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.