A Fine Vintage: Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig

on Monday, July 26, 2010
Many years ago, there was an Aussie TV ad with two shipwrecked sailors on a rickety raft, describing lavish meals to one another to abate their hunger. I still have no idea what it was for (meat? lamb? veal? some other dead non-human child?) but I do know it was the first time I heard of marsala. The punchline was great too - the doomedsome twosome lay back on the raft with one saying, "I couldn't fit another thing in". This ad, in less than two minutes, pretty much sums up Manuel Puig's 1976 classic Kiss Of The Spider Woman.

The title has been rattling around the back of my head for as long as I can remember. For some strange reason I had always assumed the book was a tacky South American noir. Or soft porn. Which is why I have never been all that interested in reading it (I only dig the hard stuff). Turns out it is more an amalgam of two of my great favourites, Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman and This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Almost entirely written in dialogue (going by this and JR, it was all the rage in '76), Kiss of The Spider Woman is essentially the recurring fantasies of two men languishing in a grimy prison in Buenos Aires in the mid-70's. Valentin is a political agitator, a (perhaps) major player in a militant rebel group. Molina, an effeminate window-dresser, is in prison for 'corruption of a minor'. The first chunk of the book is taken up by Molina talking Valentin through the plots of various movies, some that he has seen, others that he makes up as he goes along, in an attempt to help Valentin overcome the pain of the torture to which he has recently been subjected. Just when it threatens to become pointless and repetitive, we learn that Molina is actually a plant, bartering his own freedom for extracting Valentin's confession. Peppered throughout, in a tiered form very similar to Coetzee's Diary of A Bad Year (or perhaps Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest), is a footnoted countertext filled with psycho-babblish ruminations on homosexuality.

Indeed, sexuality and its influence on power relations seems to be the novel's main concern. As it progressed, I was made increasingly uncomfortable by Puig's apparent Lombrosian leanings. Molina is Valentin's only source of comfort, and eventually he succumbs to his sexual advances. The ending is extremely confusing too - Molina is released after his betrayal appears to yield some success, but he is killed soon after in the crossfire between police and Valentin's rebel group. It is unclear whether it is an act of self-sacrifice, whether his love for Valentin was true and that he would rather die than compromise the pact he had made with his cellmate, or if karma just plain up and got him. Either way, poor Valentin is still rottin in prison, being subjected to ever more horrific torture, and babbling in some dream state, casting himself in Molina's imaginary films. It is an intriguing, if morally ambivalent, work. My head hurts. As a great adman once wrote, "I couldn't possibly fit another thing in".


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