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’.

If we do not feel the danger and delicacy of Molina’s proposal, the passage will lose its point. In that case, we have probably taken the point already, and the chances are high that we will be women. The pleasures to be had from Kiss of the Spider Woman are various enough for anyone to enjoy the book and be provoked by it. But the rhetorical force of its polemic is directed against men and male values, with the result that men are likely to be engaged by it in a more complicated way than women. And this will be true in Britain no less than in Argentina, Puig’s country and the country where Molina and Valentin sit incarcerated. For British heterosexual men do not kiss one another. In fact, I know of no country where men kiss one another less. We don’t even go in for the ritual bear hug, or the peck on the cheek, properly formal and dry, that Continental men perform on meeting and parting. British men kiss women, they kiss children, they may even kiss their dogs, but they do not kiss each other. And if anyone disagrees, let him write and tell us when he last kissed another man and kissed him tenderly.

To say that Puig’s deepest concern in Kiss of the Spider Woman is to argue for tenderness is not to deny that his book is powerfully political. On the contrary, it is through this concern that his most radical politics expresses itself. His argument seems to run thus: where our societies are controlled by men, tenderness is undervalued. Men undervalue tenderness in order to suppress it. They need to suppress it, because it is the quality most sure to subvert the basis of their power. Tenderness is political dynamite because of the way it equalises subject and object. To be tender is to be both active and passive, caring and vulnerable, protective and defenceless, unusually sensitive to others and unusually sensitive to pain. Power relations, by contrast, depend upon inequality and imbalance: an oppressed and an oppressor. Puig has articulated these ideas with flawless logic, taking tenderness into the heart of male taboo by dramatising an attachment between a homosexual sex offender and a heterosexual revolutionary.

To talk of Puig’s ‘argument’ and of his ‘flawless logic’ is perhaps misleading, because Kiss of the Spider Woman is essentially a dramatic novel not a discursive one. Apart from the ideas that arise out of Molina’s conversation with Valentin, the burden of the book’s intellectual content is given in a series of footnotes. These footnotes, which present a summary of 19th and 20th-century theories of homosexuality, run in parallel to the main action and suggest ways of interpreting it. The other distinctive constituent in the book’s fabric is provided by Molina, who tells Valentin the plots of his favourite films to keep them both amused and to pass the time. Molina’s film stories – highly condensed versions of expressionistic melodramas like Cat People and I walked with a zombie – set up a second counterpoint to the central drama, and contribute to the book’s many-layered discourse on sexual roles in relation to power, rather as dream material might contribute to an analysis.

Molina and Valentin gradually open up to each other. Molina talks of his old mother and of the difficulties of his life as a homosexual, in particular the meagre satisfactions of his friendship with a young heterosexual waiter called Gabriel. From Valentin, meanwhile, we gather confused fragments about the revolutionary struggle and about the conflict within him between his attachments to two girls, one a bourgeois revisionist and the other a working-class freedom fighter. Molina is stubbornly apolitical, and half-way through the book we discover that he has been planted in Cell 7 by the prison authorities to get information out of Valentin in exchange for parole. Molina, however, turns out to be suspiciously incapable of learning anything from Valentin, and it may be that he is using his interviews with the prison warder as a way of getting superior provisions for himself and Valentin. The police tactics to break Valentin include giving him food poisoning, but this has the reverse of the intended effect, since it simply strengthens his bond with Molina. For the first time in his life, Molina has someone who needs him, while Valentin discovers what it is to be fully dependent on another human being. Their ordeal brings them to the brink of a tender, sexual attachment. Since Molina has failed to glean anything from Valentin, the police decide to set him free, in the hope that he will lead them to Valentin’s associates. On their last evening together, Molina promises Valentin that he’ll make contact with the revolutionary underground. In attempting to do so, he gets shot – by the revolutionaries.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was written in 1979 and first published in Britain in 1984. It has been reissued now to coincide with the launching of a major film. There has already been a stage version. The deceptive similarity of large chunks of the book to a play or film script, and the opportunities for character acting offered by the leading roles, made it inevitable that Kiss of the Spider Woman would be presented in these transcriptions. Through such manoeuvres, however, the subtlest aspect of Puig’s work is lost. They make explicit what the book leaves to the imagination, and violate the delicacy and tact with which Puig has treated his two main characters.

The formal restraint of Kiss of the Spider Woman, its elegantly modulated drama, could be called classical: there is even a sense in which the book observes the unities of time, place and action. By contrast with the hectic romanticism of the film plots that Molina retells, life in Cell 7 seems doubly austere. Yet Valentin and Molina’s own story is quintessentially romantic. Molina’s self-sacrifice in the revolutionary cause is a kind of Liebestod. It has to happen, since there can be no future for him after he has parted from Valentin. He has been vouchsafed a glimpse of heaven and cannot be allowed to live. In this respect, Kiss of the Spider Woman stands in the central tradition of romantic love stories, from the Middle Ages onwards, according to which love is an exceptional event, produced under rare, often artificial and always fragile circumstances, and axiomatically dependent upon the fact of impermanence. When Valentin comforts Molina with the reflection ‘In a man’s life ... everything is temporary. Nothing is for ever,’ he articulates the condition upon which all romantic intensities rely.

‘Nothing is for ever.’ Valentin’s stoicism and Molina’s sadness, the poignancy of their predicament shared by a reader privileged to look in upon their intimacy: these are good things that remind us of the human capacity to feel, to yearn, to regret. A lot pleasanter, at any rate, than the thoughts and feelings that commonly deface the surfaces of our mental life, ‘back in the world’, in Tobias Wolff’s trenchant phrase, where the problem is mostly not that things don’t last but precisely that they do. As, for example, these thoughts of Mark’s in the story ‘Desert Breakdown, 1968’:

    Mark felt that he had been deceived, played with. Not by Krystal, she would never do that, but by everyone who had ever been married and knew the truth about it and went on acting as if it were something good. The truth was different. The truth was that when you got married you had to give up one thing after another. It never ended. You had to give up your life – the special one that you were meant to have – and lead some middle kind of life that went where neither of you had ever thought of going, or wanted to go. And you never knew what was happening. You gave up your life and didn’t even know it.

Tobias Wolff is clearly no romantic. He hacks his material from the crude, undifferentiated rock of everyday life, and fashions from it polished luminescent miniatures. His choice of his original material is, of course, not random, and I think we can take his story ‘Our story begins’ as offering a clue to his understanding of the creative process, of how stories choose themselves. ‘Our story begins’ is about Charlie, a young man who has been drawn by dreams of the lives of the Beat poets to come to San Francisco to be a writer, but finds instead that he has become a waiter in an ocean-front restaurant. The step from waiter to writer is bigger than he knows how to make, and when we meet Charlie he is near to defeat. His decision to persevere seems to have something to do with a conversation he overhears one night in a bar, a fragment of a short story lodged in the body of a short story. ‘Our story begins’ implies that stories lie all around us, if only we know how to listen and to watch.

Tobias Wolff is especially well attuned to hear stories about people with ‘some middle kind of life’ – not so much people with average lives, that is, but people who live on the mezzanine levels of existence, unnoticed, people pushed, in Larkin’s phrase, ‘to the side of their own lives’. He also has a subtle ear for hollowness. Inflections and slight syntactic or idiomatic mannerisms of dialogue, habits of thought intimated in the way a story is told, hidden ironies in innocent remarks – these are the hairline cracks in the smooth surfaces of human complacency and self-deception which Wolff delicately prises apart to reveal the emptiness within. ‘The trouble with owning a Porsche is that there’s always some little thing wrong with it,’ ‘Helping out with the dishes was a way he had of showing how considerate he was,’ ‘I could show you something for this dryness’. This refers to hair. On another occasion: ‘It’s going to peel whatever I do. In a couple of weeks I’ll be back to normal’ (suntan). Wolff’s sensitivity to the secondary meanings of the words he uses is typically shown in the titles he gives these stories. For example, a story about a failed Roman Catholic priest who ‘starts out’ with the idea of being a missionary in Alaska, and ends up in a hotel room in Las Vegas comforting a lonely spinster, is called ‘The Missing Person’ ostensibly because the man Father Leo goes to Las Vegas with goes temporarily missing. ‘Sister’ derives its title from the hip salutation as in ‘It’s God’s country, sister, and that’s a fact,’ but Marty, to whom this remark is addressed, wants to be thought of as anything but a sister to the man who makes it. ‘Sister’ is about the moment in her life when she realises that a sister is all she’s ever going to be. In ‘Desert Breakdown, 1968’, an automobile breakdown in the middle of the Californian desert uncovers the structural weakness of a young marriage. The precise resonances of Wolff’s words are what gave me most pleasure in this impressive collection of stories, which take the art of implication and latency to a level seldom attained.