Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review - Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

I have just read the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, the 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. It is probably his most famous novel, particularly since it was adapted into a Brazilian-American film in 1985.

The novel is, first of all, not what it sounds like. It is not a paranormal story, and it is barely a romance (at least not the modern sense of the term "romance novel"). Instead it contains Marxism, claustrophobia, diarrhea, homo-eroticism, long conversations, summaries of old movies, Freudian analyses of homosexuality, and nonlinear stream-of-consciousness dream sequences. The novel takes place in Argentina in 1975, in a prison cell. Two men share the cell, and they have nothing in common. One man is Valentin, a political prisoner who was arrested for his involvement in anti-government protests. The other man is Molina, a gay window-dresser who was arrested for "corrupting minors." The novel, I have read, was controversial from the start: Puig had trouble having it published, and this does not surprise me. There is nothing "appropriate" about the book, nothing that seems especially pleasing.

To put it bluntly - it is a comfortless, stark, bizarre novel. It criticizes leftist activity, since Valentin left his true love (a girl named "Marta") in order to participate in his rebellions; but it also criticizes the status quo, since the prison warden uses terrible, inhumane methods to extract information from Valentin. It is not a homophobic novel, but it portrays Molina as alienated from society, disinterested in intellectual pursuits - essentially as a depressingly useless person. Molina passes the time by describing the movies he has seen in the past, emphasizing the look of women's dresses, the passion shared between a pair of lovers, the fear and chaos created by imminent danger.

Valentin has little interest in these retellings of films at first - particularly the second film, which turns out to be a Nazi propaganda film. I don't think Valentin mentions it in this book, but I remember that, in the movie with Raul Julia, Valentin points out the irony of a gay man adoring a movie produced by Nazis, since the Nazis were known for executing homosexuals. But Molina does not care; the aesthetic qualities of the films captivate him. Valentin believes in causes; Molina believes in happiness. "In a man's life," Valentin says, "which may be short and may be long, everything is temporary. Nothing is forever." To which Molina responds, "Yes, but let it last a little while, at least that much."

Kiss of the Spider Women is, I suppose, a book about the things in life that obligate us, that entrap us and force us to do the very things that later destroy us. The "Spider Woman" is a fictitious character that Molina and Valentin imagine together, a woman "that traps men in her web" and gives them venomous kisses. We all have these "spider kisses" in our lives, whether they are our innate fears, or our unquenchable thirsts, or poisonous ideologies, or hunger for power, or else they are the tender passions we have for one another.

Gradually the two prisoners come to understand each other, relating to one another's problems. The novel shows that people can change, yet the role of fate in this novel is a malevolent one, and I think it manages to obliterate any chance for either of them to succeed in creating a tangible destiny for himself. The last of the movies Molina remembers is a tragic love story between a reporter and a singer. Each of them ruins oneself for the other, until they are both left with absolutely nothing, and I can't help but wonder, Why the hell couldn't they have just lived sensibly and worked things out? Why does a person think that his life can't be interesting until he spontaneously falls in love, or instantly fly into a rage? Why couldn't these stories have a bit of hope to them?

But hope may have been a distant concept to Manuel Puig at the time. He wrote this novel during a violent time period, when in fact Puig had gone into exile in order to escape persecution.

I have not seen the entire 1985 movie, and so I do not know to what extent Raul Julia's and William Hurt's performances heightened this awkward tale. Good performances will save a bad story, George Bernard Shaw once wrote. I would not call Kiss of the Spider Woman a bad story; but it manages to create nothing, and it is strangely unimaginative (even the films Molina describes are not the product of Puig's imagination; each is based on one or more preexisting films, except perhaps the last film, the one about the reporter and the singer). The novel is extremely minimalist in style, existing only in the dialogue between people, without any further narration. I was tempted, at first, to compare it to the brilliant Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, which is also a very minimalist novel; but Trumbo's book was far more daring, drastic, and original, while at the same time the point Trumbo wanted to make was crystal-clear. With Puig's novel, I get a muddled look at two rather confused men who try to learn from each other and just end up getting more confused, although perhaps they do not know it, perhaps they have the fortune to feel enlightened when they in reality are not. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a multi-layered novel of ideas and passions, and its aftertaste is the feeling that humans are a miserable species because, in the end, ideas and passions just don't mix.

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