel takes its title from the diary’s first words), the two men’s histories merge and Puig’s intention becomes clear. The gap between fathers and sons, Puig is proclaiming, is so poisoned by male pride — by rivalry and disappointment — that it can never really be closed. Ramirez’s mind snapped when the guilt he felt about his son grew too painful; Larry still complains about his dad. The old man’s pursuit of Larry and Larry’s grudging indulgence of Ramirez are semiconscious attempts to atone — attempts that, given the bleakness of the novel’s design, are doomed to fail.

In his earlier novels, especially “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” and “Heartbreak Tango,” Puig showed his feeling for dreams and for their wreckage. To tell his stories, he used whatever came to hand — journals, scraps of conversations, questionnaires, police-blotter records — and he got so far into some of his characters that their sorrow, generosity and terror seemed very pure. As long as an action, no matter how horrible, had its origins in a fantasy of romance, Puig seemed capable of forgiving and understanding; his empathy was lyrical and quick. Intelligent as “Eternal Curse” is, it has little of Puig’s magic; a wind cold enough to make a skeleton shiver whistles through these pages. Puig is in exile from his native Argentina, and this is the first book he has written directly in English. Still, it does seem awfully wrongheaded for a man deeply convinced that life moves on waves of desire and regret to prop a novel on two characters who won’t budge an inch.

© 1982 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.