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Goodbye to Manuel Puig: unfinished business.

A letter from Manuel Puig lies on my desk, unanswered. I meant to write to him, of course. It was just one of those things I didn't quite get around to doing. All I needed was a day or two more, but before I found time, Argentine author Manuel Puig had died in Mexico, at age 58, of complications from an operation.

To me, that letter symbolizes all the business that was left unfinished by Puig's untimely death. One of the most energetic, promising novelists and playwrights of the post-boom generation, Puig was in the midst of several projects when he died. One was a production of his play El misterio del ramo de rosas (The Mystery of the Bouquet of Roses), planned for next April in Spain. Another was a novel, which he had already outlined, that would have taken place in a town in the Pampa during the 40s. Although Puig said that he would not be the protagonist of his new book, he himself was born in the town of General Villegas, in the Province of Buenos Aires, and spent his early years on the Pampa. In the work he was projecting, he intended to explore the repression inflicted by society on the individual and also the constraints the individual places on himself.

Puig's first love was film, and as a young man he studied directing at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. According to him, he was too timid and unsure of himself to give orders, and soon turned to writing. His first novel, La traicion de Rita Hayworth (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), published in 1968, was a largely autobiographical account of growing up in a small town on the Pampa, where the only diversion was the movies. In this book Puig explores the pressures on a young boy who is too sensitive and unathletic to fit into the macho mold imposed by his father and other men. His next novel, Boquitas pintadas (Heartbreak Tango) (1969), on which a film was based, is a kind of detective story inspired by the newspaper serials that were once popular in Latin America and elsewhere. Like Puig's first novel, Boquitas pintadas exposes the boredom, pettiness, and hypocrisy of small-town life and examines the influence of popular culture--movies, magazines, tangos--on the people. Perhaps his best-known novel is El beso de la mujer arana (Kiss of the Spider Woman) (1977), which also became a movie. It revolves around two prison inmates, one of whom is a homosexual and the other, a political activist. Over a period of time a strong attachment develops between them, and both discover facets of their personalities that had previously been hidden.

Because of Puig's criticism of government repression in The Buenos Aires Affair (1973), the author was forced to leave Argentina. He lived in Berlin, Mexico, New York, and Rio. Puig situated novels in nearly all of these cities, and even wrote in foreign languages. Pubis angelica (1979) takes place in Mexico; Maldicion eterna a quien lea estas paginas (Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages) (1980) takes place in New York and was written in English; Sangre de amor no correspondido (Blood of Unrequited Love) takes place in Brazil and was written in Portuguese. Adapting to new circumstances was a challenge Puig was always ready to meet.

Manuel Puig made a major contribution to Latin American fiction by breaking down barriers. He dealt with subjects--homosexuality, machismo, pressures on children, female sexuality--that were previously taboo. He exposed the loneliness and alienation of modern men and women. He depicted homosexuals and others who live on the margins of society with humor and tenderness. Although he often said that he had no formal training in literature and did not consider himself to be a stylist, his novels were innovative both technically and structurally.

But Manuel Puig was not only a fine writer. He was also a kind, gentle, compassionate man and a good friend. Who knows what further contributions he might have made. Who knows how much business he left unfinished.

Barbara Mujica is a novelist, shortstory writer, and essayist, as well as an associate professor at Georgetown University, where she teaches Hispanic literature and directs El Retablo, a Spanish-language theater group.
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Title Annotation:Argentine author
Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:obituary
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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