Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig

I picked up Heartbreak Tango as part of my haul from Dalkey Archive Press’s holiday book sale, and absolutely loved this first encounter with Manuel Puig. The musicality of the title (Boquitas pintadas in the original Spanish) permeates the book, with each section building to crescendos, creating and resolving tension, and riffing improvisationally on the themes of love and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t read his work sooner; it adds one more reason to a growing list of why a literary pilgrimage to Buenos Aires is a necessary part of my future travels.

Composed in sixteen “episodes,” the perspective and narrative style shift dramatically from one section to another. The various pieces work together harmoniously, though they look like scraps of stories rather than parts of a whole (letters, police reports, stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and more). While it lacks the strongly visual and tactile components of Nox, and is more loosely constructed, its patchwork structure somewhat resembles Carson’s technique. Where Carson’s compilation tightly focused the reader’s attention on one particular relationship and loss, though, Puig’s mosaic spins the reader’s gaze outward from a central point into increasing chaos. Circling the character of Juan Carlos Etchepare, the narrative spends little time on his own perspective, and instead traces the trail of broken hearts that he has left in his wake–which turns out to be quite a crowd indeed.

Something in the book reminds me of an Almodóvar film: colorful and somewhat hysterical characters (mainly women), driven by emotions to carry out passionate, reckless, and even macabre acts. Each episode starts with an epigraph, each one a nod to the implausible values that drive many social interactions: passionate tango lyrics, snippets of movie dialogue, and the promises and entreaties found in advertising. Indeed, Puig was highly interested in film, both as a medium and in terms of its role in popular culture; this 1989 interview in the Paris Review gives an interesting glimpse of his techniques and tastes. (In it, he also discusses the importance of writing every day, something I’ve recently started to do.) It’s worth noting that despite the novel’s nod to films and contemporary culture, Puig confesses to watching mainly movies from the 1940’s.

Throughout the work, Puig maintains a remarkable tension between the illusory and the real, the desirable and the cruel. While the veneer of the beautiful and the false seems to discount the veracity of the characters’ emotions and experiences, the subtitles that divide the book into two sections suggest that real damage is done: “A tango lingers on true red lips” and “A tango lingers on blue, violet, black lips.” Even when the characters are larger than life, the pain they cause in others is darkly genuine.