La traición de Rita Hayworth

Manuel Puig, La traición de Rita Hayworth

At first sight, Manuel Puig’s La traición de Rita Hayworth seems to stand out for its gaps, for what it lacks. It has, for instance, no plot or narrator, at least in any conventional sense. For many critics, it has no protagonist. It consists merely of a series of texts, more or less connected but written from different perspectives and often in very different styles, that span fifteen years (from 1933 to 1948) in the life of a loose community in a small town on the Argentine Pampa. With each chapter we leap a year or so (sometimes, more, sometimes less) and are propelled into the concerns and obsessions of a new character or series of characters. Little attempt is made to “fill in the blanks” of what might come between these periodic bulletins from or about the town of Coronel Vallejos and its inhabitants. In one chapter (the fourth), the gaps are quite explicitly woven into the text itself, as we are presented with a “dialogue” between two characters, but only given one side of the exchange. At best, then, it may appear that we have little more than an approximation to the “real story,” whatever that may be, or even to a story at all. As such, in a book that (as its title suggests) is often preoccupied by the cinema, our experience as readers is much like that of someone who has not seen a film and has to have the plot described to them. This book is littered with such descriptions, which we gradually suspect are at times highly tendentious and far removed from the real thing; yet another gap opens up, between the description and the thing itself. But then how “real” is a movie, anyway? This novel puts that question center-stage.

But what is important here are ultimately not the gaps or the absences. Or rather, each gap is only the site of a new production or creation. So retelling a movie’s plot is the chance to construct a new narrative, a new version more fitted to the teller or the listener’s life and situation. Likewise, why see the multiple shifts of perspective in terms of the information that is skipped over or lost? In fact, they’re part of a drive to provide always more: more perspectives, more styles, more genres, more possibilities or actualizations of a consistent set of problematics. It’s in this sense that Linda Craig can point out that La traición is “a novel of supplementarity” (Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig, and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender 72). Her prime example is the book’s logic of naming: just about every character has more than one moniker, their “given name” (e.g. José L Casals) plus a nickname (Toto). Likewise, “Rita Hayworth” was originally Margarita Carmen Cansino, her Hispanic heritage erased (but not quite) to make her a global star. The supplement is always political, potentially subversive, and Craig quotes Derrida’s definition of it as “the sign which replaces the center, with supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence” (qtd. 71). Of course, precisely such relations between center and periphery are at the novel’s heart: General Vallejos and then Merlo (the desolate one-horse town where Toto goes to college) are both on the periphery compared to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires; not even the radio, Toto’s piano teacher complains, reaches her out on the pampa. But Argentina as a whole is in turn itself on the periphery compared to the sights and sounds of global culture transmitted by machinery of film. And the novel’s various characters comment on the distance between their own lives and what they see on the silver screen, but more importantly they also construct connections between the two worlds: and in translating their circumstances into the vocabulary of the cinema, they produce a second version of their own lives, a supplement that complicates (and to some extent undoes) the entire dichotomy of center and periphery.

The real fear here is not so much that these Argentine lives somehow fall short of the models disseminated by Hollywood mass culture. The real fear is not distance but identity, resemblance, as is indicated by Toto’s abashed admission that a photo he shows his piano teacher depicts someone he’s told he resembles, and that “on getting to fifth grade I’m going to be like him” (306). This is the desultory predictability of social reproduction. But mass culture promises a way out, an alternative, or at least the chance to dream. What’s at stake in these people’s relationship to the cinema is not mimicry but betrayal, though here the novel’s translated title, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is misleading: it’s not so much that the Argentine spectator is “betrayed” by the sirens of the silver screen, though a case can be made for that reading; but the films’ audiences, who are never simply passive consumers, are equally prepared to betray their idols, too, not least in their always unfaithful translations and repackagings of Hollywood plots for their own needs and desires. There’s also a third rendering of the title’s meaning, in that it’s around the figure of Hayworth that Toto’s father betrays him: he says that she’s his favourite movie star and promises to accompany him to the cinema, but never does. As such, the title is probably best rendered in English as The Rita Hayworth Betrayal, which conveys the multiple forms of resistance, deviation, and resignification that run through the novel. At precisely the time that Peronism is trying to constitute an Argentine people, not least through political technologies based on the cinematic experience, La traición de Rita Hayworth undermines the very notion of a cinematic pact, by refusing to give us a recognizable plot that would bind its constituent parts in the service of a single grand narrative. No: instead of a people, the book’s radical fragmentation and refusal to settle on a single point of view, its constant productive betrayal, point instead to a multitude that rebels against any attempts to reduce multiplicity to identity.

Cien años de soledad II

Cien años de soledad

Given the criticisms that have targeted magical realism for its easy descent into cheap exoticism and even kitsch–see for instance Julian Barnes’s complaint about the “package-tour baroque”– it’s perhaps surprising to remember that Cien años de soledad ends in such apocalyptic manner: with a mother bleeding to death, her newborn baby eaten by ants, and a hurricane of Biblical proportions that destroys Macondo and its entire fictional universe, all of which is to be “exiled from the memory of men” (549 [417]). There is little here in the way of consolation or hope. It’s closer to James Ellroy or Cormac McCarthy than to the gentle amiability that we expect of the always-smiling García Márquez. Of course, in some ways the book’s concluding gesture is futile: Macondo is far from wiped out from its readers’ memories. And despite the prediction that “everything written” in the manuscripts that describe and predict this holocaust–and so, by implication, everything that’s written in the novel itself–“was unrepeatable from time immemorial and forever more” (550 [417]), there have been innumerable attempts to copy and adapt the magical realist style, with more and less success, from Salman Rushdie to Laura Esquivel. Indeed, if anything tends to be forgotten about Cien años, perhaps it is its devastating climax and the symbolic self-destruction of everything that has come before. It is the dark side of magical realism, its grotesque horror, that all too quickly fades from the reader’s mind, or perhaps is simply not taken seriously enough.

Meanwhile, this final claim that the novel is somehow an unrepeatable event is both an impossible paradox and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For Cien años is indeed a singular book, and its astonishing combination of equally enormous critical and commercial success has seldom if ever been duplicated: not by any other of the novelists of the Boom, or even by García Márquez himself. But it is precisely its uniqueness that has ensured that it has never lacked for imitators. No wonder that Barnes or the writers later associated with the “McOndo” movement should plead for a stop to the proliferating repetitions of something like (but not like enough) One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose nadir was probably The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, by self-confessed “Márquez parasite” Louis de Bernières. More fundamentally, Cien años is also largely a book about (indeed, obsessed with) repetition, and it goes against the novel’s own logic that it should end with such an absolute prohibition of duplication and reiteration. After all, it is the failure of such a prohibition–the injunction against the Buendía family’s “original sin” of incest–that sets its plot moving and drives it forward, as the narrative is full of every variation of incestuous desire until finally the last of the line, Amaranta Ursula and her nephew Aureliano Babilonia, come together and produce the foretold offspring with the tail of a pig. However much you try to do something different and avoid the mistakes of the past, that past continues to haunt you. Indeed, it is perhaps only because by the end the very atmosphere of Macondo is so full of the ghosts of the motley cast of characters that have wandered through the book’s pages, that in the end García Márquez can only end the thing by shouting “enough!” and bringing on a cataclysmic hurricane that will tear the whole place down.

For another irony is that this novel, whose title tells us it is concerned with solitude, does in fact, and thanks in part to its proliferating repetitions, present us with what can only be called a multitude. Even at the end, when Aureliano is practically the only man left in town, the very objects that surround him invoke the continued presence of other lives that live on through shared habits. He sits in a rocking chair, for instance, that is “the same one in which Rebeca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Márquez, and in which Amaranta Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child” (546 [414]). His response to feel oppressed under “the crushing weight of so much past” (546 [414]); this may well be a bad multitude. But the point is that his problem is hardly solitude per se, or at least not in any simple sense. Indeed, more generally this is a book that is characterized by excess and overindulgence more than anything else. Indeed, it would be no less misleading if it had the title Cien años de plenitud.

This is, after all, also a book that clearly has ambition to be a “total novel”–another reason for it ultimately to declare that it can never be done again–and in service of that (itself, excessive) ambition, it overflows. It’s not just one multitude, but many: a multitude of Aurelianos and José Arcadios, of butterflies and beauties, of inventions and apparatuses, of firing squads and wars, of gypsies and of bananas and caramels, of flowers and books, of chamber pots and doubloons, of merchants and mistresses, of (mis)interpretations and mistakes, of solitudes (yes, solitudes, too) and friendships. Everything is singular but nothing is single: another will always come along in due time. If anything, Macondo’s problem (and that of its inhabitants) is that it is never alone, that there is no way of avoiding or preventing the various forces and energies that sweep through it. Even shutting oneself away (as so many characters repeatedly do) is simply embedding oneself in the machine, often enough to invest still further in the formidable cycles of creation, production, and destruction that drive the multitude. The task, then, is less to resist the multitudes than to determine which are bad (pestilential or merely kitsch) and which are good, enhancing life in all its myriad incarnations.

Cien años de soledad I

Cien años de soledad

Life is seldom easy or straightforward in Macondo, the small town at the centre of Gabriel García Márquez’s renowned One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first half of the book alone is full of violence, treachery, and deception; things only get worse in the second half. And the Buendía family who are the town’s lifeblood have a particularly complex set of tales to tell: at times over-run with children (legitimate, adopted, or otherwise), at times riven by strife and haunted by ghosts, and forever fragmented by the ambitions or desires of their menfolk. Throughout, it is the matriarch, Ursula Iguarán, who tries to keep things together and look after the house, but there is only so much that even she can do. The Buendías seldom seem to learn from their mistakes–indeed, they delight in repetition–and so it is with some bitterness and desperation that Ursula exclaims, as she sees her grandson going through the same motions as his grandfather: “I know all of this by heart, [. . .] It’s as if time had turned around and we were back at the beginning” (303 [193]). The irony is that both men’s folly is the dream of progress and development; there’s little that’s more unoriginal and hackneyed than novelty.

But it’s hard to blame the Buendías, even the crassest and least self-reflective among them. For they are often at best only inadvertent agents: their most heartfelt goals seldom come to fruition; Colonel Aureliano Buendía, for instance, leads constants rebellions and revolts, to little obvious effect. And on the other hand, the characters are often no more than vectors for energies that come from elsewhere. Sometimes these are broad, historical forces: so Colonel Aureliano, then, is more a personification of the endless warfare that afflicted Latin America in the nineteenth-century–an incarnation of a restless war machine–than he is the agent of his own destiny. But sometimes these energies are more local and more specific, the expression of non-human actants that surround and permeate Macondo. For famously this is a book that opens with the declaration that “Things have a life of their own, [. . .] It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls” (84 [1-2]). And it is this that is the essence of García Márquez’s magical realism: the acknowledgement that objects, too, have their own lives, their own desires and destinies that can both compete and collude with human plans and expectations.

The scene is set in the opening pages, as the gypsies bring everything from magnets and telescopes to flying carpets and ice to the remote backwater of Macondo. Some of these things are, of course, more “magical” than others, but the point is that they are all treated (more or less) equally, as examples of mechanisms and apparatuses that both expand and frustrate human desire. Caught up in the whirlwind of novelty, Ursula’s husband, José Arcadio, happily installs an alchemist’s laboratory in his own home, and it is this space–that becomes laboratory, workshop, and archive–that is the hub of the book’s fictive universe, however much for long periods it is forgotten, sealed up, and ignored. For the liveliness of things continues whether or not we realize or acknowledge it. And collectively, house, town, and family are no doubt best understood as an assemblage or set of assemblages that variously channel, filter, reproduce, transform, and magnify broader social forces through the intermediation of a complex multitude of smaller parts (buildings, rooms, people, body parts, animals, objects) whose interaction is frustratingly predictable at times and utterly novel at others.

Todos los fuegos el fuego

Julio Cortázar, Todos los fuegos el fuego

In the middle of a short story entitled “Instrucciones para John Howell” (“Instructions for John Howell”), Argentine author Julio Cortázar has his protagonist, a man called Rice, complain loudly about a play that he’s watching with some frustration: “It’s a scandal! [. . .] How can anyone stand the fact that they change actors halfway through a scene?” (133). But the man sitting next to Rice in the audience responds with little more than a bored sigh: “You never know with these young authors. [. . .] It’s all symbolic, I suppose” (133). And though by the time this collection of stories, Todos los fuegos el fuego, was published in 1966, Cortázar was 52 (and so a full decade older than fellow Boom writers such as Donoso, Fuentes, or García Márquez), one could still imagine that this might be the reaction it elicited: a contradictory blend of uncomprehending shock and knowing world-weariness. For by 1966 authors continued trying to shock their audiences, and yet the shock of the new had itself become old. The risk was that that text might get lost, stranded between scandal and déjà vu.

One might imagine a reader making a complaint much like Rice’s when faced with the story “La señorita Cora” (“Miss Cora”), which constantly and abruptly shifts between narrators, often in mid-paragraph. A young boy is in hospital for a minor operation, and we switch rapidly between the perspectives of parent, nurse, and patient. Similarly, the title story “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”) jumps back and forth between a story of gladiators in Rome and a much more contemporary tale of a fatal love triangle in Paris. Why do this? What does it add? Is there not something almost perverse in this drive to disrupt our reading that surely puts so many off? But the more resigned response of anyone familiar with the Boom might be to observe that such narrative fragmentation and changes in point of view are par for the course in mid-century experimental fiction. From Roa Bastos to Vargas Llosa, Fuentes to Lezama Lima, Boom authors and their peers seem devoted to making life hard for the reader, and ironically it’s the fact that these gambits have become so very common that gives readers a way out. For if sheer puzzlement leads to an emotive refusal to read, perhaps with a denunciation of innovation as elitist or unnecessary, jejeune familiarity is little better in that it entails a nonchalant declaration that a detailed reading is superfluous in that there’s nothing really new under the sun. “It’s all symbolic, I suppose.“ Or, as a free translation of this book’s title might have it: if you’ve seen one fire, you’ve seen them all.

By encoding these two apparently opposed (but secretly complicit) reactions within the text itself, Cortázar is also surely trying to ward them off. As such, if we can be sure of anything, it has to be that it’s not “all symbolic.” Readings that take refuge in symbolism and allegory have missed the point and neutralized the real impact of what the writer is trying to achieve. For there surely still is something at least faintly scandalous about abrupt shifts of points of view that disrupt grammatical or syntactical propriety. As soon as we see experimentation as just another trope, then we miss something of the text’s affective reality. After all, in the case of the play that Rice is watching, it’s been whispered in his ear that someone’s life may be at stake. Perhaps still more to the point, Rice knows that the actors have been changed because at one point he was up there on the stage himself. And perhaps this is also where the scandalized and the world-weary responses to the text join forces, in that both gloss over the reader’s own affective investment in the reading. When Rice complains to his neighbour about the scandalous nature of the play they are both watching, his comment hides his own contribution to that scandal.

In the end, what outrage and (purported) ennui alike deny are the ways in which readers get caught up in the text’s machinic assemblage. Machines are everywhere to be found in this collection of stories, from the opening tale of an almost interminable traffic jam on the outskirts of Paris (“La autopista del sur”) to the aeroplane from which (in “La isla a mediodía”) a flight attendant glimpses what he imagines to be a pristine Mediterranean Island. In “Instrucciones para John Howell,” it is the reader, as he or she becomes actor and thus (to an extent, however limited) author who is depicted in mechanistic terms. In the wings, preparing to go on-stage, Rice is described as “mechanically” changing his clothes (129). When in front of the footlights, realizing he has to “submit to the madness and give himself over to the simulacrum” (125), he finds his entry into the spectacle (which, while he is within it, is no longer spectacle) to be eased by his recourse to the automatism of habit. He picks up his role through gestures that he doesn’t even need to think through: the “trivial ritual of lighting a cigarette” for instance (125). What counts now is less the big scene or the broad overview, less the scandal or the context that neutralizes it, than “the details” and the detailed reading, because it is there and only there that reader, author, and actor finds his or her “maximum freedom” (128).