"There was all sorts of giggling and exclamations and lively conversation," recalls translator and author Suzanne Jill Levine about her first meeting with Manuel Puig in a Chinese restaurant in New York City's Greenwich Village during the winter of 1969. The gay Argentine writer had just published his first two novels in Spanish (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth and Little Painted Lips) and was gaining renown in Latin America for his ability to weave a complex plot from instances of small-town life with elements of popular culture, namely soap operas, pulp novels, and feature films.
The modest Puig, however, was an uncomplicated sort who preferred filmmaking to writing books, having turned to fiction after failing as a screenwriter. "What was wonderful about him was that he was such a simple, direct, wonderful person," Levine gushes. "We could be giggling girls together! We immediately began a very affectionate and playful friendship."
It was an auspicious moment for both. Levine was a young translator looking for a gig. (Her first collaboration was with celebrated Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante.) Puig was a young author looking for a translator. Subsequently they worked on many projects, except for 1976's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the novel that spawned stage and screen versions propelling Puig to international literary superstardom.
Levine went on to translate the works of 50 writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar, and to create a few books of her own. But in 1990 when her friend Puig died suddenly at age 58, she decided to write his biography to clear the clouds of controversy that often enveloped his works and obscured him. After many all-consuming years, she produced the critically acclaimed Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions. Currently a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Levine is taking a rest. Asked if she'd do another bio, she says, "I can't conceive of it. Life is so short!" Ironically now her mission is to aid the Argentine assigned to translate her book. "It's a big task, but a fun one. [Puig] was worth it."