Moving south from Adriana Lisboa’s border-hopping road-trip Crow Blue, my Booktrotting journey comes to the last stop on its Latin American leg – Argentina, home of Manuel Puig’s first novel, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.
I would be satisfied with just seeing Mar del Plata, since I never saw the sea. But I think…I would simply like to stay here in Vallejos and meet a good man. I speak of a simple man…who works long hours in silence, without complaint, for my children.
With each of the books on the Latin American leg of my Booktrotting tour, a common theme has been in their presenting a unique challenge on reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings had its unflinching prose and Jamaican patois; Like Water for Chocolate, its blurred lines between reality and fantasy; The Armies was a sheer emotional wrench throughout; and Crow Blue kept time-hopping between its two adjacent plots.
And yet even with such an act to follow, Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth still manages to somehow top the lot.
Content-wise, the novel is pretty basic. There’s no real story to speak of, despite the title hinting at a cinematic love affair: Puig pretty much contents himself with just exploring the everyday lives of various interconnected characters, describing their mundanities at home and work and the fantasies they live out through the cinema, dusting them all over with themes of masculinity, patriarchy, entrapment and escape – pretty familiar territory for anyone who’s read any James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
But right from the first page, Rita Hayworth is anything but simple. It begins with two chapters of pure dialogue – no description, no narrative, not even any attributions to point out which character is saying what – before then plunging into a succession of single-paragraph consciousness streams belonging to the residents of the fictional rural village Vallejos.
There’s no sense denying that at first I was completely bamboozled. For the opening two chapters at least I had to keep a pen handy, to jot down in the margin any notes as to who was speaking or what was going on.
But if my experience of reading the likes of Ulysses this year has taught me anything, it’s that with a book like this you sometimes have to put your head down and go for it, then go back and close-read the details once you’ve got the basic idea in place. And once I’d accepted that I’d need to take a little care going forward, I found it much more enjoyable – not quite the “screamingly funny masterpiece” promised by the cover testimonial, but at least not the indecipherable mess I first feared it was.
The picture that Manuel Puig paints of Argentina with this novel is an incredibly bleak one. Every one of his characters is oppressed by someone or something else: wives by their husbands, children by their parents and teachers, the aspirational by their poverty. Some of them are oppressed by nothing more than their own low ambitions, and the safety of staying right where they’ve always been. To relieve themselves they escape to the movies and pretend they are waltzing in The Great Ziegfeld or playing love scenes with Norma Shearer.
And although “mundanely oppressive” might not be quite the message Argentina’s Minister of Tourism would like to put out, it does give quite the appreciation of the kinds of everyday pressures the people of Argentina faced in the 1940s. As I mentioned above, masculinity and traditional patriarchy form a large part of the themes of Rita Hayworth: the young child Toto, for example – the closest thing this novel has to a protagonist – endures constant bullying from both his father and his peers for his close relationship with his mother, and for his aptitude for creative rather than physical tasks. I did often wonder while reading if Puig had been influenced by James Joyce in any way, or if it was just a happy coincidence that Rita Hayworth is so reminiscent of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist.
One of the things I did notice with this novel was the lack of conflict. Conflict has had a consistent presence throughout each of my four previous Latin American books, either via actual warfare like in The Armies and Crow Blue, or the isolated gangland violence of Seven Killings – and so, given Betrayed by Rita Hayworth‘s setting during the early 1940s and Argentina’s unofficial links with Nazi Germany, I was expecting the Second World War to play a considerable part in the story, even though Argentina officially remained neutral until it finally renounced its Axis links and sided with the Allies in March 1945.
But instead, the only mention of the war was an off-hand comment about how “the Russians betrayed Hitler”. I’d quite like to read more Argentine fiction set during the ’40s to see whether this is a common attitude to Argentina’s involvement in the war; I do wonder if Puig, writing in the late 1960s, reflected a wider effort in Argentina to downplay the country’s links to the Axis powers, particularly the reputation it had post-war as a haven for Nazis fleeing the Nuremberg trials. That the sole mention of Hitler and the Nazis comes from the monologue of Héctor, who is made out to be somewhat crude and uneducated compared to the other characters, suggests that Puig isn’t making an outright denial of Argentine sympathy for Nazi Germany, but does want to make it clear that such feelings were only really held by an uncultured minority.
My next Booktrotting stop is a quick 10,000 km trip across the Pacific to the Oceania island nation of Kiribati, in the company of J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals.