The Kiss of the Spider Woman – Manuel Puig
(El Beso de la Mujer Araña)
‘– Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others.’ This is how Argentine author Manuel Puig introduces his most highly acclaimed novel The Kiss of the Spider Woman.
What does this opening sentence tell the reader? Is it speech? Narration? The introduction of a protagonist?
In beginning the book in this way Puig throws the reader in at the deep end – there is no introduction, explanation or clue as to how the novel will progress.
This novel is unusual, formed as it is without any form of narrative voice – a primary feature of the traditional novel. Puig composes the novel almost entirely of dialogue, interlaced with periods, often extended, of stream of consciousness, providing the reader with nothing side from a dash (–) to show that the speaker (or thinker) has changed.
As such, the characters are never actively introduced, and their names only emerge through their conversation with one another. It is up to the reader to remain attentive in order to work out who is speaking, and keep up with the flow of speech. It takes some time, but as the story unravels it becomes apparent that the two main ‘speakers’ are cell mates in an Argentine prison.
The two protagonists are Molina, a homosexual window-dresser who is serving a sentence for ‘corrupting a minor’, and Valentín, a political prisoner, serving a sentence for his membership of a leftist organisation attempting to overthrow the government. In the seclusion of their cell these two men talk, or rather, Molina talks, while Valentín listens. Molina reanimates the films he so loves in order to light up the darkness of the prison cell, while the cynical minded Valentín allows himself to become absorbed by the scenes which emerge before him. Sometimes they talk all night long – given over to their desire to escape from their surroundings.
This is how the novel begins, with a film, or rather with Molina’s description of a film – Cat People if you are interested – and this introduces one of the most important aspects of the novel. Molina’s retelling of the films make up the majority of the novel, the effect of which is strange, I found myself absorbed by these subplots and a desire, just like Valentín, to know how the films end, while simultaneously desperate to know how the novel itself will begin to pan out.
The storytelling is captivating, I felt at times as though I could see the film panning out before me, Molina’s descriptions, particularly those of the women, bring the scenes to life before your eyes.
‘She has her legs crossed, her shoes are black, thick high heels, open toed, with dark-polished toenails sticking out. Her stockings glitter, that kind they turned inside out when the sheen went out of style, her legs look flushed and silky’
While the eloquent, effeminate Molina and the gruff, radical Valentín present themselves as almost polar opposites the character that emerge through their conversation share a key similarity. Valentín believes in suffering for the greater good; while Molina believes in enduring all else for the magic of love, but each man feels destined to be alone, Valentín for want of the cause, and Molina due to his passion for heterosexual men.
Slowly, as the novel progresses and the men spend night after night wrapped in each other words, they begin to surrender themselves to one another, with each committing himself to the cause of the other.
In The Kiss of the Spider Woman Puig rewards his readers with a truly unique reading experience. Puig’s unusual style and abstract form choice combine to create a novel which is both deeply moving and incredibly thought provoking. The unique position if the reader within the novel allows for the development of an almost intimate character-reader relationship. As such Molina’s films serve as an escape, not just for the prisoners, but also for the reader.
Who is the spider woman?
The main question I found myself asking while reading this book was – what is the relevance of the spider woman? She is referred to just once, briefly in the novel, when Valentín tells Molina ‘– You, you’re the spider woman, that traps men in her web.’ Still this doesn’t give much away as to who, or what the spider woman is. It requires a little research.
In Latin American history, the Teotihuacán Spider Woman, or Great Goddess, is thought to have been the goddess of the underworld, and, somewhat strangely, of earth, water and possibly creation itself. While in Greek mythology the other spider woman, Arachne, was a mortal woman who was incredibly skilled in the art of weaving and challenged the goddess of wisdom and crafts, Athena, to a – for want of a better phrase – spin off and was transformed into a spider as punishment for her arrogance.
So which of these spider women lend themselves to Molina? Having read the book I feel I could attribute either of these personas to his character, although I’m not sure myself which Puig was referring to, if indeed he was referring to either. Puig presents Molina as a glittering weaver of great things, as a true an artist adept at creating beautiful scenes to distract and allure Valentín, but it also emerges that he is a great manipulator capable of influencing those around him for his own cause.