Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig uses the political and cultural environment of Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s to put across its themes. The novel focuses on two main characters imprisoned in the same cell for a period of six months: Molina, a window-dresser and a homosexual, and Valentin, a political activist with Marxist revolutionary ideologies. Valentin is convicted of political activism while Molina is convicted of perversion.
While in prison, Molina tells Valentin fantasy stories of melodramatic romance, which Valentin, at first, is reluctant to listen to (Puig 11). He bemoans Molina’s pursuance of romantic illusions instead of propagating political activism. Nevertheless, Molina’s stories, somehow, infiltrates Valentin’s heart and she falls for him before getting intimate. Molina, upon his release, agrees to relay pertinent information from Valentin to other revolutionaries.
The central theme of the novel regards the conflict between emotions/ desires, and political activism or Marxist revolutionary; issues that were rife in Argentina in the 1970s. In Latin America, the 1970s witnessed political polarization occasioned by the Cold War with the rightists (fascists) on one hand and leftists (communists) on the other. The Kiss of the Spider Woman is a critique of political fascism in Argentina in the 1970s.
The Political Climate in Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s
Historically, the colonization of Argentina by Spain started by in the 16th century ending in late 19th century. The Catholic missionaries assisted, in part, in the colonization process by introducing Christianity to the natives (Gottlieb 106). Lewis, while explaining how a country like Argentina that manifests Christian attributes and values becomes politically and socially repressive, remarks, “this is how we became fascists, the peasants are poorer today than they were five decades ago” (118).
Similarly, in the novel, the political struggle between the ideals of Marxist philosophy as championed by Valentin and the repressive regime. His revolutionary ideals transcend personal desires; he aims to free the society from oppression. On the other hand, Molina, at first, had no interest in political activism and thus, showed no effort for political and social empowerment of the society including the gay people.
The 1966 military coup led to a “prolonged fascist tyranny that only ended in 1983 with the return of constitutional democracy” (Lewis 78). In 1966, a military coup staged by Juan Peron’s supporters against the incumbent military leadership, helped him to reclaim power.
He had previously served as the president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 before a military coup in the same year overthrew him from power (Stein, and Shane 223). After reclaiming power, Peron turned against the leftist and instead, favored a repressive rightist leadership after surviving a series of coups in 1970 and 1971. He died in 1974, and his widow, Martinez de Peron assumed power and continued with the repressive rule.
The period from 1974 to 1983 was the worst period in Argentina’s history and was called “the dirty war” or “peronism” (Lewis 122). The period was characterized by the junta military rule and violent oppression of many people through imprisonment, executions, and torture, and the “disappearance of dissidents opposing the regime” (Gottlieb 108) bordered anarchy.
The country experienced a “protracted fascist rule by the junta military, characterized by a one-party rule” (Lewis 80), during this period. As a result, the social and democratic rights of the citizenry were suppressed.
Kiss of the Spider Woman and Politics in Argentina
Politics in the Kiss of the Spider woman, a novel set in Argentina, comes out in the conversations between Valentin, a political activist, and Molina, a “homosexual convicted eight years for seducing a minor” (Puig 15).
The two happen to share a prison cell for six months during which the political dynamics and politics of sexuality emerge out of their conversations. The conversations reveal Molina’s political vulnerability arising from his sexual orientation as well as his social disempowerment, which motivates him to befriend the power elite and betray his former cellmate, Valentin.
While in prison, the unsuspecting Valentin gives a detailed account of their revolutionary operations, including the fact that, they use elaborate codes to communicate and further their activities under the tyrannical regime. At the time, (1970s), in Argentina, the military rule of the junta was feared and notorious for the political repression, imprisonment, and executions of political activists (Lewis 81).
In the novel, Molina accepts Valentin’s revolutionary ideologies while in prison and even agrees to convey serious messages to Valentin’s comrades. The junta releases Molina from prison for ineffectuality; however, Valentin’s colleagues perceive him as effectual given what he knows about their operations and murder him. Meanwhile, the junta had schemed to leak information to the effect that Molina heard Valentin confess of his political operations.
The same blackmail tactics and political betrayal characterized the politics in Argentina. During the 1970s, in Argentina, a series of coups took place. In 1973, Juan Peron took power after a coup staged by his supporters (Gottlieb 109). He subsequently turned against the leftist political activism in favor of right wing leadership that continued to enact oppressive policies including political detention and torture. In the novel, Valentin is subjected to cruelty and torture over involvement in revolutionary (leftist) activities.
The narrative strategy used in Kiss of the Spider Woman is largely bleak and not straightforward with regard to peasant rights prevalent in the 1970s. Molina reveals a lifestyle devoid of concern for social or political rights under a repressive rule. He does not reflect on his moral rights as well as those of the peasants, even though at one time, he talks of his “villainous character” as that of any social being (Puig 48). Agrarian reform policies, which were largely capitalistic in Latin America, affected many livelihoods (Lewis 119).
The Marxist struggle in the 1970s was both a “political struggle and a struggle for social values for the oppressed peasantry” (Lewis 78). In the novel, Molina initiates the conversations, which had the effect of enhancing friendship between the two cellmates.
His questions to Valentin encourage him to reveal details of his revolutionary operations and to describe himself as a Marxist revolutionary (Puig 27). Indeed, in the 1970s, which is the period when the Kiss of the Spider Woman was written, the political climate in Latin America countries was polarized with rightist regimes oppressing leftist revolutionaries and ideologies.
In Argentina, the rightist regime comprising of the military junta, “tortured and killed political dissidents”, (Lewis 125) as they competed for power. In the novel, Valentin remarks, “I don’t want to be a political martyr, right now I wonder whether this whole revolution hasn’t been a tremendous mistake on my part” (Puig 177). This reflects the guerrilla leftist movements that were common in Argentina during this period.
Manuel Puig’s Biography and His Novel
Manuel Puig, the author of The Kiss of the Spider Woman, was born and raised in Argentina’s General Villegas. In his youth, Puig developed a fascination for Hollywood films that he used to watch in cinemas then. He later studied at Buenos Aires University and at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, where he studied cinema production (Levine 69).
He worked as an assistant film director in many cities including Paris and Buenos Aires from 1955 to 1964 when he turned to writing. His position as an independent socialist meant that he could not live or work under the increasingly repressive climate of Argentina (Levine 71). Therefore, he left Argentina in the 1970s, living in various cities including New York, Mexico and later Rio de Janeiro (Levine 71).
Manuel Puig’s early interest in pop culture is evident; this subsequently shaped his career choice and literary works. Additionally, his early involvement in “screenwriting and film production” (Levine 70) is reflected in his literary works including this novel. The novel involves a non-conventional narrative style not common in many literary works.
It blends literary and non-literary forms derived from the film genre as reflected in Molina character. In fact, Molina highlights the author’s fascination with films in the novel. Molina spends time telling Valentin a story about Hollywood films, which fascinates him. Besides challenging the conventional literary forms, Puig’s novel challenges the conventional cultural and social values.
Molina is homosexual who is convicted for seducing a minor and while in prison, he gets romantically involved with his cellmate. The author’s earlier experience in working in many countries and diverse cultures must have influenced his criticisms towards political, social, and cultural practices in his native country, Argentina. As a result, he favored Marxist philosophy against the repressive fascist rule.
In 1970s, Argentina experienced a series of coups that culminated in a fascist junta rule that orchestrated atrocities against the citizenry. Most notorious were the executions, torture, and the “disappearance” of leftist political activists.
The central theme of the novel, the Kiss of the Spider Woman relates to the author’s early experiences under this rule. Valentin shows stubborn dedication to “his revolutionary activities and political cause” (Puig 29) under the repressive rule. In the novel, the author challenges the repressive leadership and favors Marxist ideologies rather than the fascist one-party rule (Lewis 79).
Gottlieb, Julie. “Right-Wing Women in Women’s History: A Global Perspective: Introduction”. Journal of Women’s History 16.3 (2004): 106-107.
Levine, Suzanne. Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions. New York: Farrar, Straus and Girouz, 2000.
Lewis, Paul. Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina. London: Praeger, 2001.
Puig, Manuel. The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Trans. Thomas Colchie. New York: Random House Inc, 1978.
Stein, Stanley, and Hunt Shane. “Principal Currents in the Economic Historiography of Latin America”. Journal of Economic History 31.1 (1971): 222–253.