Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

By James Norton


Manuel Puig’s debut novel delivers the most playful word on cinema

Best known for Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Argentinian novelist Manuel Puig’s 1968 debut Betrayed by Rita Hayworth – a title inverting the traditional course of desire; betrayal preceding kiss – has just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press, superbly translated by the author’s friend Suzanne Jill Levine.

Like its celebrated successor, the novel is threaded with the cinephilia of escapism and longing. Puig was a youthful film fanatic and, like many a fine debut, his is autobiographical, documenting the growing-up experiences of the inhabitants of a dusty provincial town near Buenos Aires, principally the anomalous evolving consciousness of young Toto from infancy to gay, erudite adolescent.

Despite its cinematic title, it is, as Alan Cheuse points out in his frisky introduction, amongst “the least visual” of novels. Composed entirely in dialogue or interior monologue, which has a static quality quite different to the speech that drives theatrical or film scripts, it has a density that precludes illustration or drama. Characters form a montage of voices in alternating chapters from 1933 to the heady days of Peronist populism in 1948, with a bitter coda returning to 1933. As Borges wrote, “they say that the doctrines of the transmigration of souls and of circular time or the Eternal Return were suggested by a sudden, disturbing impression of having already lived the present moment. In Buenos Aires there is not a single movie-goer, no matter how forgetful, who does not experience that impression.”

Puig was a virtuoso ventriloquist. An overheated diary entry by a pretentious teenaged girl is a comic tour de force, preceded by a precocious gangsta tirade in the novel’s dominant register of sexual frustration, and followed by an essay on one of the characters’ favourite movies which, this being a film magazine, it behoves me to deduce is The Great Waltz from 1939. His mastery of the voices of children rivals Joyce; its collage of interpolated overheard fragments is a modernist triumph and his alternating of idiosyncratic points of view owes much to Faulkner. Many may have wondered how our conversation might read if only our own words are transcribed and Puig does it here in one rewardingly experimental chapter.

Films have a narrative and an iconic function in the characters’ lives. Plots are recounted - some of these, prefiguring Spider Woman, being fantastic stories of imaginary films - while other characters storyboard films such as The Great Ziegfeld on cards. Though Rita Hayworth’s film Blood and Sand is cited, her treachery, other than that of life falling short of the promise of silver screen glamour, may also be traced in the curious absence from the book of Gilda, the Hispanic superstar’s most famous film, released in the same year the novel ends, and entirely set in Buenos Aires. 

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig is available from Dalkey Archive Press.

James Norton is a director and producer working in the television arts sector.