This is the first in a two-part series.
Want To Go To A Movie?
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
Manuel Puig would go to a movie. Any movie with music or dancing was preferred; say, Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Afterwards, he would attempt to dress up like Ginger, and his father would inevitably beat him bloody.
His dress-up turned sexual at a very early age. Under the rubric of fair play, he allowed older boys to touch his private parts. They rarely returned the favor, welshing on their offer.
Puig worked tirelessly in school, even after being forbidden the stage by his mother Maria. (His cousin had seen him gesturing effeminately, and reported the crime.) “In grammar school,” he later wrote, “I encountered a violence I never ceased to hate. The systematic humilation of anyone who was sensitive or weak.”
He found an outlet for his sexuality in masturbating students in older grades. He enjoyed this until he was almost raped by a fifteen year old before struggling away. At 13 he was sent off to boarding school in Ramon Meija, a suburb of Buenos Aires.
He immediately disliked it there. “If it hadn’t been for those letters I would have died in that boarding school, beautiful as it was,” he later wrote. “The teachers and wardens were all insane. When I remember how they’d make us take off our undershirts to sleep and put on our freezing pajamas ‘for hygiene’ I die laughing.”
Perón’s rise to power was accompanied by a commensurate increase in xenophobia and anti-semitism in the populace at large. Puig fell in love with an older Jewish girl named Laura Kacs who reminded him of his mother. She was not interested, and Kacs was one of the last women Puig would ever pursue.
Before he had a childishness about his desire for others. Suddenly, he was attractive in his own right. Just as suddenly, his parents moved to an apartment in the city in 1949.
Later that year, Puig entered architecture school where he did not even last six months. Instead he began to study Italian at the Dante Aligheri Institute, and other languages elsewhere. For the most part, Puig kept his homosexuality under wraps, venturing out for ass alone or in secret.
Perón’s attitude towards homosexuality was complicated, but he was motivated to restrict it in order to enact his own personal biases and restrict the spread of disease. He legalized brothels in order to encourage men to seek out women.
In 1953 Puig met Borges, who was then in his early fifties. (Borges had been reduced to teaching because of Perón’s influence.) He gave his lectures in English, instructing students in a course on the detectove novel. “What first drew my attention,” Puig wrote of Borges, “was how shy he was. We were merely a few attentive, depersonalized, silent adolescents, but we managed to make him tremble. His eyes would roam the class until they rested on some girl in the group, where they remained for the duration.”
Perón’s Argentina required compulsory military service for all males. In 1954 Puig entered the military. He was assigned a clerical position in the Air Force. The experience was mainly one of drudgery, but the all-male environment convinced him that women were no longer of any interest to him. When a friend asked if he ever slept with women, he responded, “Now I think that if I did it, I would only do it once, out of curiosity, to see what it’s like. Twice would seem a perversion to me.”
Puig used his newfound appeal to both sexes in the Buenos Aires barrio called La Boca. The district was heavily Italian; gangsters dominated the miniature economy. On the streets he would pick up men or let himself get picked up.
In 1955 Perón was on the receiving end of a military coup and Buenos Aires featured a messy state of affairs. Puig decided to flee to Rome to study his number one love: film.
After his cross-continent naval escapade, Puig moved in with a poor Roman family spanning three generations – two older women, the 30-year daughter of one, and her little girl. The school Puig entered strictly allowed students to pursue the study of so-called ‘neorealist’ films, ignoring all other aesthetics by Mussolini’s decree.
Puig felt stifled at the Centro, but he started writing his novels. “Eric Rohmer has the odd idea that a bad school can have a positive effect,” he writes, “because a bad school – unjust, intolerant and old-fashioned – provokes reactions and makes students rebel, so that in the long run bad teaching produces good results.”
The European openness about sex astounded Puig. He travelled through Europe, eventually leaving Rome for a dishwashing job in Stockholm. Every morning he would bike to the American library and work on his writing. When he ran out of money, he had no choice but to take a ship back to Argentina. On board a young woman named Vera fell in love with Manuel, and they met to have quiet sex on a lifeboat.
When they got back to Buenos Aires, Puig wanted nothing to do with Vera. She was pregnant, starting rumors that Manuel wasn’t gay; he simply hadn’t found the right woman. He helped Vera get an abortion and never spoke to her again.
Manuel Puig was twenty-eight years old, and the one thing he knew for certain is that he was a gay man. “Buenos Aires now seems a totally insignificant city,” he sighed.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
“Fields Without Fences” – Oliver Schories (mp3)
“In Other Words” – Oliver Schories (mp3)