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Manuel Puig

December 28 shares honors with the birth of novelist Manuel Puig.  He was born in 1932 in the small town of General Villegas, Argentina, to Baldomero and María Elena Delledonne Puig.  His father was a failed cattleman and rancher, but his tenacity for hard work eventually paid off in elevating the family status from lower to upper middle class. 

Puig best known novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1979), about Luis Molina and Valentin Arregui, tells the tale of two cellmates in a South American prison.  Luis, a middle-aged homosexual, is found guilty of immoral behavior, and Valentin is a political prisoner.  To escape reality, Luis invents romantic situations from the movies, while Valentin tries to keep his mind on his own situation.  During the time they spend together, the two grow to understand and respect one another.  The book was made into a 1985 film starring William Hurt, Raul Julia, and Sonia Bragga.

Puig grew up in an area of Argentina known as the Pampas.  It's a desert region that is considered romantic and enchanting by most Argentines, but Puig hated it.  "There's nothing less romantic," he said, "than...the total absence of landscape—no trees, no rain, only this grass that grows by itself, which is excellent for cattle, but not for people."

The only thing he loved about his hometown was its tiny movie theater that showed a different movie every day.  The first film he saw there was The Bride of Frankenstein.  After that, he went nearly every night at 6 p.m., sitting in the same seat, desperate to escape the reality of his surroundings.  He watched every movie that played the theater for years, including films made by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Frank Capra. 

As a youngster, Puig occasionally dressed for school as a girl and was attacked and beaten on several occasions.  The movies, Puig said later, saved him from the bleakness and the boredom of the real  world around him.  They helped "[me] not to go crazy.  You see another way of life.  It doesn't matter that the way of life shown by Hollywood was phony.  It helped [me] hope."

In 1946, Puig fled his hometown for the bustling city of Buenos Aires, where he was enrolled in a U.S. boarding school.  In 1955, he went to Rome on a scholarship to study filmmaking and directing under Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.  He eventually made his way to New York City, supporting himself as a ticket clerk, lecturer, and dishwasher.  His most memorable experience working for Air France was selling a plane ticket to Greta Garbo.

Puig tried his hand at writing screenplays, but they all turned out to be shallow imitations of the movies he'd seen as a child.  Then he began a screenplay that started out with a narrator speaking in voice over.  He thought the voice over technique would last for only a few lines, but he kept on writing, and eventually he realized that he was drafting not a screenplay but a novel.

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) was Puig's first published book.  Not coincidentally, it's the story of a boy growing up in a boring small town, where he constantly fantasizes that his life is a Hollywood movie.  Puig went on to write more novels, many of them almost entirely in dialogue.  He said that he preferred writing dialogue because he was uncertain of his grammar, and he preferred letting his characters make all of his novels' grammatical mistakes.

Although Puig enjoyed life in New York, every day proved to be a financial struggle.  His published works in Argentina paid little, and when Juan Perón, the dictator with whose policies Puig strongly disagreed, died and his wife, Isabel, succeeded him, he received even less.  She cut off his income entirely from the film, Heartbreak Tango, and ensured that his works were attacked in the press. 

In 1987, Puig's play, Misterio del Ramo DeRosas, was produced in a London theatre, but a fire cut its run short.  After spending years ''in an unsuccessful search for a good husband," he settled in 1989 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he died on July 22, 1990.

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