Betrayed By Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig presents the reviewer with many problems. The book is certainly exceptional, but the direction in which the exception points will be forever debatable. On one level of experience, the book is a wonderful, if at times frustrating read, whilst on another level it is an impenetrable drivel of confusion, for confusion’s sake. There is much to savour along the route it takes, as long as you don’t particularly want to go anywhere.
At the book’s core there seem to be three elements: family relations, growing up and popular culture. There is nothing obscure about such a mix. It even sounds rather conventional. But along the way Manuel Puig requires the reader to address each new chapter as a new style offering a new perspective on event, if indeed there are any events at all. The plot – if there is one – spans a decade and a half from 1933 to 1948. Chapters are presented largely as streams of consciousness of different characters at different times and ages, alongside conversations in script form, a phone call where we only hear one side, a diary, an essay and an anonymous note. The overall effect is often nothing less than obfuscation, where style has been over-wrought and has thus obscured much that might have been of interest. Strands of popular culture, especially film, thread their way through the text, but the characters’ obsession with these images seems fundamentally episodic, and so they seem to appear primarily when the writer demands them as devices, their appearance thus often feeling contrived.
So what then are the good points? Well, we are in the city of Buenos Aires in mid-century, culturally under an American thumb. We are encased in a family, itself rooted in is surroundings, which might be said to be rather different from those that dominate Hollywood’s screens. Though much of the daily transactions become lost in the characters’ self-obsession, enough remains to convey a sense of place and time. Puberty, imagined sex and masturbation loom large. Some of these people occasionally have social relation that can be described as shared, though most of the intercourse is encountered via an individual character’s stream of consciousness, which usually is in fact a stream of allusion and only loosely connected with experience.
Betrayed By Rita Hayworth is thus a novel that reveals itself as having been worth reading only on reflection after it has been finished. Before then, the act of turning from one page to another can sometimes feel something of a chore, as vast swathes of largely unpunctuated, unparagraphed text covers each double spread.
And popular culture? Well, it’s there, but it never comes to the fore in the way that descriptions of the novel seem to suggest it might. Overall, we have grown up from infancy to college age with a couple of family members. We have endured stream of consciousness, written from the point of view of the occupant of a cradle, accepting that the vocabulary and sensibilities seem to be closer to those of a college graduate. We have accepted that any narrative, if indeed there be one, has been assembled from a dozen or so snapshots taken over a decade and a half, with almost no reference to any of the intervening periods, times when, presumably, the characters had been equally conscious.
Betrayed By Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig is thus a difficult book to read, equally difficult to interpret and perhaps even more difficult to review. Perhaps especially in translation, the characters’ consciousness streams do not contrast sufficiently in style to bring their peculiarities to life. But on the other hand there is enough of interest to suggest a second reading, or even a third might be worthwhile. Overall, the novel makes the remarkably strange point that experience which is immediate and largely non-intellectual presents, when agglomerated, a difficult, almost impenetrable façade that is often hard even to comprehend. Popular culture hangs on the outside of the façade like a loose gloss. It makes things recognisable, even locatable, but paradoxically no more tangible.