First published in 1979, ManuelPuig's Pubis Angelical is an altogether bleaker novel than his better-known Kiss of the Spider Woman. Like this earlier novel, however, it is set in 1975 and alludes indirectly to the escalating violence of Isabel Peron's final days in power.
The protagonist, Ana, who is saidto resemble the 1930s film star Hedy Lamarr, is in a hospital in Mexico waiting for the results of a biopsy. She has left Argentina to escape the attentions of a powerful and threatening admirer, Alejandro, only to find herself imprisoned in her hospital bed with no contacts except Beatriz, a casual friend, and Juan Jose Pozzi, an ex-lover and political activist. Pozzi wants her help in a plan to kidnap Alejandro in order to raise money for his political party. Ana's fear of death, her remorse when Pozzi is killed on his return to Argentina and her physical helplessness are transposed into paranoid nightmares that obsessively revolve around plots of love and treachery, domination and submission.
In these nightmares, which seem tofill the void formerly occupied by God or some other transcendental vision, Ana's fears and desires are reincarnated in two sister/victims: a glamorous film star of the 1930s, referred to as the Mistress and the "most beautiful woman in the world," and W218, a woman living in the artificial landscape of futuristic science fiction. Both of them share Ana's obsessions: the attraction she feels for wealth and luxury, her desire for an ideal lover, her fear of betrayal, her need for male regard to affirm her identity, her rejection of other women--even her own daughter and mother--her suspicion of male motives. Women like Ana, Puig suggests, offer themselves as objects of adoration only to find themselves trapped in narcissism and paranoia. Not for nothing does he make the origin of this subjectivity parallel the origin of the movie industry, depicting the female imagination as a huge movie screen on which spy and science-fiction thrillers are projected.
Hedy, for instance, is not only themost beautiful woman in the world but a modern Frankenstein monster, the child of a mad professor who has programmed her for use in mind control. On reaching the age of 30, she will be able to read other people's thoughts, which makes her both desirable and dangerous. Because of this, she is kept captive on an island by her husband, an arms magnate who drugs her before he makes love to her and keeps her under constant surveillance. When he finds out she has betrayed him he plans to murder her, in a striking reversal of the frog prince fairy tale, by putting her in a glass box with all her jewels until she swells up like a frog and dies. Though Hedy escapes this fate by running away with a treacherous lover whom she is later forced to kill, it is only to fall into a repetitive pattern of enslavement (at one point, in the golden cage of the Hollywood cinema) and desperate escape. Her life ends in a Mexico that bears a suspicious resemblance to a movie lot; a car driven by evil pursuers runs over her when she is once again escaping from a lover she believes to be a spy. Since all mass culture images are repetitions, her lovers are doubles as well as being duplicitous, and each episode of her life follows a similar pattern of captivity and escape, narcissism and paranoia.
Puig brilliantly transposes these patternsinto a science-fiction story whose protagonist, W218, is an employee in the Conscript Division A of Sexual Therapeutics of the Ministry of Public Welfare. Her work consists of administering sex as a social service in a brave new world, born after the Great Turn of the Page which had followed atomic war and polar inundation. In this future world, nature is remembered only in street names, such as Oak Lane, or is conjured up as a simulation. Nevertheless, W218's life follows exactly the same pattern of love, spying and betrayal as Hedy's, with the difference that W218 has the ability to read her lover's treacherous thoughts and anticipate his intentions. After destroying him, she atones for the crime by volunteering to give sexual services to the diseased in a remote land of eternal polar darkness.
If Hedy and W218 are characters inAna's nightmare, she is also a character in theirs. In W218's fantasies, she appears as a mad old woman obsessed with hopes of escape. She tells of a dream in which she returns to her native land to find it torn by civil war. Clothed only in a nightdress she floats over the battlefield: "Suddenly a strange gust of wind arose and the nightdress was lifted, showing me to be naked, and the men trembled, and it's that that they saw I was a divine creature, my pubis was like that of the angels, without down and without sex, smooth." It is here on the battlefield that she find her daughter, similarly endowed with the miraculous pubis angelical. The transcendence of a femininity that has been constituted as castration, "the crack between the legs," allows Ana to leave her hall of mirrors and discover those relationships--with her mother and her daughter--that are not based on narcissistic identification and female submission.
Politics and sexuality are inseparablein Pubis Angelical. Ana's fantasies speak of the political nightmares of exile, disappearance, torture and persecution, though as always in Puig's novels, the horror is tempered by the humor of his crazy plots and kitsch stage props. Even so, the novel's predominant mood is one of melancholy, as if the author can no longer imagine sexual relations outside the reach of the state's manipulation of the body. Even the glamorous and perfect faces of 1930s movie stars have become for him the masks that hide the anguish of Cassandra.