Manuel Puig and La traición de Rita Hayworth

2018 marks 50 years since La traición de Rita Hayworth, the debut novel by the Argentinian author Manuel Puig, was first published. Puig (1932–1990) is best-known outside the Spanish-speaking world for his fourth novel, 1976’s El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and its successful film, theatre and musical adaptations. However, his debut (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth in its English translation) remains his most directly personal novel, and introduces many of the themes and ideas that run throughout his work.


1st edition of La traición de Rita Hayworth, with a picture of the author on the cover

Most authors’ first novels represent, in some way, a culmination of their life up to that point, but this is particularly true of La traición de Rita Hayworth. In fact, the book is almost as purely autobiographical as a work of fiction can be.

The book’s setting, Coronel Vallejos is a thinly veiled version of Puig’s hometown General Villegas. Boquitas Pintadas (Heartbreak Tango), his second novel – and first big commercial success – is also set there. His mother Malé had moved to Villegas, a dusty pampas backwater in Buenos Aires Province, from the state capital of La Plata, and met and married Manuel’s father Baldo there. Both the physical landscape of Manuel’s childhood and the people around him were clearly mirrored in his early work. His parents, a somewhat ill-matched couple, are represented in La traición de Rita Hayworth by Berto, a typical small-town Argentinian macho with matinée idol looks, and Mita, an educated woman nostalgic for her more cosmopolitan hometown and enamored of cinema and the arts.

Toto (aka José Luis Casals), the novel’s central character, inasmuch as it has one, is the most autobiographical figure of all. Precociously intelligent, obsessed with fantasy, film and literature, the boy’s rejection of “manly” pursuits, as well as his perceived effeminacy and sexual ambivalence earn him the rejection of his stern, traditional father. However, the passions shared by Toto and his mother are both a source of comfort and worry to her. All of this exactly mirrors Puig’s own childhood and upbringing, and, although the novel ends with Toto still a teenager and yet to fully embark on his journey in life, it is in many ways a depiction of his (and the author’s) sexual and artistic awakening.

However, it is not only in autobiographical detail that the novel so clearly reflects its author’s life and worldview. Almost all of Puig’s major obsessions and themes are already present in his debut. Any introduction to the author will emphasise how central cinema is to his work, and indeed this is the case with La traición de Rita Hayworth, something made abundantly clear by the novel’s iconic title.

The movies provided the young Manuel and his mother with a means of escape and solace from their dull and restrictive existence in smalltown Villegas, and Puig is often considered one of the first authors to use cinema (and modern “low”/pop culture in general) to such an extent in his work. He had originally wanted to become a screenwriter and director (attending Rome’s famed Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in his early 20s) and always maintained that his first novel began as a “failed script”.


Boquitas pintadas, 2nd edition (744:35.d.95.445)

Many of Puig’s characters (in his debut and other novels) fixate on film, either as an inspiration to flights of fantasy and creativity, as in Toto’s case, or as a source for more mundane escapism and gossip. However, they (and we) are constantly reminded of the often painful gap between the world portrayed in the movies and the reality of life in a repressive and limiting patriarchal society. This is the fundamental theme of his second novel, Boquitas pintadas, in which the romantic fantasies sparked in his characters by their devotion to movies and radio soap operas are cruelly contrasted with the frustrations and disappointments of their real lives.

In terms of period, Manuel Puig’s work forms part of the so-called Latin American Boom, but he does not fit comfortably with the other major figures of this movement, such as Cortázar, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes. His overt queerness and effeminacy in an overwhelmingly male and machista milieu, and his embrace of pop culture and camp amongst peers steeped in literature, avant-gardism and radical politics made him stand apart from these “literary lions”. However, his work, and La traición de Rita Hayworth in particular, exhibits many of the same formal tendencies as his contemporaries, such as the use of Faulknerian interior monologues, multiple fragmentary perspectives, a lack of narrative objectivity and frequent use of colloquialisms and regional dialect.


Manuscripts of Puig’s first two novels, and the author striking a typical pose, from Puig por Puig : imágenes de un escritor (744:4.c.200.206)

Furthermore, politics are a constant presence throughout Puig’s writing, but treated in a much more ambivalent and conflicted manner than many of his peers. This becomes overt in his later novels, such as El beso de la mujer araña and 1979’s Pubis angelical, where he portrays literal dialogues between self-absorbed, politically disengaged “romantics” and committed socialist activists. However, it is still evident to some extent in his debut, particularly in the section made up of diary entries by Toto’s classmate Esther, a representative of Argentina’s Peronist working classes. The conflict Puig felt between his erotic/romantic obsessions and desires, and his sense of a wider social responsibility (particularly as his country teetered from one socio-political crisis to another) was at the centre of all his work.

The UL has collected works by and about Puig since his novels first started to be published by the major Spanish publisher Seix Barral –  who had initially rejected his work, but changed their tune once he began to achieve commercial and critical success – in the early 1970s. We hold everything he published in both original and translation, as well as considerable critical material.

The most complete biography of Puig, Manuel Puig and the spider woman: his life and fictions, was actually written in English by Suzanne Jill Levine, the translator of his first three novels and the last book he published before his death, Cae la noche tropical (Tropical Night Falling). Levine’s biography quotes extensively from Puig’s copious correspondence, which has since been collected in two volumes and is every bit as rich and enjoyable as his fiction, albeit considerably cattier!

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The National University of La Plata’s Faculty of Humanities and Education Sciences is home to Puig’s literary archive. His mother graduated from this university in the 1920s, and some of his surviving family members have collaborated with the institution to collect and digitize many of his manuscripts and other source material (which can be viewed at the ARCAS colección Manuel Puig and Archivo digital Manuel Puig). Through these archives, one can see Puig’s development as an author and read the many careful revisions that his work went through before achieving its seemingly off-the-cuff and conversational style.

Christopher Greenberg

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