Puig dispenses with narrative

January 19, 1992|By Scott Timberg

TROPICAL NIGHT FALLING.

Manuel Puig; translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine.

Simon & Schuster.

189 pages. $19. Manuel Puig, the late Argentine author of "Kiss of the Spiderwoman," often showed a playful disdain for narrative conventions. In "Tropical Night Falling," his last book, he disposed of narrative voice altogether, crafting an elegiac pastiche of dialogue, personal letters, police reports and newspaper articles.

Although this kind of shifting, disconnected point of view can acquire a rambling or incidental quality, at its best the novel is grandly cinematic and moving, a triumph of atmosphere and invention.

The novel concerns itself mostly with the conversations of two elderly sisters living in Rio de Janeiro. Most of their world is lost; all that remains for them is rumor. They discuss lovers disconnected by unanswered phones and early deaths, their neurotic next-door neighbor, the people who breeze briefly into their lives.

Like many of Puig's characters, they share an obsession with the movies. One sister describes actress Vivien Leigh in her 20s: "[She] made those movies when she had everything in life, so how could she know that life, if it chooses, can take everything from you, just like that?"

At times, the extended metaphors and stories-within-the-story approach a kind of lyricism and emotional precision. The neighboring psychologist falls in love with a man for his plaintive, resonant voice. "It was like the voice of someone who has fallen into a very deep well, somebody outside hears him and answers, but the one down in the well doesn't know if help will arrive in time to get him out."

Puig's final book reminds us, as the title of a recent short story collection put it, that we are the stories we tell.

Mr. Timberg is a writer living in Severna Park.

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