Worlds Apart

Nicholas Spice

  • Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig, translated by Thomas Colchie
    Arena, 281 pp, £2.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 09 934200 6
  • Back in the World by Tobias Wolff
    Cape, 221 pp, £8.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 224 02343 8

As a biology teacher at a large comprehensive school, my sister was given the job of taking the second-formers for sex education. To unblock inhibitions in the first lesson, she decided on a mild form of aversion therapy: covering the blackboard with taboo words, words normally out of bounds in the discourse between a teacher and her twelve-year-old pupils. She tried to include everything likely to embarrass them. But a small boy, anxious for the completeness of the inventory, put up his hand. ‘Please, miss,’ he mumbled, ‘you’ve missed something out.’ Scanning the shameless lexicon on the board and wracking her brains for obvious omissions, my sister asked the boy what he was thinking of, but no amount of persuasion would get him to say. After the lesson, when his peers were gone, he managed to tell her what he had in mind. ‘Breasts, miss,’ he hissed, ‘breasts’.

I thought of this story as I was nearing the end of Kiss of the Spider Woman, at the passage which gives the book its title and which I take to be its emotional core. Luis Alberto Molina, Prisoner 3018, asks Valentin Arregui Paz, Detainee 16115, to kiss him:

– Valentin ... if something happened here once, I was always careful about beginning it, because I didn’t want to ask you for anything, if it didn’t arise from yourself. Spontaneously, I mean.

– Yes

– Well, but as a farewell, I do want to ask you for something ...

– What?

– Something you never did, even though we did a lot worse things.

– What?

– A kiss ...

– You’re right ...

– But tomorrow, before I go. Don’t get scared, I’m not asking for it now.

– Fine.

– ...

– ...

– I’m curious ... would you feel much revulsion about giving me a kiss?

– Mmm ... It must be a fear that you’ll turn into a panther, like with the first movie you told me.

– I’m not the panther woman.

– It’s true, you’re not the panther woman.

– It’s very sad being a panther woman; no one can kiss you. Or anything.

– You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.

– How lovely! Oh, I like that.

I linked this passage to the story of the little boy because of the inhibition they both highlight, the inhibition against gentleness – or the ‘taboo on tenderness’, as the psychiatrist Ian Suttie called it. There are much ‘naughtier’ words on the blackboard, but it is the naming of the female breast that causes the boy difficulty, presumably because it recalls him to the most intimate and dependent relationship he has ever been in, and from which, under the cultural pressures upon him to become a ‘man’, he is labouring to free himself. In essence, it is to a very similar little boy inside Valentin that Molina addresses his proposal that they might kiss. He does so tentatively, expecting rebuff, and it is interesting that, although he is himself a dedicated homosexual, he talks of this kiss as lying beyond the other acts they have performed together, those things so ostensibly ‘a lot worse’.

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