The Buenos Aires Affair

By MANUEL PUIG; Translated by SUZANNE JILL LEVINE

(Editors Note: The following essay is reprinted from the introduction to Dalkey Archive Press’ new edition of The Buenos Aires Affair, by kind permission of the publisher.)

 

It’s unclear if Puig fully understood the danger he was courting when he published The Buenos Aires Affair. His first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, was—as noted by Suzanne Jill Levine in her biography of the author—a mixture of quietly subversive politics and avant-garde art that terrified his publishers when they realized that the book used the word coger (“to fuck”) over thirty times. Nonetheless, it went on to find such impressive supporters as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Puig suffered no worse repercussions than a typo-ridden first edition and some light insults from prudish national newspapers. For his second novel, Heartbreak Tango, Puig toned down both the language and the political critique, resulting in a book that quickly became a bestseller and catapulted him to fame.

As well as making his name with the public, these first two novels established Puig as a talented innovator; especially noteworthy was their skillful use of narrative fragmentation and stream-of-consciousness narration. Puig’s readers were asked to play a far more active role than that to which they were accustomed, frequently wading through swamps of disorderly and untrustworthy monologue, collaborating with the author in establishing the facts of his novel while all the time working to order its story into a coherent chronology. Yet Puig was not writing esoteric texts meant solely for litterateurs. These novels’ widespread use of popular culture—including American movies and Argentine tangos—as well as their meticulous and engrossing storylines marked Puig as an author who embraced the middle class as both a subject of and an audience for his writing.

Puig was free to write more or less what he wanted in his first two novels without fear of government intervention, yet by the time he published The Buenos Aires Affair in 1973, Argentina had very much lost its political way. Earlier in that year it had permitted the restoration of demagogue Juan Perón, the wildly popular general who had raised fears of Argentina drifting into fascism, and who dominated Argentine politics throughout the 1940s and ’50s, finally being tossed out in a coup in 1955. From the moment Perón set foot in his home country, his presence aggravated an already tense situation: as a crowd of three and a half million greeted him at the airport, snipers associated with a right-wing terrorist group opened fire. And yet, even as he was being targeted by the rightists, Perón’s relations with the far left worsened, and in late 1973 he went on the offensive against them as well. In the midst of these open battles against guerrilla groups on both the right and the left, Perón was confronted with rampant inflation, and he finally succumbed to a heart attack on July 1, 1974, leaving his ill-prepared wife, Isabel, to govern the nation. Argentina languished in chaos for nearly two years under her rule, and then the situation reached its final nadir: In 1976, the military deposed Isabel and proceeded to institute one of the most disastrous, terror-ridden military dictatorships of the twentieth century: a regime that would make torture and kidnapping into instruments of policy, and that would reportedly kill 30,000 of its own citizens in just seven years, a period now known in Argentina as the Dirty War. This was the highly charged climate of fear and suspicion in which Puig published The Buenos Aires Affair—a book that openly condemned the Perón government (both past and present) and that made “perverse” sex a central element. Little wonder that it was to be a disaster. Puig would see his book stripped from store shelves, his hard-won place in Argentine literature effaced, his very life put at risk. Puig’s audacity during a time of systematic repression ensured that one of his great works—the novel that saw him begin to embrace his own sexuality in his writing and transition away from the relatively safe experiments of his early novels—would be denied the audience it deserved.

Despite its ideological undertones, however, which admittedly got its author into serious trouble, The Buenos Aires Affair is anything but a lugubrious political document—it is, in fact, a highly suspenseful novel that begins as a thriller would, with a mother discovering that her middle-aged daughter is missing from an idyllic beachside apartment. Puig then carefully draws the reader into this mystery, dropping clues as to where the daughter is, as well as hints at the motives and circumstances behind her disappearance.

With so many clues littered across its pages, it’s very appropriate that The Buenos Aires Affair is subtitled “A Detective Novel”—even though it contains no detective, and its murder (which occurs quietly in the middle of the book, and with little doubt left as to perpetrator or motive) is hardly typical of the genre. In giving The Buenos Aires Affair this label, Puig was—as he would do throughout his career—toying with form and genre, while casually sassing his reader. From the book’s very first pages, Puig reimagines the detective thriller as a smorgasbord of false documents, first creating expectations and then gamefully undercutting them while embarking on a thorough investigation of his characters and their trajectories through his sordid plot: continually undermining our assumptions—both for this novel in particular and then its supposed genre as a whole—giving us vital evidence and red herrings in equal measure and forcing the reader to wage a protracted battle to establish the facts of the case. To present this information, Puig employs devices as varied as phone-call transcripts, news items, a mock magazine interview, a psychiatric case study, dream languages, and internal monologue, and as the novel takes shape—a series of related texts without an ostensible consciousness to connect them all into a story—we come to the gradual realization that we ourselves are the “detective” meant to tie all the evidence together. And yet, there is no such thing as objective truth in a novel, and certainly not here, hiding behind Puig’s network of clues—there is only what the reader is able to glimpse, and “what really happened” exists only insofar as the reader can guess at the big picture.

For all its formal innovation, The Buenos Aires Affair is nonetheless a gripping thriller sensitive to the pleasures of genre. Puig draws on pulp clichés in inventing his two protagonists, making them the two halves of a sadomasochistic relationship. He seems to delight in the potential for irony, perversity, and psychoanalytical satire posed by the opportunity to concoct backstories for Gladys—almost the ideal of the woman familiar from pulp, who has a deep desire to be dominated—and Leo—the man whose only pleasure lies in domination. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that we will eventually witness their perverse union; what remains in doubt is how and why . . . and what happens then.

It’s worthwhile too to note that it was in The Buenos Aires Affair that Puig, homosexual and promiscuous in a culture with little patience for either inclination, began to deal in print with some of the questions surrounding his sexual orientation. Despite its subversive political content, it’s Puig’s treatment of sex in The Buenos Aires Affair that was arguably most provocative for its original audience. The book contains, among other things, an explicit description of female masturbation, and likewise one of violent male-on-male rape: transgressive enough elements by themselves in the mainstream fiction of the time, but all the more so here because of the way Puig makes the reader of these scenes feel like an intruder. What comes across most in the masturbation scene is the shameful thrill of the Peeping Tom, the reader being coerced into watching a woman investigate a sexuality that still frightens her; while the latter scene is pervaded by disgust: we feel like witnesses to something we would have turned away from, if only we could have managed. Both moments are extremes for the range of sexuality on display throughout The Buenos Aires Affair: the masturbation scene gives us sex as a dirty but fundamentally safe thrill, whereas the rape scene’s excessive brutality portrays sex as a dark urge that society needs to keep a lid on. What unites both perspectives, and what remains most interesting about Puig’s depiction of sexuality throughout The Buenos Aires Affair, is that this is sex that’s far removed from the idealized world of pornography, despite the reader’s occupying the same voyeuristic vantage point—this is sex that is not titillating or prurient but rather just as prosaic, messy, and inconsistent as it is in the real world.

The reader’s entrapment in the role of voyeur is hardly confined to the sex scenes: Puig’s use of supposedly found documents, casually breaking away from any semblance of objectivity, constantly reminds the reader of her presence as a watcher, as someone who is meant to feel she is looking in upon a supposedly unedited reality. Time and again the sense of being an interloper in these strangers’ lives is impressed upon the reader, and, oddly, this lends the book an air of reality that more conspicuously “realistic” books lack. The anti-artificial artifice of conventionally realist novels often makes us aware that what we are reading is in fact an artifact carefully designed to create a certain recognizable feeling of reality. By contrast, in The Buenos Aires Affair, any hint of “reality” is obscured beneath what appears to be a naïve reproduction of real-life documents. The Buenos Aires Affair is obviously just as carefully engineered as any novel, if not more so, yet Puig has taken pains to make the seams show. This gives the book an atmosphere that can at times seem similar to so-called reality television: the producers of reality TV are so careful to create a purposefully “unedited” presentation of life that viewers can at times be persuaded to forget just how carefully manipulated their images are, despite (or because of) the absence of a “fourth wall.” In a similar way, The Buenos Aires Affair hides its artifice in open sight.

Puig’s methodology here is now so familiar to us, so typically “Puigian,” that we might forget how substantial a development it was for him as an author: although elements of this “real world” approach to fiction can be found in his two earlier novels, those books’ greater reliance on stream-of-consciousness narration made them feel far more artificial. By contrast, Puig’s novels after The Buenos Aires Affair—especially Kiss of the Spider Woman and Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages—discard almost everything aside from this presentation of “unedited,” “real” life: books composed more or less entirely of unattributed, overheard dialogue, and quite clearly designed to subvert expectations of what is novelistic.

But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that sex and voyeurism are the only great themes at work in The Buenos Aires Affair: here too we find Puig’s straightforward, highly caustic condemnation of Argentine politics, with the Perón government of the 1950s referred to quite openly as “Fascist regime” (going so far as to place Perón in the company of Hitler and Mussolini)—a statement that was still quite inflammatory in 1973. Even more boldly, or foolishly, Puig takes the remarkable step of openly describing the mode of torture then favored by the police—at the instigation of the government then in power—as a means of stifling opposition and discontent in a society that was slowly but surely reaching a crisis point. Puig’s inclusion of such details is even more pointed given that The Buenos Aires Affair rarely touches upon other aspects of Argentine society in such a specific manner. Moreover, while the shocking nature of the graphic sexuality presented in The Buenos Aires Affair is blunted somewhat by the fact that these scenes are folded into nuanced studies of character, the political aspects receive no such softening. To put it simply, they stick out. They feel willful—as though Puig has made a conscious decision not to be delicate in their presentation—and yet, they are far from gratuitous: in pairing sexual angst and political mayhem, Puig infuses his work with an intriguing set of implications, though he leaves it to the reader to work out the precise relationship between these forms of discontent.

The response to the double dose of female/homosexual sexuality and anti-government sentiment was swift: Upon release, The Buenos Aires Affair was attacked by the largely Peronist press, television interviews were cancelled, and it faced soft-peddled censorship almost from its date of publication, culminating in the book’s formal branding as pornography in early 1974, and in Puig’s virtual “erasure” (to quote Levine) from Argentine literary culture. (Even though the novel had sold 15,000 copies during its first three weeks in bookstores.) Puig was far from chastened, however. His next novel, 1976’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, was if anything more provocative on both the political and sexual fronts, and so it too was duly banned. Fearing for his life, Puig left his homeland permanently that same year.

Now, we can hope, despite its having “fallen between the cracks” of Puig’s oeuvre, despite its long years out of the spotlight, The Buenos Aires Affair can finally be recognized as a turning point in the career of one of Argentina’s boldest and most innovative writers. For all the grave implications it raises about power, sexuality, and politics, it is foremost a beautiful and captivating work of art. At this stage in our literary history, when once again there seem to be louder and louder cries that only a straightforward plot can entertain, or that only a conventionally realist novel can convey the full flavor of life, it is important to be reminded that The Buenos Aires Affair is neither . . . and yet it does both.

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