Issue #177
We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat October 28, 2011

The many covers of The Buenos Aires Affair by Manuel Puig, originally published in 1973.

To Read Again: “The Buenos Aires Affair"

Book review as interview

The Buenos Aires Affair, by Manuel Puig, 1973
by Alejandro Cesarco and Mary Walling Blackburn

In different seasons, Alejandro Cesarco and Mary Walling Blackburn came as artists in residence to testsite. While here, Walling Blackburn found Love Poems, the only object on a high shelf. It was the Uruguayan poet Idea Vilareno’s Poemas de Amor (1957) translated into a visual by Cesarco. Now Cesarco and Walling Blackburn reread and review Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) and tinker with the discrete genres of interview and book review.

Alejandro Cesarco [AC]: You mentioned that you first read The Buenos Aires Affair “too early, too soon.” What do you remember of that first reading? What triggered you to reread it now?

Mary Walling Blackburn [MWB]: The sculptor, Gladys Hebe d’Onofrio, was on the cover of that edition. She was in bed. Her blonde hair masked her face. The shadow of the male art critic loomed over her.

I realize now that what I remembered as shadow is an actual body. I was eleven and living in a small mountain village of 300 people. We were often snowed in and read often. The book was just lying on the living room floor. The book itself is a crime scene, and it is said that the reader is the detective.

In the blushes of the first reading, the literary devices dissolved and all that remained was the adolescent Leo Drucovitch, the future art critic, making out with a girl with mossy teeth. Pages later, the same man broke open the skull of another man with a brickwhile raping him in a vacant lot. My memory stopped there. I was startled twenty-five years later, reading the back of a new edition, to realize that the perpetrator was an art critic and the one eyed woman, an artist.

I reread it because a child reader mulches political torture, sado-masochism and unsavory art world machinations in an entirely different manner. I reread it because I am both artist and art critic, and I wished to reread it with you because you are an artist, and I’d been your critic. Moreover, your indexes for books that do not exist are rife with references to books I have read. It’s only logical that you had read this book as well. Why doesn’t it surface within your beautiful lists?

You tend to articulate trauma through what appears to be cool chambers, a remote machination within yourself. Here you may dissect and disclose the traumatic read nestled within a hyperbolic convention.

AC: While writing the book, Manuel Puig explains in a letter to a friend, “My next novel, a crime story, is currently being shot on location in perverted Buenos Aires. It’s a sort of thriller. Do you remember MGM’s slogan to promote I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) with Susan Hayward? It said, ‘A film shot on location: inside a woman’s soul!’ Well, the same could be said of my next novel.”

MWB: Puig's quote regarding women's soul as location is clever, but alien. Women and souls, as categories, are mysterious to me. Both constructs have the quality of a fictive set location; walking out of the dark of the "theater,” the concept of woman or soul dissolves in the sunlight. Let's say a work can be built within another’s interior, without occupying her, without territorializing him, to be inside without taking. What sort of anti-colonial trick is that?

In a Buenos Aires penitentiary in 1903, a criminal psychiatrist, José Ingenieros, observed inmates. He published a work of crime psychiatry titled La simulación de la locura (The Simulation of Madness). Ingenieros begins to collaborate on a case study with a coterie of literary figures, including modernist poet Rubén Darío, where they tested the efficacy of insinuation. They used false narratives to convince a fragile writer that perhaps he was channeling Comte de Lautréamont. Soon after the study’s publication, Ingenieros was appointed director of the Observation Room of the Buenos Aires police prefect, where he remained until 1913. In The Buenos Aires Affair, police work and psychiatry forget where one ends and the other begins. There is this local precedent-- where literary strategy and forensic narratives intersect.

AC: While recovering some of the conventional tropes of the sentimental novelthe woman wrongly married, the unscrupulous don juán, the floozy upper-crust girl, the resentful spinster, the mislead maidbut working them through a series of, let’s say, “experimental” resources, Puig manages to distance his writing from pure sentimentalism and reveal the aesthetic, moral and ideological folds that stereotypes attempt to silence. Something akin to this is what I think you are, very rightly, fighting against at the start of your response.

In the novel, genre, in its dual acceptation of sexual identity and conventional form, quite literally implodes. In fact, I think that genre is, perhaps, the principal subject of the book.

The novel is inspired by “women films” from the 30s and 40s that Puig, an erudite cinephile, watched growing up. Cinema is reread through literature. In a way, Puig replaces the library with the movie house. Puig re-presents “women” as portrayed in these films (ill or chased, suffering or passionate, wives, lovers, or sacrificed mothers) as cases or topics.[1]

In the first chapter of the book, the author proposes a crime story, an enigma to be solved: a woman has disappeared from a house on the beach where she is recovering from a nervous breakdown. In the second chapter, he outlines a first probable answer: the woman in questions sleeps under the effects of chloroform in an apartment filled with art objects, while a half-naked man alertly watches herthe image on the cover of the book you first read. Puig then dedicates the following chapters to a somewhat detailed account of the life of the disappeared woman, a contemporary artist, and the man, a prominent art critic, in a mix of sentimental feuilleton and psychological case studies. The outcome of the police investigation is intertwined and dependent on the clarification of the emotional enigmas of, and between, the main characters.

The perversion of the art worldthe perverted Buenos Aires Puig alluded to in his lettercorresponds to the country’s social and political perversion, and is compounded in an exemplary case of sexual politics, summarized in the title’s affair: a masochist artist is persecuted by a powerful and sadistic critic. The author, somehow transvestied in a visual artist that works with the debris of arta clear transposition of Puig’s own literary methods, is finally seduced and manipulated by a bisexual critic, acting out as a hyper-aggressive macho, whose “craziness” mirrors, though is not explicitly identified with, military repression during the dictatorship. I really don’t think either of us is represented by this characterization.

MWB: I am not Leo, and you are not Gladys; and yet, because I am not quite sure who the art critic, as cultural figure, should be, Leo still represents me. What do my art reviews and the critical relations embedded within them do to one another? It’s work, but to what end? To up-end? There is also a problem of how the artist receives the critic, if the critic is not an authority, a god, if she is not the lover or just a PR man by another name. There is no cinema to show us another wayto instruct the artist’s response to vivisection in the name of cultural dialogue. I wish you would tell me what the perfect critic is.

During strong storms in Montevideo in the mid 1800’s, it was reportedly not uncommon for those whose homes overlooked the bay to watch tall ships struggle. The witness could hear wind but not the noise of vessels breaking apart. It was slow and terrible and beautiful; there was nothing to be done because the observer could not safely reach the craft. The critic might be this: violently impotent. Leo is this and ultimately something else: dead.

I don’t want to forget the artist’s glass eye. Hers is the brutal after-effect of an extended stay in the capital of the United States of America. It can’t read the criticism, and it can’t make record of the world. This crystal orb, not dead and not alive, is an un-sanctified art object in the critic’s living quarters, which you mentioned, is filled with objects of art.

Puig’s psycho-sexual thriller is set in May of 1969, but for the artist and the art critic featured within this detective novel, The Cordobazo, a workers’ uprising of 50,000 in Cordoba (May 1969) is not happening. They keep it outside of their gaze, and it is not an object to them. She is not the artist that makes protest an object. Because The Buenos Aires Affair is a movie in the guise of a novel, we look for production equipment, the stray sound boom hanging at the edges of the screen and the hand that holds it.

AC: What Puig ultimately does, what his writing produces and is a product of, highlights the fact that cinema constitutes the unconscious of the 20th Century. Mass culture, that is, industrially produced culture, is the discursive form of a certain mode of domination that functions on the basis of repetition. Therefore, it is logical that every aesthetic genre corresponds to a moment of reoccurrence. Genres work as modes of cultural recognition and models of identification. Genres are a way of organizing our “everyday” experience.[2] The complicity between genre, text and culture guarantees potential legibility. Each genre is a way of explaining a parcel of life, a way of reading and decoding that slice of our being. Each genre organizes our experiences in relation to a topic or aspect of our lives. For example, what melodrama does (and perhaps Puig is closest to this genre than any other) is simply organize the experience of love, anguish, sorrow and abandonment. What melodrama does is literally narrate and exploit to the point of exasperation the cultural behaviors associated with love. The problem, or the exception, is that love has the capacity to loom over most everything: war, famine, sickness, misfortune. It can all be read as a form of love, or of its lack.

The critic is in fact violently impotent and, to this extent, frustrated because he or she always arrives after the fact. This temporality is very different from you having read the novel so young or the certainty that artists are also always working in someone else’s footsteps or in someone else’s shadow.

Alejandro Cesarco is an artist living and working in New York. His work was featured as part of the Uruguayan Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy.

Mary Walling Blackburn, artist, lives in Brooklyn. She is a Visiting Artist at Cooper-Union School of Art. Other works were recently published within E-flux Journal, Paper Monument and Triple Canopy.


[1] Perhaps though, more than a genre, what “women films” actually regroup is a series of more or less conventional sub-genres centered around three classical themes:
a. Female’s suffering: Cat People, Jacques Tourneur (1942), Now Voyager, Irving Rapper (1942), Rebecca, Hitchcock, (1940) or Gas Light, George Cuckor, (1944) in which women
responding to a definition of woman in terms of pathologysuffer a certain kind of nervous affliction, or a paranoid trap, fear their husbands are bound to kill them, etc.
b. female sacrifice: melodramas such as Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz (1945) or Stella Dallas, King Vidor (1937), played primarily by women forced to separate from their children
c. and female choice (love stories or career women comedies): centered around deciding between lovers, professional choices, or the conflictive opposition between them.

[2] Is it therefore possible that genres actually produce a form of pure difference and that the regularities found in the genre are merely effects of reading?


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