Before it was an Oscar-winning movie, before it was a Broadway musical, before it was a widely produced play, there was the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (Vintage).
Manuel Puig’s 1976 book may be better known for its incarnations as a Tony Award-winning 1993 Broadway musical, with Chita Rivera and Vanessa Williams in the title role, and Oscar-winning 1985 movie starring Sonia Braga, Raul Julia and William Hurt.
The book takes place in the 1970s in an Argentine prison. Two seemingly opposite men — Molina, a gay window dresser, and Valentin, a political dissident — are stuck together. To pass the time, Molina tells the plots of movies, comforting Valentin while he suffers from physical illness and emotional heartache from leaving his girlfriend.
The book consists mostly of dialogue, and Puig excels at writing conservations that sound natural. But I had to endure Molina’s movie plots that drag on for pages and dryly written footnotes that discuss the history of psychiatry’s view of homosexuality. I confess I skipped through some of these passages.
But Puig conveys their loneliness well, such as in this passage:
“It’s as if we were on some desert island. An island on which we may have to remain alone together for years. Because, well, outside of this cell we may have our oppressors, yes, but not inside. Here no one oppresses the other. The only thing that seems to disturb me … because I’m exhausted, or conditioned or perverted … is that someone wants to be nice to me, without asking anything back for it.”
Then the book delivers a hell of a twist — one of the prisoners may be betraying the other.
Spider Woman is a novel that tackles big issues such as homosexuality and Argentine politics. Some of it was tough to get through, but it’s easy to see how it has endured through the years and in many forms.
More about Manuel Puig: The Argentine author, who was born in 1932 and died in 1990, is best known for Spider Woman, but his other books includes 1968’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and 1973’s The Buenos Aires Affair.
Source: I checked this book out of the library.
This book is part of my series on classic Latino novels. Up next: Jose Saramago’s Blindness.