Manuel Puig ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’

– What’s your definition of incredibly good looking? I’d like to hear.image
– Well, he’s tall, dark, wears a moustache, very distinguished-looking, broad forehead, but with a pencil-line moustache a little bit like a pimp’s….I don’t know if I’m making it very clear….a wise-guys moustache, which gives him away.

I saw the film back in the 80’s with William Hurt’s Oscar performance and decided to explore this book and Manuel Puig for the Spanish lit month 2016.

The book written in the 70’s centres on two prisoners sharing a cell in an Argentinian jail cell, there is Valentin, a hardline Marxist who feels he is a small, committed part of a movement to change the world where feelings are irrelevant, and there is Molina, homosexual and effeminate, in jail for sexual offences with a minor, who has no political consciousness and who romanticises little known ‘B’ movies and their heroines.

An example of the difference in their personalities is given early on in the book when Molina talks about a married waiter he has talked to and become friendly with and fantacises about helping him leave his job and study

That he might come to live with me, with my mom and me. And I’d help him and make him study. And not bother about anything but him, the whole blessed day. Getting everything all set for him, his clothes, buying him books, registering him for courses and little by little I’d convince him that what he had to do was just one thing: Never work again. And I pass along whatever small amount of money was needed to give the wife for child support, and make him not worry about anything at all, nothing except himself, until he got what he wanted and lost all that sadness of his for good, would’ that be marvellous?

Valentin, unable to see this as a fantasy replies with a viewpoint that is so classical as to be a parody of Marxist thinking

yes but unreal. Look, there is one thing, you know, he could also go right on being a waiter but not feeling humiliated about it or anything like that. Because however humble his work is, there’s always the option: joining the union movement
-but he doesn’t understand any of that.
-he doesn’t have any idea about politics?
-no he’s rather ignorant. And he even says some foul things about his union, and probably he’s right.
-Right! If the union’s no good he should fight to change it, so it gets better.

In order to pass time before sleeping when the lights are out, Molina tells the story of films, slowly hooking Valentin on his movies, these are short stories within the book telling of a triangular love story between an architect, his assistant and an enigmatic young girl who turns out to be a panther woman or of a love story between a French singer and a German counterespionage officer in Paris and Berlin during the war, both of these stories end tragically and as Valentin gets sucked into further stories we start to see his slow softening process

– I’m sorry because I’ve become attracted to the characters. And now it’s all over, and it’s just like they died
– So, Valentin, you too have a little bit of a heart.
– It has to come out some place….weakness, I mean.
– It’s not weakness, listen.
– Funny how you can’t get along without becoming attached to something…It’s….as if the mind had to secrete affection without stopping.

Why do these such different characters share a cell? This we learn halfway through the book as Molina is put under pressure to deliver Valentin’s political secrets in return for a pardon. The prison authorities are slowly poisoning Valentin to weaken him, causing Molina to look after him in his bouts of illness and bringing the two prisoners both mentally and physically closer together, leading to them to have a homosexual relationship which begins with no tenderness and moves toward a close relationship illustrated by the passage giving the title to the book

-I’m curious…. would you feel much revulsion about giving me a kiss?
-Mmm… It must be fear that you’ll turn into a panther, like the first movie you told me.
-I’m not the panther woman.
-It’s very sad being a panther woman; no one can kiss you. Or anything.
-You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.
-How lovely! Oh, I like that.

Finally Molina is released in a hope he will lead the authorities to Valentin’s political connections where Molina then makes a choice that seems to come from one of his films.

First Published in Spanish as”El beso de la mujer araña”  in 1976
Translated into English by Thomas Colchie and published as “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Vintage in 1991

2 thoughts on “Manuel Puig ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’”

  1. I’m a fan of Puig’s, Pat, but this is one of many novels of his I’ve yet to read (despite having enjoyed the film adaptation way back when). Did you prefer the book or the movie? Did you like the storytelling?

    1. I enjoyed the film and retrospectively I think the way it was shot in a minimalist yet lyric style was faithful to Puig, in a nutshell I enjoyed them both. Without a clear memory of their actual film voices I could feel and hear the different voices of the characters as I read.

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